The opening night of the Metropolitan Opera of September 1972 was supposed to be the dawn of a new era. Sir Rudolf Bing, General Manager, had two years previously ceded to his successor the head of the Royal Swedish Opera Göran Gentele. Bing had made major inroads in his attempts to have opera presented as musical theatre by hiring nearly every prominent stage director who was willing and even some who weren’t. Gentele already had a reputation as a very forward-thinking man of the theatre and his appointment was a profoundly optimistic choice.  

Since productions were still programmed years in advance Sir Rudolf scheduled Wagner’s Tannhäuser for what would eventually be his successor’s opening night. In spite of the inspired casting of American tenor James McCracken in the lead and Tom Krause as Wolfram, and, as Elizabeth, none other than Marilyn Horne in what was to be her first outing as a Wagnerian soprano, this revival, easily the oldest and moldiest of the Met’s productions, was deemed “Bing’s revenge.”

Once Gentele understood the full measure of his inheritance he swung into action and, using the three leads already in place, decided to present instead Bizet’s Carmen. The French Director Jean-Louis Barrault had recently mounted a new staging but no one cared for it much. Gentele asked the board and got the funds for a production new in every sense of the word.

The 1964 performance edition of the score by musicologist Fritz Oeser would be used with the opèra comique dialogue restored and about 15 minutes of music Bizet cut from the score before the first performance. (Up until then Met audiences had only heard Carmen with the recitatives that Ernest Guiraud inserted after Bizet’s death). The beloved and idiosyncratic Leonard Bernstein was engaged to conduct.

The great Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda was responsible for the geometric layouts and minimalistic architectural set pieces that would conjure Seville. Alvin Ailey was persuaded to choreograph the many dances in Bizet’s toe-tapper. The 27-year-old John Mauceri assisted Bernstein, and and casting was rounded out with a very young James Morris as Zuniga and Teresa Stratas as Micaela.

But not all these plans came to pass. The more experienced Donald Gramm took over the role of the Lieutenant and then Adriana Maliponte was brought in to replace an ailing Ms. Stratas. Saddest of all was that Gentele was killed in a car accident while on vacation mere months before the start of rehearsals. So the production that was to be his inaugural turned into a memorial instead.

Reviews were uniformly excellent with Harold Schonberg inThe New York Times calling the performance ”daring and provocative… a brilliant conception.” He added that New York hadn’t heard a Carmen so “smooth, subtle and secure” since Bruna Castagna and praised Bernstein for the “elegant line” in his conducting and singled McCracken out for his pianissimo ending on the Flower Song and the “real grandeur” of his acting.

Alan Rich in New York Magazine called the production an”overwhelmingly brilliant accomplishment” and Horne’s Carmen ”one of the most remarkable minglings of endowment and intelligence I have ever witnessed on any stage.”

The only truly cool review came from Andrew Porter, writing his first regular column in The New Yorker. He found Horne successful inspite of the unsuitability of her voice and but found Svoboda’s work,”awkward and crude” and Maliponte, “conventional.” Krause’s Escamillo he called”monotonous and imprecise” and although he liked much of Bernstein’s conducting he found the famous Prelude wanting in string articulation.

Bernstein’s label Deutsche Grammophon, already smelling more than a whiff of event in the air, decided to absorb the massive costs of recording anything in the United States and commit the production to disc. Working with a colossal budget of $275,000. the maestro completed the whole recording in a mere 261 recorded takes, a mere fraction of the well over 700 each it took him to finish his Vienna Rosenkavalier and Falstaff recordings.

Another loss was that DG was unable to meet the financial demands of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus so a pickup group was engaged and named The Manhattan Opera Chorus.

Bernstein himself only conducted the first six performances in the house. For the productions return in the spring, and the Texaco radio broadcast, Henry Lewis took the podium. So this recording is our only legacy of the premiere.

The three-LP set with chic packaging went on to be one of the best-selling opera recordings of all time. Yet today it barely is given a mention in any of Bernstein’s biographies. Let’s face it, his Mahler is, I suppose, his recorded legacy as a conductor but since Mr. Mahler didn’t write much opera we’re barely acquainted.

It wasn’t the first Carmen I ever listened to but it is the one I love the most. It has many eccentricities but it is also never dull. Its only fault is that crosses the line from excitement to camp at times. It’s very much a big American performance but the dialogue brings a theatrical element that most other recordings completely lack.

Now, four decades later, the recording has been restored by Pentatone in the Netherlands, which is apparently the Holy Land for sound engineers. With the blessing of the people at DG they’ve taken the original master tapes from the recording sessions and fed them into an analogue to digital converter without the intervention of any mixing consoles or any other type of special equipment. It seems that back in the 1970’s Deutsche Grammophon was recording everything multi-track, then mixing it down to the signifcantly lower standard of home playback equipment. What that means is that we are now in possession of the digital recording of this performance: not a mere remastering, but a resurrection.

For a recording that was vividly theatrical to begin with now it feels like it’s happening right in front of you. Anyone with a home audio system with at least five speakers will feel it almost immediately. The firm, full, sound of the orchestra with all its detail is a revelation: the clarity of the timpani, the various bells and castanets, and the sounds of the crowd. The prelude to Act III and then the two horn calls at the start of the scene are actually chilling in the way they establish the mood. I have always said that a good recording should sound like it’s happening in the next room and you’re standing on the other side of a doorway. Here you’re actually on the threshold to a moment half a lifetime ago.

For those who aren’t familiar with this recording, here’s a rundown of its pleasures. Bernstein plays much of the score on the slow side, most especially the prelude. He’s showing off the orchestral colors, rhythms and dynamics almost to a fault. I won’t lie, there’s not a little of Lenny lost in his own glory here. Almost as if he’s playing the score for first timers and he doesn’t want you to miss a trick. It’s not Klemperer slow, but it is deliberate.

The cast of gypsies and bandits, Marcia Baldwin, Colette Boky, Andrea Velis and a deliciously peppery Russell Christopher all deliver individual and characterful performances and, it’s apparent, benefitted greatly from the lengthy rehearsal period and the insight Bernstein provided. Higher up the ranks we find Gramm’s Zuniga lifting the role of a supporting player to an art form.

Krause repeats himself from the Decca recording with Schippers conducting and his Escamillo is fine, if not particularly French. Maliponte has a creamy charm in the first act duet and is by equal turns softly lyric and imposing on the mountain gorge. She sounds musically and dramatically aware which is more than I can say from some of her drowsier colleagues in the role.

Our Don Josè is something of an acquired taste and I’m certain McCracken isn’t everyone’s vision of a romantic Spanish corporal. Admittedly he’s a bit of the bellowing bull in the china shop but he displays astonishing technical control over a sizable instrument, most especially with the voix mixte in both the Act I duet with Maliponte and at the finale of a very sensitive rendering of the flower song.

Horne, perhaps the most skilled mezzo-soprano in history, is a dexterous Carmen. Her endless legato and supremely disciplined emission of tone help her create a very individual interpretation. Every grace note is lovingly rendered, where a more unwieldy voice can sound like a case of the hiccoughs. She sings some soprano options but with the real mezzo sound. Her “Seguidilla” is sung like a secret (which it is), but she doesn’t mind giving her expansive chest voice a little airing here and there, especially in a superbly rendered “Habanera.” The Card Song includes a moment that’s a bit like, oh, I don’t know, a freight train coming out of a tunnel? It’s a tad overwhelming at the climax. She’s sensual, which isn’t unique, but hearty and good-humored, which most certainly is.

With Ms. Horne, and frankly the rest of the cast, there’s always that delicious sense of vocal reserve where the floodgates can be open at anytime. Needless to say when she and McCracken go tusk to tusk in the finale scene you’re not quite certain who’s gonna make it out alive. I’d say it definitely qualifies as over the top but, hey, it’s the final scene of Carmen. I’m not looking for tasteful restraint.

Issued in a lovely deluxe hardback CD-size book and fit concisely onto 2-discs, this set offers a full libretto in English and French in very readable print, with far too few pictures of the production. Anyone who enjoyed this recording in its previous incarnations is in for a rare treat. For those who haven’t and are looking for a unique theatrical experience this is one of the few in the catalogue that delivers.