The Telegraph, Seven magazine, 23 April 2012
By John Allison
Bizét: Carmen, Salzburger Osterfestspiele
Salzburg Easter Festival
After 45 years of musical history, the Berliner Philharmoniker have graced the prestigious Salzburg Easter Festival for the final time

So, farewell then, Sir Simon Rattle. Und auf wiedersehen, Berliner Philharmoniker. As conductor and orchestra hammered out the final, fate-laden bars of Carmen on Easter Monday, 45 years of Salzburg Easter Festival history came to an end that no one could have predicted even a year ago. Packing their bags for the last time at this most prestigious of musical jamborees, the departing Berliners left a strange mixture of emotion and emptiness in their wake.

Founded by Herbert von Karajan in 1967 as an annual camp for his de luxe orchestra, the Salzburg Easter Festival and the BPO have been synonymous with each other ever since. Just as the orchestra was the backbone and raison d’être of the festival, Salzburg at Easter was the only place where this orchestra regularly ventured into the operatic pit, always doing so under one of three big-name conductors: Karajan, Claudio Abbado and – for the last decade – Rattle.

Things weren’t supposed to end this way, but when the oligarch-backed festival at Baden-Baden made its offer last May, the orchestra – almost as legendary for its venality as its sound – jumped quickly. Such a unilateral declaration of independence could have spelt disaster for Salzburg, but the Easter Festival’s canny Intendant, Peter Alward, moved swiftly to secure the services of the Berliners’ arch rivals, Christian Thielemann and his distinguished Dresden Staatskapelle. They begin their tenure next Easter with Wagner’s lofty Parsifal.

Bizet’s gypsy opera, by contrast, may not have been everyone’s idea of a suitably solemn farewell piece, and if fabulous reports of the festival’s Bruckner Eight under Zubin Mehta are anything to go by, this may have been the real moment of spiritual leave-taking.

Still, the orchestra glistened in Carmen, keeping up with Rattle’s sometimes driven tempos, not to mention loyally following his opposite tendency to lovingly tweak a phrase. There is no denying the thrill of hearing these players in music that is too often taken for granted, and Rattle gets them to deliver all the dark melancholy of the score.

This was Rattle’s first Carmen, but he will return to the work in August at the Salzburg Festival – independent from the Easter operation – with the Vienna Philharmonic for further performances of Aletta Collins’s new staging. Hiring a British choreographer to direct this Spanish-soaked opera in a co-production with Madrid’s Teatro Real may have been risky, yet it has paid off, for this is a stylish and cliché-free Carmen.

Well, almost cliché-free. Somebody should have told Collins that Carmen is not about flamenco, but as a choreographer she is unable to resist putting dancers on stage in the overture and interludes. Their contributions are witty, though, only really detracting from the music in Bizet’s exquisitely atmospheric entr’acte to Act III.

Dressed in Gabrielle Dalton’s Seventies costumes, the cast inhabit some visually striking sets. Miriam Buether’s design for the opening act takes us to the peeling paint and white tiles of the cigarette factory’s loading bay, with boxes coming off conveyor belts.

The smugglers in the third act pass along the drainage tunnel under a mountain road. Only the burnt colours of the finale’s postcard-pretty bullring are predictable.

If nothing else, Magdalena Kozena’s role debut as Carmen is also cliché-free, right from her first entry via the factory’s goods lift. Wisely enough, the Czech mezzo (aka Lady Rattle) steers clear of sultry, hip-swaying caricatures, but then her voice is also quite un-Carmen-like, almost as light and willowy as the woman she portrays here.

Never entirely comfortable, as even her rudimentary castanet technique shows, she resembles a nice girl from Brno who got lost on the Sunday School trip to Seville. So good at so much of what she sings, it is a pity this artist feels the need to attempt Carmen.

The other principals are much as expected. Genia Kühmeier’s glowingly sung Micaela is touching and sincere, and Kostas Smoriginas’s Escamillo lacks the low notes, like so many other baritones in this difficult part.

Jonas Kaufmann’s tousled looks and dark, thrilling tenor make him an ideal Don José, and he has refined his interpretation in performances around the world since his Covent Garden Carmen just over five years ago.

Curtain-call applause left little doubt that Kaufmann is the darling of Salzburg. By contrast, Rattle’s trademark gesture of getting his orchestra up on stage seemed hollow on this historic occasion, and the players looked in rather a hurry to leave.


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