OP0058. CARMEN, recorded 1911, Pathé, w.Ruhlmann Cond. l’Opéra-Comique Ensemble; Marguerite Méréntier, Agustarello Affre, Henri Albers, Hippolyte Belhomme, Aline Vallandri, etc. 2-Marston 52019. Transfers by Ward Marston. Long out-of-print, Final Sealed Copy! - 638335201924
“The image of Carmen--hand on hip, flower in mouth, head tossed back defiantly is etched in our visual memory as indelibly as portraits of the Madonna or Mona Lisa. Photographs of Marguerite Mérentié show a statuesque but beguiling gypsy with kohl-drenched eyes about to toss her cassia flower at José or, fan in hand, attired in her finery, calmly awaiting their final encounter. At once inviting but unattainable, cool and threatening, Mérentié conveys the enigmatic look of the classic Carmen.
J.B. Steane has called Carmen ‘one of those roles in which it is difficult to make little impression’. Carmen is also a role that invites excess. When Maria Jeritza brought her gypsy to the Met in 1928, she created controversy. One critic reproached her for singing the fourth act like a ‘screaming, scrapping fishwife’ and compared her second-act dance to ‘a genuine Coney Island hoochy-cooch’. Henderson gave a more detailed critique. ‘Mme. Jeritza was very busy’, he reported. ‘She made a vigorous attempt at a Spanish dance; she sprawled on tables and chairs, put her feet in men's laps, jumped on tables and off again and smoked cigarettes even while singing....But with all her energy she did not seem to get far beneath the surface of the role’.
Rosa Ponselle suffered a shocking setback when she undertook Carmen at the Met. Ponselle coached the role with Albert Carré and wore costumes designed by Valentino. Despite her meticulous preparation, Ponselle's conception was rejected by the critics. In THE NEW YORK TIMES, Olin Downes belittled her acting and complained of her ‘bad vocal style, carelessness of execution, inaccurate intonation’. Rounding out his critical catalogue, Downes added, ‘Her dancing need not be dwelt upon, although in the Inn Scene it raised the question whether Spanish gypsies preferred the Charleston or the Black Bottom as models for their evolutions’. The reviews were so devastating they shattered the soprano's confidence and contributed to her withdrawal from the opera stage a season later.
Geraldine Farrar triumphed as Carmen both at the Metropolitan Opera and in Hollywood, where she starred in a silent film version directed by Cecil B. DeMille. When Farrar introduced her portrayal in New York in 1914, Henderson reported, ‘She was indeed a vision of loveliness, never aristocratic, yet never vulgar, a seductive, languorous, passionate Carmen of the romantic gypsy blood’.
A year later, Farrar returned from Hollywood with new stage business that scandalized some of the Metropolitan Opera's staid patrons. The soprano engaged in a rough fight with chorus girls and even slapped Enrico Caruso. Farrar later denied all that. ‘Fantastic stories were spread abroad that I assaulted chorus girls in the opera, due to malignant violence prescribed in the movie’, she wrote. ‘That I chewed the ears of timid supers and slapped King Enrico such a resounding smack that the audience gasped as it caused him to falter in his song and sputter maledictions. All pretty reading perhaps, but none of these charming inventions occurred’.
Pathé chose Mérentié (1880-?) to portray the gypsy in the first complete French recording in 1911. Within a year of graduating with First Prize from the Conservatoire National, Mérentié made her debut at the Paris Opéra on 15 May 1905 as Chimène and in the next three years sang Valentine, Sieglinde, Elisabeth and Aida. In 1909, she joined the Opéra-Comique, making her debut as Carmen with Edmond Clément as José. Mérentié had already sung Carmen in a gala performance that introduced Bizet's opera to the Palais Garnier two years before. After giving up her career for marriage in 1919, Mérentié slipped into obscurity. In addition to Carmen, she recorded Nouguès' LES FRÈRES DANILO for Pathé, three sides for G & T in 1907 and fourteen single sides for Pathé between 1911 and 1913.
Like Mérentié, Aline Vallandri (1878-1952) studied at the Paris Conservatoire. She made her debut at the Opéra-Comique in 1904 as Mireille and sang a wide swath of the lyric soprano repertory, from Manon, Micaëla, Louise, Mélisande and Pamina to Violetta, Donna Elvira, Tosca and Rosenn in Le Roi D'Ys. For Pathé, she sang Gilda in the complete recording of RIGOLETTO.
Mérentié and Vallandri, by reputation, at least, belong in the second class of French singing artists. In contrast, Agustarello Affre and Henri Albers rank among the elite. Affre (1858-1931) held his own with Escalaïs, de Reszke, Van Dyck, Alvarez, Saléza, Scaremberg, Muratore and Franz in a career that lasted two decades. After studying in Toulouse and at the Conservatoire National, Affre made his debut at the Paris Opéra in 1890 as Edgardo in Lucia with Nellie Melba.
Albers (1866-1925) centered his career in Paris but enjoyed international success. Born in Amsterdam, he pursued a theatrical career until his voice was discovered. During the 1898-99 season, he undertook a wide range of roles at the Metropolitan Opera but was not re-engaged. Before returning to France, he appeared in San Francisco, New Orleans and Havana. His Paris career began in 1899 at the Opéra-Comique, which was to remain his artistic home until his death. He is featured in complete recordings of RIGOLETTO and ROMÉO ET JULIETTE as well as CARMEN.
Led by Opéra-Comique's music director, François Ruhlmann (1858-1948), these singers capture the flavor of a performance at the Salle Favart less than forty years after the premiere of Bizet's opera. Despite the limitations, this CARMEN is an important historical document - the first complete recording and the only recording with spoken dialogue before 1950.”
- Robert Baxter