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Catherine Surowiec, February 2010

After a decade of commercial flops, in the winter of 1942 Oscar Hammerstein II sat down to indulge his lifelong love of opera. The result was Carmen Jones, his masterful recrafting of Bizet’s Carmen, arguably one of the best modern adaptations of a classical opera, with its setting transposed from 19th-century Spain to South Carolina during World War II, fashioned for an all-black cast. Hammerstein’s theatrical fortunes would change with Oklahoma! the following year, and in late 1943 Carmen Jones opened on Broadway to critical raves.

First released on CD by Decca Broadway in 2003, the original cast recording is now available on the excellent Naxos Musicals budget label, and if you don’t have it, it’s time to indulge…the performances are gripping. Mezzo-soprano Muriel Smith sizzles as Carmen, the doomed parachute-factory seductress (“Dat’s Love” / Habanera), tenor Luther Saxon as Don José/Joe is sublime singing “Dis Flower” (Flower Song), Glenn Bryant, as prizefighter Husky Miller/bullfighter Escamillo, makes “Stan’ Up and Fight” (Toreador Song) a macho call to arms, while Carlotta Franzell is a touching Micaela/Cindy Lou.

The CD is rounded out by five numbers from the 1954 film soundtrack, with the voices of a young Marilyn Horne dubbing for Dorothy Dandridge’s Carmen and Le Vern Hutcherson for Harry Belafonte as Joe, but the inimitable Pearl Bailey lustily belts out “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” (Gypsy Song) herself, with Max Roach on drums.

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