Katherine Cooper
Carmen from Berlin with Kaufmann and Kožená
Magdalena Kožená as Carmen? Really? Like her husband Sir Simon Rattle, I first fell in love with the Czech mezzo’s crisp, light voice after hearing her in Mozart, and whilst I had enjoyed her French Arias disc hugely, she’s not a singer I ever expected to hear as Bizet’s visceral gypsy in a complete performance.

The role can take any number of vocal approaches and sizes: as Kožená says in an insightful interview on the Berlin Phil’s ‘digital concert hall’, the first Carmen was a comic actress with a classic soubrette voice, and Rattle explains that his mission was to present the score in its original ‘opera comique’ incarnation rather than as grand opera. (Spoken dialogue is retained rather than the recitatives which were added by later hands, though the orchestral forces don’t appear to be significantly reduced: the opera comique feel comes from Rattle’s springy tempi and transparent textures.)

What still seemed odd, though, was the decision to cast such a slim-voiced singer opposite one of the heftiest tenors around: chalk and cheese, surely? The first time I listened to the set, the pairing seemed outlandishly incongruous – and indeed it is – but the second time round it struck me that no other recording brings out the crazily mismatched chemistry of the lovers to the same degree: it sounds as if the protagonists from an opera comique and a grand opera have been thrown together by some twist of fate.

Carmen herself raises two fingers to tradition and does everything on her own terms, and that is precisely what Kožená’s cliché-free interpretation does. If you’re looking for a gypsy with a smouldering chest-voice and blazing vocal charisma then Kožená is (as she cheerfully admits in interview) not your woman, but she brings out elements of the role which are often submerged: there’s a laissez-faire quality to her singing which is disconcerting at first but strangely appropriate for a character who is capable of cool detachment as well as passion. Unlike most other Carmens, Kožená’s stronger on the former than the latter and so some of the big set-pieces (where Carmen herself is playing to the gallery) go for relatively little, but she’s at her best in the intimate moments: the quiet resignation in the Card scene comes off beautifully, and she’s chillingly matter-of-fact when bursting José’s romantic bubble after the Flower-Song with a toneless ‘No - tu ne m’aimes pas’.

Kaufmann’s Don José is more of a known quantity: he has sung the role all over Europe, and his already-legendary performance in the ROH’s 2007 production is preserved on DVD. He’s made successful forays into heavier German repertoire in the interim, and his dark-hued dramatic tenor is now virtually bursting out of the part, but it’s all to the good: one of his most precious qualities is his ability to scale the voice down without any loss in intensity. His journey from Nice Young Man to obsessive psychopath is even more frighteningly realised than before: listen to the switch from sad incomprehension to homicidal fury as he repeats ‘Tu ne m’aimes donc plus?’ in the terrifying final scene, and shudder!

Kostas Smoriginas’s Toreador has a bluff charisma, but some of the finest singing on the set comes from Genia Kuhmeier’s clean-sounding but full-bodied Micaëla, neither matronly nor winsomely girlish. The smaller roles are lightly cast in accordance with the opera comique ethos, and the fizzy, conspiratorial Act Two quintet is a highlight.

Kaufmann’s legion of fans will need no encouragement here; all others can ‘test-drive’ via the sound samples and see how you warm to Kožená’s Carmen-lite. If you can put aside any preconceptions as to how the title role ‘should’ sound, I’ll warrant you’ll find it a refreshing, unhackneyed take on an opera which has been weighed down with clichés over the decades. Oh, and the orchestral interludes are a knock-out.

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