The Opera Critic
by Moore Parker
Bizét: Carmen, Salzburger Festspiele, 14. August 2012
This Carmen is not the thrilling experience it should be
Already spurned at the Salzburg Easter Festival, this Carmen revival (albeit with the Vienna Philharmonic replacing the Berlin Philharmonic in the pit) seemed destined for dubious success, despite some notable assets.

The title role is notoriously elusive - even for apparent "models" in the role, and in which category Magdalena Kozena does not naturally belong. Even if one is prepared to reconsider the psyche of the part, reworked within the context of this updated production (to the Spanish Civil War) - and embrace this cool, nonchalant (though physically not unattractive) lead, the sheer chasm between Ms. Kozena's vocal facility and the combined demands of the score and this venue remains unbridgeable.

As Don Jose, Jonas Kaufmann brings the technique and finesse of a German Lieder singer to his portrayal. He presents a virtually seamless mix of registers and dynamics throughout his vocal range, a masculine and full-bodied tone which carries easily to all corners of the house, and an attractive stage presence which wins through his rather brooding and introvert interpretation. He finishes his "Flower song" with a sustained pianissimo B-flat, and brings a controlled passion to his dramatic outbursts. While his rather gutteral vocal approach may not universally appeal, there's no denying that this Jose probably ranks supreme among today's interpreters.

I had greater expectations from the delightful Genia Kühmeier, who - despite possessing the innocent charm for Micaela - lacks the appropriate vocal weight and warmth for the role. Above the stave her timbre pinches and tends to (over) sharpen in pitch rather than blossom into the lyrical cascade of tone ideally needed to let the line - and character - take flight. Seldom has one seen a Micaela made so unattractive by the costume and hair styling departments - so credit to Ms. Kühmeier for nevertheless winning so many hearts in the house.

Kostas Smoriginas (Escamillo) suffered an "allergic reaction" at the premier of this run, and at this second night performance was announced as therefore being "nervous". In keeping with the title role in this opera, Escamillo sadly enjoys few interpreters in possession of all the necessary attributes to bring the role to life. Alas, Smoriginas' performance rarely raises its head above the average, remaining somewhat vocally uneven and missing the required flair needed to sweep the audience - and not just his Carmen - off its feet.

Christina Landshamer (Frasquita), Rachel Frenkel (Mercedes), Simone del Savio (Duncaire) and Jean-Paul Fouchecourt (Remendado) all left an unusually weak impression - crowned by a particularly lacklustre quintet with Carmen in Act 2. Christian van Horn, however, was a solid Zuniga and Andre Schuen presented an unusully strong Morales.

Also, there was a virile (and welcome) contribution by the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor.

Aletta Collins is responsible for the direction and choreography - the latter playing an on-going and effective Leitmotiv throughout the production - setting the scene before the first bars of music begin, and later nicely linking Act 1 with the Lillas Pastia scene by using identical choreography (but different costumes) to bridge a brief image of Don Jose behind prison bars. Dancers support Carmen's seductive moments in Act 2, and in the opera's finale swollen-headed toreadors parade proudly before their admiring audience outside the arena. The smugglers scene is less winning, with the action awkwardly shifting (via an adjoining ladder) between ground level and an underground tunnel. Irritating; the intrusive action of delivery boys shifting cases of cigarettes while Jose and Michaela attempt to hold the audience's attention in their Act 1 duet. Rather fun, on the other hand; the box office gag to open Act 3 - despite no ticket sales, and apparent free entry for all to the bullfight.

So in all, an evening boasting some interesting ideas on stage and some sensitive ones in the pit (Sir Simon Rattle) - but nevertheless one somewhat tenebrous in concept and bereft of the thrilling experience this popular war horse can provide, even in less illustrious settings.


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