It is an article of faith with vocal buffs that French singers were better in the good old days; but the prewar recordings of Carmen do not support that thesis. HMV and Columbia each made an Opéra-Comique and a Scala set and in general the Italians surpass the French vocally if not stylistically, especially when you get down to the chorus and the supporting cast.
The reasons for buying this set are three-fold: Georges Thill, the excellent orchestra and the main conductor, Élie Cohen. Thill’s splendid 1927 Flower Song conducted by Gaubert is drafted in for economy, In his newly recorded scenes, Thill is magnificent as ever, singing with clean, focused tone and a fine line. The Carmen, Visconti, is a strong singer but short on subtlety and rhythmic variety – and a Carmen with no real rhythm is more tiresome than usual. Her Card Scene does not chill the blood. The Micaëla, like her opposite number in the HMV set, was a quite good Mélisande. She is appealing in the duet with José, where Thill is eloquent and two sides are rightly allotted (how could Columbia cut it to one side in the Scala set?), but she is inadequate in her aria. Guénot, like so many Escamillos, lacks the low notes for the part; he is uncertain of pitch and a little dull. Frasquita and Mercédès are nothing special, the secondary tenors are good. Moralés and Zuniga are not named.
There is no dialogue and little cuts abound (this set comes in at 30 sides, to 34 for the French HMV Set; both Italian sets run to 38 but include Guiraud recitatives). The choral singing is nowhere near La Scala or Met standards of the time. However in Act 4 everyone miraculously raises their game. The toreador sings his little duet with Carmen quite nicely. Visconti’s well-focused voice comes into its own, Thill rises even more nobly to the occasion and the final scene is genuinely exciting. The recording quality is uneven, with fairly frequent distortion, but Andrew Rose has done battle with it meritoriously. Full marks for presentation, including a libretto and translation.