This pioneering Columbia recording of 1927, the first in electric rather than acoustic sound, offers us a welcome opportunity to experience the work as it was performed by an all-French company, and what a benefit that is! These artists know by nature than the text is as important as the music: all the principals play with the words in a way quite lost in an age of international casts, singers who have seldom if ever worked as an ensemble.
Cohen was Columbia’s regular conductor of French opera at the time, and as in other works, completely enters into the spirit of the work in hand (oddly, the Flower Song was recorded separately and conducted by Philippe Gaubert). It may well be that the set was built around the great French tenor, Georges Thill, who sings the role in a way it has seldom been sung since. Words and music are perfectly wedded in his delivery. His voice is a strong lyric tenor bordering on the heroic. He is as adept at singing sweetly, as in the duet with Micaéla, and then truly forceful but never forced in the finales to Acts 3 and 4. The Flower Song is sung with weight and feeling, but it is a pity Thill sings the final B flat forte, rather than piano as Bizet wanted.
Visconte at first seems a rather matter-of-fact Carmen: the first-act solos are not sufficiently characterised. But then this slightly casual reading seems deliberate: the Card Scene is sung accurately and with a real sense of foreboding and in the grand finale she defies José with magnificent courage and insouciance. Nespoulos was a popular soprano in Paris and elsewhere at the time: her Micaëla is sung in that clear, clean light, secure tone then favoured in this and so many soprano roles. Guénot is a personable and vivid Escamillo. The smaller parts are well taken, Zuniga and Morales apparently by members of the company.
What we hear is a potted Carmen; all the essentials are there except the Act I finale, and no dialogue or recitative. The excellent transfers added to my pleasure in a set I had never encountered before. I recommend it as a second version in any reputable collection of French opera.