OP3207. CARMEN (in Russian), recorded 1937, w. Melik-Pashaev Cond. Bolshoi Opera Ensemble; Vera Davydova, Nikandr Khanaev, Natalia Shpiller, Vladimir Politkovsky, etc. (Russia) 2-Aquarius AQVR 267. - 4607123630419
“Recorded in 1937 in Russia, this recording of CARMEN is more obscure than most of its Western predecessors (this was the opera’s eighth complete recording, as good a demonstration as any of its popularity even then). Of the three acoustic recordings, collectors are mostly familiar with, the first is a 1908 effort with Emmy Destinn. The first electrical recording, made in 1928 with Raymonde Visconti in the title role and Georges Thill as José, remains a classic example of the early 20th-century French performance style; it is available on a number of labels. The first Italian-language recording was done in 1931 with Gabriella Besanzoni as Carmen and forces from La Scala; a more well-known Rome Opera recording followed in 1933. That one offered a thrilling, over-the-top verismo style of performance with Aurora Buades and Aureliano Pertile - by the final scene you could be forgiven for believing that they were both ready to kill each other. Then in 1937 came this effort from the Bolshoi.
Clearly a CARMEN sung in Russian would not be anyone’s first choice. The fact that in Russian, it is sufficient to make it of interest only to specialist collectors others interested in the history of operatic performance style. But for those people, this is an important addition to a collection. Although short on French elegance, there is some beautiful and vivid singing and exquisite conducting to be heard here.
Vera Davydova (1906-1993) was in her prime in 1937. She had a rich, darkly colored mezzo-soprano and was a leading singer at the Bolshoi, with a repertoire encompassing Amneris, Marfa in KHOVANSHCHINA, and similar standard fare for the Bolshoi at that time. Her Carmen is not exactly flirtations or coquettish, but it is convincingly feminine and sensual. Moreover, the role is sung with a voice that is evenly produced from top to bottom and that is comfortable at all dynamics. There are certainly Carmens on disc with more imagination and a wider range of vocal colors, but there are not many more richly vocalized, and it is instructive to hear how the role was performed by a Soviet-era singer. Today we are used to Russians singing in all the major international houses, but in the 1930s they rarely traveled.
Nikandr Khanaev, a voice new to me, is a wonderful José. Born in 1890, he was about a decade older than his more lyric Bolshoi competitors Kozlovsky and Lemeshev, and he focused more on the heavier repertoire. Otello, Sadko, and Ghermann (in Tchaikovsky’s PIQUE DAME) were specialties, along with Don José. The voice has plenty of heft and weight, but Khanaev is also able to sing softly and with a lovely sense of line. His José is a forceful personality, very powerful at the end of the second act and convincingly unhinged in the dramatic final scene.
Natalia Shpiller sings a particularly beautiful Micaela, with a real glow in the tone and a touching demeanor. She is delicate without being simpering, a hard line to walk in this role. Vladimir Politkovsky’s Escamillo is also strongly sung, with the vocal resources to adequately cover both ends of the role’s taxing range.
More than the individual performances, however, it is the overall sense of ensemble and theatrical credibility here that rewards the listener who can listen past the language barrier. Some of the credit for this goes to very strong casting in all the smaller roles but even more to the conducting of Alexander Melik-Pashaev. His work is well known to collectors, and he delivers a performance well balanced between lyricism and drama. The pacing is natural, and one feels that the entire cast is interacting with one another rather than singing to the microphone. This is particularly true in the second act exchanges between Don José and Carmen, as well as in their intense final duet.
The recorded sound in the present transfer is surprisingly full, lacking the harshness that we sometimes associate with Soviet-era recordings. The accompanying booklet in Russian and English has a bit of history about the recording and brief bios of each singer.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“Vera Davydova made her début in 1929 at the Leningrad Theater of Opera and Ballet. From 1932 to 1956 she was a soloist at the Bolshoi Theater of the USSR. In 1959 she began teaching at the Tbilisi Conservatory, becoming a professor in 1964.
Davydova is a brilliant representative of the Soviet vocal school and has created realistic and truthful characters. Her roles include Liubava in Rimsky-Korsakov’s SADKO (State Prize of the USSR, 1950), Marfa in Mussorgsky’s KHOVANSHCHINA (State Prize of the USSR, 1951), the title role in Bizet’s CARMEN, Amneris in Verdi’s AÏDA, Aksin’ia in Dzerzhinskii’s THE QUIET DON, Nilovna in Zhelobinskii’s THE MOTHER, and Grunia in Chishko’s THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. Davydova received the State Prize of the USSR for concert performances (1946) and has been awarded two orders and various medals.”
- Z. D. Akron
“Certainly Khanaev’s career is worthy of a long overdue consideration, as his importance as an artist has not been so easily recognised in the West, mainly because his recordings are rarely found as they were not distributed in the same volume as those of Kozlovsky and Lemeshev….For admirers of the Russian tenor voice and a singer who deserves to be better appreciated, this...is a ‘must’.”
- Alan Bilgora, THE RECORD COLLECTOR, 2011
“Khanaev studied at the Moscow Conservatory under Zviagina from 1921 to 1924. In 1925 he worked at the Opera Studio of the Bolshoi Theater, and from 1926 to 1954 he was a soloist with the Bolshoi Theater. Khanaev was a singer of great theatrical and musical artistry. His unique talents were particularly evident in the Russian classical repertoire, for example, as Herman in PIQUE DAME and in the title rôle of SADKO. His other parts included Shuiskii in BORIS GODUNOV, Don José in CARMEN, the title rôle in OTELLO, and Grigorii Melekhov in Dzerzhinskii’s THE QUIET DON. Khanaev taught at the Moscow Conservatory from 1948 to 1950.”
- Z. D. Akron
"Natalia Shpiller sang at the Bolshoi between 1935 and 1958. She and Kruglikova were competitors in a series of roles. While Kruglikova had the more fragile and fresh-sounding voice, Shpiller had the more robust voice with greater dramatic reserves, also capable of an intensely lyrical performance. It was rare for Shpiller to make a guest appearance beyond the Iron Curtain and possible only with Stalin's immediate support, such as in 1945 when she sang the title role of Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY in Vienna."
- Kurt Malisch, Preiser's VOICES BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN