It was the local première of Bizet’s Carmen in Vienna in 1875 that ushered in the work’s run of successes in opera houses all over the world. Since then it has been performed countless times at the Vienna State Opera, and yet the new production that opened in February 1966 remains one of the most outstanding ever seen in the house. In her memoirs, Christa Ludwig recalls that it was through her work with the director, Otto Schenk, that she first found her own distinctive approach to the title role, helping her to chalk up an enormous personal success with Viennese audiences.
She was neither a man-eating monster nor a demonic femme fatale but a self-assured woman whose erotic charm stemmed from her unscrupulousness and refusal to compromise. From her very first entry, to which she brought the tone of a French chanson, to the Card Scene, with its tremendous sense of drama, and the tension-laden final scene, Christa Ludwig pulled out all the stops, turning in a performance that still radiates an undiminished power even as a sound recording. The conductor was the young Lorin Maazel, whose phenomenal memory and powers of concentration gave Christa Ludwig an extra lift that in turn proved an important stepping stone on the road that led to a production of Fidelio at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin only a few months later and thence to a musical partnership that lasted several decades. James King was convincing as an impassioned Don José exploring a repertory somewhat apart from the Heldentenor roles with which he was normally associated. Born in Egypt to Greek parents, the Italian soprano Jeanette Pilou sang the part of Micaëla, demonstrating that it was not just her name that made her so suited to the French repertory. Five years later Viennese audiences hailed her as an outstanding Manon in Massenet’s opera of the same name. In this context, it is especially fascinating to note the young Lucia Popp in the small role of Frasquita. And who better to sing the part of the predatory, idolized Escamillo than Eberhard Waechter at the very peak of his powers?