If Georges Bizet's Carmen is not the most popular opera in the standard repertoire, it certainly is one of the two or three in contention. Deservedly so, it has a tempestuous love story in an exotic setting, gorgeous melodies and as magnificent a starring role as any diva lover could hope for. Although the composer's last opera, he died a couple of months after its premiere, was something of a critical failure when it opened, its popularity has only grown ever since. Today a staple in opera houses all over the world, there are recordings aplenty available: no mezzo soprano worth her salt would give up a chance to sing the lead. From Maria Callas who never performed the role on stage and Leontyne Price in the sixties to contemporaries like Angela Gheorghiu whose voice some feel is wrong for the role, there are Carmen's enough, great ones and some not so great, you would think to fill any record collection.
You would be wrong. There is never too much of a good thing. Perhaps the mezzo best known for her Carmen back in the fifties was Rise Stevens. She sang the role at the Metropolitan Opera 124 times and in 1952 appeared as Carmen on one of the first of the televised Met productions. There is a 1951 recording of one of her performances, but while praised for her performance, the sound leaves something to be desired, and there are some complaints about tenor Jan Peerce. The new release of a remastered February 16th 1952 Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast under the direction of Fritz Reiner comes then as a welcome addition to the opera's discography. Although there does seem to be a earlier version of this broadcast on Walhall Eternity Series.
Joining Stevens is a stellar cast directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Richard Tucker is the spurned lover, Don Jose. Micaela, the sweet peasant yang to Carmen's yin is sung by Nadine Conner. Carmen's friends at the factory, Frasquita and Mercedes are played by Lucine Amara and Margaret Roggero. Zuniga, the head of the guards is Osie Hawkins. Paolo Silveri is the toreador, Escamillo.
Conventional wisdom has it that Stevens indeed made the role her own both with her voice and her acting. Her Carmen is both sexy and cruel, and she carries it off with consummate skill. Whether in her entrance with the famed "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" or her seduction of Don Jose in Act I's glorious "Prѐs des remparts de Séville" she justifies everything that has been said about her. It is a compelling performance. Richard Tucker, a tenor with a rich vibrant voice, makes Stevens a wonderful partner. His "Flower Song" at the end of the second act is one of the highlights of the opera and his first act duet with Amara is a thing of beauty. Paolo Silveri, of course, has the crowd rousing "Toréador, en garde!" and he is spot on. The stirring chorus just before the end of the last act is another high point. There may well better recordings of Carmen, but this is a truly excellent performance and it stands up well still after all these years.