On the appearance of electrical recording in 1925, His Master’s Voice and Columbia in France competed to offer more-or-les complete recordings of various operas, including among the first to be issued by Columbia, Carmen and Pelleas et Mélisande (1928), Manon, (1928/9), L’Heure Espagnole (1929), Werther (1931), Mignon (1932), Louise and Otello (1935).. Moreover, Columbia had the happy advantage of engaging the French tenor George Thill (1897-1984) for four of them – Carmen, Werher, Louise and Otello. This very neat re-issue concerns the most famous – Carmen. We must establish that notwithstanding the announcement on the original 78s, it is not a complete version, as it excludes the spoken dialogue and the sung recitatives, the latter written by Ernest Guiraud, moreover some items were shortened, to cater for the limited duration of the original discs, at about 4 minutes per side.
Originally issued as Columbia Masterworks album no. 87, this pioneering recording of Carmen thus had the advantage of counting among its interpreters, in the role of Don José, the impeccable Georges Thill, considered by many music lovers to be the best French tenor of the twentieth century. Although already well known after leaving the Paris Academy where he was the pupil of Ernest Dupré and the celebrated bass André Gresse, this admirable musician himself only regarded his career as really beginning having followed the career of the legendary Fernando de Lucia in Naples, which revealed to him a voice alloying all the richness of bel canto with French style. Truly, his career can be said to have begun precisely in the role of Don José at the Opéra Comique on May 15, 1918. He was the heroic and lyric tenor par exellence, who with his warm, clear voice, was seldom equalled in evenness, robustness and vitality.
This CD transfer, carried out by Stephen Sutton of Divine Art and Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio, is of such naturalness and quality that the voice of Georges Thill appears remarkably clear, with great presence, with all its élan, its inflection and not least its nuances; the tenor is one of few to give all of his dignity in the emotionally difficult role of José. It should be recognised that his colleagues are not all in the same league: Raymonde Visconti is quite a pale Carmen who shows little of her character’s full personality. Marthe Nespoulous manages to move us, despite her character Micaëla’s silliness thanks to her youthful freshness and her fine sensitivity, in spite of a sometimes wavering intonation. Louis Guénot gives us an honourable Escamillo though he can be a little stiff – but this is really unavoidable in this role. The secondary roles are honestly played, even if Robert Roussel as Dancaïro has neither the accuracy of intonation or pleasantness of timbre required. As for conductor Elie Cohen, he directs with competence and dynamism, but one has to remember that the recording techniques of the age favoured the soloists very much more than the chorus and orchestra.
In short, a very welcome historical re-issue which is characterised especially by the incomparable presence of Georges Thill as Don José.