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.
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.
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.
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.