The Times, August 17, 2012
Geoff Brown
Bizet — Carmen
Aside from conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and playing stooge to Rowan Atkinson at the Olympics, there’s the matter of Simon Rattle’s recording contract. A longtime EMI Classics artist, he’s currently working through a contract extension, signed in 2009, calling for 12 recordings to be issued within four years. That’s roughly one every four months. No wonder the CDs he makes are often derived from concert performances; no wonder the repertoire is so various.

This time he’s landed on Bizet’s Carmen, recorded in Berlin last year. just before a stage run at the Salzburg Easter Festival. There’s much to enjoy. Never an opera specialist, Rattle digs out details that other maestros let slumber. The high-speed energy is infectious; and the microphones keep the orchestral sound lovely.

But theatrical flair and gypsy fire? Not so apparent. Nor are those qualities uppermost with Rattle’s Carmen, Magdalena Kozená (left, with Jonas Kaufmann). The conductor’s wife sings as usual with emotional intelligence, but she never really suggests an amoral, magnetic force strong enough to drive men potty.
At least there’s no miscasting with Kaufmann’s Don José. His tenor isn’t as clean an instrument as it once was but his emotional engagement in Act II’s flower song can’t be denied; and he grips even further in the passion and anger of Act IV. Kostas Smoriginas’s rather bald French reduces his effectiveness as Escamillo, but the bullfighter remains a creature of flesh and blood. Genia Kühmeier’s delightful Micaëla tops the rest of the cast.

How to sum up? Imperfect, lopsided, lacking a printed libretto, Rattle’s set is not ideal if you want to enjoy Carmen the opera: for that, I’d prefer Karajan’s 1983 account with Baltsa and Carreras. Instead, Rattle offers Carmen the gorgeous symphonic experience, with added voices: something much rarer.

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