Gramophone, September 2012
David Patrick Stearns
Bizét: Carmen
Among the operas I'd most love to hear Simon Rattle conduct, Carmen isn't even on the list, much less at the top of it. Rattle is at his best when he has a cause (bringing Szymanowski's King Roger to a wider audience), mysteries to solve (Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande) or a dismissible lightweight work to rehabilitate (Bernstein's Wonderful Town). Bizet's durable portrait of a sexy gypsy who is killed by an obsessive corporal needs none of that.

When the anonymous-looking sound files arrived for review, I knew Rattle was at the helm but, not having followed the April Salzburg Easter Festival performances on which the recording was based, I didn't know who was singing. And in the interest of listening with fresh-eared ignorance, I tried to forget Rattle was there, especially since his welcomely brisk tempi resemble those of Yannick Nézet-Séguin on his Metropolitan Opera DVD (DG, 11/10). No, this is not some lofty conductor slumming with a greatest-hits opera (such as Leonard Bernstein's DG recording that tries so feverishly to be different - 6/73). The conductor here is happy to let Carmen be Carmen.

The Berlin Philharmonic bring an intensified drama to the score without becoming weighty, not just in the big moments but in incidental, transitional passages that give the performance a long-range sense of scope. Under Herbert von Karajan - and even at times with Rattle - the Berlin Philharmonic's sound has been used more to beautify operas than to intensify their content. But theatricality is everywhere here, in what is one of the best-played Carmen recordings on disc.

None of the voices is ideal but they all have keen characterisation ideas that make them more interesting than historic recordings from the Paris Opera Comique that formulated our notions of what is ideal. Language and style feel alert, polished and international in the sense that the words don't encase the vocal sound but emerge with enough clarity that a printed libretto usually isn't necessary for following the text. The tenor sounds like he could sing Lohengrin (Ramón Vinay came to mind); the Escamillo could be a future Wotan. The Carmen is almost Mozartian in her lyricism, her early arias coming off like siren songs rather than portraits of raw seduction. She does sneer in the last act - with good effect. With a more vocally stentorian Micaela, the opera's power dynamics are dramatically altered. She's an equal match for Carmen. And Don Jose isn't some hapless victim; Escamillo may be in more danger than he thinks.

With blindfold removed (and the Berlin Philharmonic website in front of me), the singer names were not surprising. Magdalena Kožená has spent significant parts of her recording career reimagining middle-weight arias for her lighter-weight voice, her Carmen being more successful than, say, her forays into Princess Eboli. One misses a vocally weightier Carmen at the end of the Fate aria. And even before knowing the recording marks her first assumption of the role, I found her sense of dramatic understatement all too understated. Venomous moments seem more contrived than felt. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, with whom Kožená shares certain spiritual depths, sang only one Carmen and pointedly avoided the role thereafter. I wouldn't be surprised if Kožená did the same, though I'm glad hers is recorded if only because it shows how beautifully the role can be sung while remaining largely convincing.

Jonas Kaufmann has made Don Jose one of his central roles, though his voice is evolving away from the kind of tender, tipper-register bloom that's needed for the best moments of the Flower Song. But that's a small drawback considering what life and imagination he brings to every phrase. As Escamillo, Kostas Smoriginas didn't attempt to compete with the more lyrical baritones in the `Toreador Song' but gave a more thoughtfully declamatory reading that's successful on its own terms. Genia Kühmeier's Micaela beautifully sustains some of Rattle's more expansive tempi in her arias. The minor roles are all beautifully sung in a performance that has the heat of being live but none of the distracting stage noise of a full staging. Though this isn't the Carmen of my dreams, it does use the Fritz Oeser reconstruction of the original version and may be one I'll live with over time: Rattle's opera recordings from Berlin tend to be vocally cursed to varying degrees but this one is blessedly consistent.

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