Classics Today
Review by: Robert Levine
Carmen Czechs Out

Stupendous playing by the Berlin Philharmonic, with remarkable orchestral detail, sharp attacks, and quick tempos make listening to this newly recorded Carmen an exhilarating experience. The “Spanish” numbers—the Habanera, the second-act Gypsy Song—fairly explode. And there’s not an unbeautiful, jarring moment. Simon Rattle is to be congratulated for bringing such freshness to the score, even if it does leave one wondering what the scandals the opera used to cause were all about, and often, wondering what the opera is all about.

Lady Rattle, the gorgeous-voiced mezzo Magdalena Kozena in the title role, is either a problem or the problem: We are used to bigger-voiced Carmens, with more Mediterranean glamour; she seems a bit dainty and chilly for the part. There have been totally miscast Carmens—Jessye Norman’s recording remains quite funny overall—and Victoria de los Angeles’ recording possessed a critic at the time to refer to her Carmen as being “fresh from a convent.” That really wasn’t fair; Angeles refused to indulge in any vulgarity, but her tone was both alluring and seductive, and neither adjective can apply to Kozena. It is beautifully sung, as was Anne Sofie von Otter’s, but both are simply wrong for the part. Both sing handsomely and neither has the charisma the role requires. And size does not matter—Teresa Berganza’s Carmen, filigreed and elegant, was filled with the Southern sun.

The cast’s star is Jonas Kaufmann as Don José, by turns vicious, tortured, loving, and deranged. It is by now a known quantity (there are at least two DVDs of him in the role—both of them even better vocally than this performance); he sings with taste, intelligence and attention to text and dynamics. And the huge explosions of sound he lets rip in the opera’s final scene are dazzling. Kostas Smoriginas is a weak-at-the-bottom and coarse Escamillo; Genia Kühmeier (a singer previously unknown to me) is the loveliest of Micaelas. The rest of the cast is marvelous, and the second-act quintet is spotless and fun. It’s remarkable how well the German chorus copes with the French language at Rattle’s clip.

Rattle uses the Oeser edition, with spoken dialog, and everyone’s French enunciation is commendable. I listened to this set three times, attracted by its sheer gleam, but despite the fine “music-making” of the orchestra it’s simply too slim, too refined, and too “northern” to convince. The best-recorded Carmen, hard to believe, remains a live performance (also Oeser) from Covent Garden in 1973 under Solti (on Opera d’Oro)—Verrett, Domingo, José van Dam, Kanawa—all white hot and in their primes. The sound isn’t ideal and the chorus can be wayward, but boy, what a Carmen! And then there’s Callas….


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