Opera News, May 2015
BIZET: Carmen

With more than a dozen Carmens available on DVD — following a variety of editions, from Oeser to Oscar Hammerstein II, with Carmens of varying shape, shade and style — was there a demand for this “new” one, captured seven years ago in Zurich? Maybe not, but I’m happy to have it.

At first, I wasn’t so sure. What’s that in front of the closed curtains? A sleeping dog — and you know what they say about them. Then the curtains part for a stark view of a bare cyclorama and a Bayreuthian disc, onto which Moralès and squad shamble with a big “Policía” umbrella and a patio chair (is this a beach? in Seville?) and ogle the unseen passersby in jocularly choreographed operetta style. Enter Micaela — for a modest striptease. I think I know what the respected director Matthias Hartmann is up to: he wants to keep things light for now, before the shade sets in. And light it stays, with the entrance of a bumbling, bespectacled, greasy-haired José (a barely recognizable Jonas Kaufmann) and the descent of a neon cigarette exuding neon smoke: Carmen can’t be far away.

Once she appears, Hartmann’s staging focuses. Vesselina Kasarova ambles on in her Loren-esque house dress and makes clear just whose show it is — and why I’m happy this performance has been preserved. This was a role debut for the mezzo, but there’s nothing tentative or half-formed about her Carmen, who’s funny and witty, sultry (but never vulgar) and always thinking. There’s not a moment when those big, expressive eyes go dead. This menthol-cool Carmen is smarter than everyone around her and knows it. Vocally, Kasarova won’t please all listeners; the purrs and growls and glottal attacks that have long marked — some would say marred — her singing are present, to excite or annoy. But there’s also a wealth of subtlety, of elegant phrasing, of technical finesse, of vivid word-painting delivered easily and naturally. When calculation shows, it’s Carmen’s, not Kasarova’s.

She has excellent support. Kaufmann sang his first Josés in London two years earlier, opposite Anna Caterina Antonacci in Francesca Zambello’s new production, and it, too, is available on DVD from Decca. If you don’t already own it and want his José (as you should), your choice will likely rest on the Carmen and on the staging — updated and unfrilled, or traditional and fairly fancy (with real chickens, donkey and horse in lieu of that fake sleeping dog)? Kaufmann is in fine, supple form on both, but this later performance seems fuller and more detailed. Michele Pertusi’s Escamillo, a burly, good-natured, tacky jock, manages his hard-to-handle couplets more deftly than most Carmen toreros. Isabel Rey, looking uncannily like Olympia Dukakis’s Anna Madrigal, is a good-enough Micaela; but there’s a striking pair of lowlifes in Gabriel Bermúdez, a slick hunk of a Dancaïre, and Javier Camarena, a jolly-faced Remendado who casually slices Zuniga’s throat and pinches his police sunglasses. Franz Welser-Möst leads a brisk, lean, no-nonsense account of Michael Rot’s critical edition of the Guiraud version of Bizet’s score, with its occasionally notable, often delectable departures from the norm. And “the norm” is something to which this Carmen flatly refuses to adhere.


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