Simon Thompson, Robert Farr
Simon Rattle has been principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra since 2002, and this recording is their 10th anniversary present to one another. It is also timed to coincide with performances of the opera in Salzburg with Rattle and exactly the same cast of singers. At the Easter festival the Berliners joined them in the pit for their final hurrah before they controversially relocate their Easter operatic business to Baden-Baden. For performances of the Salzburg production this summer the Vienna Philharmonic take over.

Carmen isn’t a piece you might initially link Rattle with, but his much-praised work with Debussy and Ravel has shown that he is comfortable with French music and, while this recording might not bring many revelations, it is thrilling in many ways and is well worth exploring. Rattle has assembled a good cast of singers crowned by an outstanding principal pair. Magdalena Kožená, Rattle’s wife in real life, doesn’t have a voice one naturally associates with Carmen – her mezzo is lower than many famous sopranos who have taken the role for a start, and she sometimes sings at one remove from the character’s raw passion – but she brings something compelling and exciting to her portrayal of the amoral gypsy. She injects an unusual element of sexiness into her traversal of the part, and she uses the natural depth of her range – her middle and lower notes are extraordinary – to point up the element of danger in the character, thereby sounding sultry and alluring without ever sounding quite Mediterranean. She showcases all of this in the Habańera: you might struggle to visualise her dancing but the raw sexual power of the character is undeniably there. There is a wonderful strain of insolence, even mockery, to her voice as she defies Zuniga after the riot in Act 1 and her ensuing Seguidilla is more alluring and more beautiful than the preceding Habańera, and rightly so as this is explicitly a song of seduction rather than a summary of her character’s views on life. The gypsy dance that opens Act 2 builds to a thrilling climax: again, it’s hard to visualise Kožená dancing to her own song, but the authority with which she sings makes it very easy to imagine her compelling others to dance to her tune. The colour of the orchestra is exceptional here too, each aspect of the gathering frenzy captured to perfection. She is no one-trick pony, however, becoming something of a visionary as she describes the smugglers’ retreat in the mountains, and a unique haunted quality enters her voice once she sees her own death during the Card Trio of Act 3, compellingly dramatic, especially in contrast to the carefree nature of what has gone before.

She is partnered by a thrilling Don José in Jonas Kaufmann. His interpretation of the role at Covent Garden is already available on DVD. His Berlin version doesn’t differ dramatically but is still treasurable for enshrining a great performance, reinforcing his reputation as a great interpreter of this role. In many ways his dark, sexy tenor evokes the Mediterranean colour that Kožená avoids: his top notes, as in the Seguidilla duet, resonate with real, hot-blooded passion with never a tinge of affectation and he is never less than exhilarating to listen to. There is beauty aplenty – just listen to his remarkable Flower Song – but also a scarcely concealed element of danger and, primarily, psychological instability which becomes more pronounced as the opera progresses. He clearly means business in the duel with Escamillo and the moment at the end of Act 3 when he sings of how fate has bound him to Carmen for ever is electrifying, a man on the very edge of sanity. The final duet is a very satisfying ending, built up like a slowly tightening screw, but it is Kaufmann who dominates. A savagery, just short of a snarl, enters his voice as he realises that he cannot have her and his ultimatum, Pour le dernier fois, bubbles with barely restrained passion. He then utterly changes the colour of his voice for his final confession, Vous pouvez m’arręter, sounding totally deflated and having lost his reason for living.

As Micaëla, Genia Kühmeier’s voice is perfectly contrasted with Kožená’s. Hers is a bright, clear soprano which crests the top notes with ease. The contrast is almost startling when hearing her first duet with Don José straight after the Habańera. The phrases where she invokes José’s mother are beautiful in their purity, and the angelic nature of her Act 3 aria is a striking contrast in the surrounding context of the smugglers’ lair. Kostas Smoriginas doesn’t have quite the necessary macho power to impress at his first entry: in fact, he is shown up badly in contrast to a fantastically swaggering orchestral introduction to the Toreador’s Song, after which he sounds effortful and insecure, loud and blustery, and lacking in genuine character portrayal. He grows into the part, the second verse more convincing than the first, but it’s difficult to shake that first impression and he isn’t compelling in the last two acts. Still, the rest of the supporting cast are very capable, with a lovely quintet of smugglers in Act 2 and some suitably rakish soldiers in Act 1.

Be in no doubt, however, that if there is a star in this recording then it is the man on the podium. Rattle’s reading of the score bristles with vitality and his vision brings the Berlin Philharmonic to life in a way that few other orchestras could manage for this opera, especially on disc. Hearing this orchestra in an opera is akin to having a ride in a Rolls Royce, and from the very first bars you know you are experiencing something special: every semiquaver of the prelude is articulated with razor-sharp precision, captured in spectacular EMI sound which brings the strings forward but balances them naturally against the brass and percussion. The acoustic of the Philharmonie is also captured triumphantly, with lovely depth and perspective and just the right amount of bloom to the sound without losing precision. Rattle’s direction of the music is inspired. The first appearance of the Toreador’s Song in the prelude flows with such a persuasive swing that I can imagine Rattle conducting with a smile and a wink, but the Fate theme then bursts onto the scene in a way that is truly haggard, the cellos and winds shuddering with the intensity of a torture scene. Throughout the action Rattle conducts with a mixture of red-blooded excitement and French élan. For a good example listen to the introduction to the chorus of the cigarette girls as they come out for their break in Act 1 (CD 1, track 5): in the orchestral build-up Rattle whips up the orchestra into a veritable frenzy of anticipation, before relaxing with almost a Gallic shrug as soon as the main theme enters, swooning and flirting its way onwards. It’s a lovely juxtaposition and it’s merely typical of many such touches that Rattle finds throughout the work. Even some cases which sound a little misjudged on first hearing tend to deliver the goods in the end: the Aragonaise is a little heavy, for example, but it carries tremendous power and acts as a great curtain-raiser for the fourth act.

I loved listening to this recording, and I will do so again and again, as much for Rattle and his orchestra as for the vocal riches of his principals. It won’t replace classics such as those from Abbado, Karajan (twice) or, more recently, Plasson, but any lover of the opera should find a space for it on their shelves. This is made easier by the fact that it’s available at close to bargain price in slimline packaging, consisting of a very handsome hardback booklet that contains an excellent contextual essay from Stephen Jay-Taylor and lots of colour photographs of the Salzburg production. No texts or translations are provided, but these are all made available on line. Get it while it’s hot!

Robert Farr has also listened to this recording

Bizet died at the early age of thirty-six, shortly after the premiere of Carmen at the Paris Opéra-Comique Theatre. The work was at first coolly received with the audience finding the story of the eponymous role somewhat immoral and her ending brutal. That moral Puritanism, considering the goings-on in Paris society during the recently demised Second Empire could be seen to be somewhat hypocritical.

The Opéra-Comique presented works with spoken dialogue and it was in this form that the opera was premiered on 3 March 1875. However, Bizet cut and altered his original intentions before the premiere and many of these amendments exist, although I believe not all. Fritz Oeser included the material that Bizet left behind in his performing edition. However, it must be recognised that this is not the form in which the opera first saw the light of day. Various opera houses follow different practices in respect of the version they use with many using that by Choudens. His edition is based on the sung recitatives with music composed by Ernest Guiraud, after Bizet’s untimely death, in place of the spoken dialogue. This was perhaps to make the opera more widely acceptable internationally whilst also recognising that spoken French dialogue can present difficulties to a multinational cast. Since the days of Solti’s 1973 production with Domingo and Shirley Verrett, which I was privileged to see at a Royal Performance, Covent Garden has followed Oeser whilst the Metropolitan Opera uses a combination of dialogue and sung recitative. The 2002 EMI Classics recording of Carmen conducted by Michael Plasson with Angela Gheorghiu, a soprano, in the name part, uses Choudens (see review).

The present recording is taken from performances in the Philharmonie after the staging at Salzburg the previous week. The Salzburg Easter Festival was founded by Herbert von Karajan in 1967 to give the Berlin Philharmonic operatic performance exposure. In recent years the Festival has hit administrative and financial difficulties and Peter Alward, sometime EMI link with Karajan and his recordings, was appointed as Intendant, to sort it out. He had just about done so when the BPO orchestral management unilaterally pulled the plug and gave notice of taking the oligarch schilling, rouble or mark and decamp to Germany to Baden-Baden at Easter and cut Salzburg adrift. They did so despite shared productions and presence in Madrid and the Met. With his connections Alward has filled the vacuum with Christian Thielemann and the Dresden Staatskapelle who will present Parsifal in 2013.

The Berlin orchestral members would doubtless have felt more relaxed on their home turf in Berlin after the inevitable tensions in Austria. After all it was they, as a self-governing orchestra who made the decision to quit Salzburg, not the conductor. Whatever hopes of relaxation they had must have been short-lived if Rattle’s tempi are anything to go by. He starts the overture at some lick and at times his tempi verge on the frenetic with singers, particularly the chorus, in danger of being left behind. Nor does he let himself or the musicians luxuriate in those musically wonderful and evocative entr’actes, particularly that at the conclusion of act three (CD 2. Tr. 32).

In any performance of this opera, whatever the virtues or otherwise of the conducting and orchestral playing the singing is paramount, particularly that of the eponymous role. A little like his illustrious predecessor, Karajan, Rattle has a reputation for some idiosyncratic casting in his operatic endeavours. None, however, has been as questionable as casting his present wife, Magdalena Kožená, as Carmen. In my review of the previous EMI Carmen with the soprano Angela Gheorghiu in the title role, I suggested that whilst she sang individual numbers out of their context to ravish the ear, she just was not Carmen, lacking the earthy, gritty passion and sensuality that are essential to a performance, or recorded realisation, of the role. The bad news here is that Magdalena Kožená does not even ravish the ear, and seems to lack the ability to portray the persona of the highly sexed gypsy woman who captivates and entices men as an enjoyable pastime. The colour pictures in the booklet show her as a raven-haired Carmen. I was reminded of another cool queen, Anne Sophie Von Otter, who essayed the role with similar hair at Glyndebourne (see review), with a little more success. I have greatly enjoyed Magdalena Kožená’s lovely mezzo voice in other repertoire, but did not do so in this character in this performance.

In the role of Don José, the poor soldier who is entrapped by the sensual allure of Carmen we get the real deal with the singing and portrayal of the tenor Jonas Kaufmann. He portrays the disintegration of José from affectionate mother’s boy who will obey his mother’s wish to marry Micaëla, to brutal murderer, with distinctive vocal skill and nuance. His Flower Song (CD 2. Tr. 4) is phrased to perfection and soaked in feeling, no mere vocal display from him and with a controlled ending to die for. I did worry after his Faust at the Met in December 2011 that his ability to spin a phrase and use his lovely mezza voce was coarsening since his move into Wagner roles. Not so; his singing is a tower of strength here with his French among the best in the cast.

As Micaëla, Genia Kühmeier is full-toned and expressive with only the need for greater clarity of words to put her alongside Kaufmann as a significant plus in casting. With Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo sorely stretched at both ends of his vocal compass, and unable to convey the egocentric brio of Escamillo, such strength is sorely needed in this performance. Among Don José’s fellow soldiers, vocal strength is not the problem, rather the somewhat Germanic sounds that spoken dialogue accentuates to the listener.

The presentation is CD-size book form with several page spreads of photographs of the stage production. The booklet content is high on style and less so in essentials. A visit to a website is suggested for biographies and libretto with translation. Whilst the track-listing is good the synopsis is barely adequate and really should be track-related as in the previous EMI issue under Plasson. An essay encompasses something of the history of the premiere, and Bizet’s death three months later. It also gives some details of the complexities of performing editions and how Bizet’s creation fitted into the Opéra-Comique tradition. The essay is given in French and German as well as English.

Meanwhile if you want to see and hear a really sexy portrayal of Carmen I commend the performance conducted by Pappano from the Royal Opera House in 2008. It also features Jonas Kaufmann as Don José, and with Anna Caterina Antonacci exuding sexual allure from every pore and an Escamillo with visual elegance and vocal brio it takes some beating. It also uses the Oeser edition.

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