Opera, November 2012
Carmen, Bizet

Carmen, Bizet Genia Kühmeier (Micaëla), Christina Landshamer (Frasquita), Magdalena Kožená (Carmen), Rachel Frenkel (Mercédès), Jonas Kaufmann (Don José́), Simone del Savio (Dancaïre), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Remendado), André Schuen (Moralès), Kostas Smoriginas (Escamillo), Christian van Horn (Zuniga), Chorus of the Berlin Staatsoper, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, c. Simon Rattle. EMI 440 2852 (two CDs)

After the same cast and conductor’s appearances with his orchestra at the Salzburg Easter Festival in a fully staged production, followed by concert performances at the Berlin Philharmonie, the entire company decamped to the studio to make this by then well-beddedin account of Bizet’s opera. Its chief assets are the orchestral contribution and Rattle himself. Now ten years into their relationship, their rapport is complete. The playing is delivered with exemplary precision and textural clarity, while the choral singing, too, is clean and airy. Throughout, Rattle captures the score’s lightness and grace, even at times when passion takes over. From these points of view, this is an appreciable Carmen.

Unfortunately, the Oeser edition— long ago discredited, and excoriated in these pages (and others) by Bizet experts ever since it appeared—turns up yet again. Given that there are better alternatives, this is in itself baffling. Though the point is made that we have here a version of the opera with authentic dialogue (Bizet did not live long enough to write his own recitatives), most of the spoken text is actually cut.

Of the cast, Jonas Kaufmann stands out for his vocal presence and imaginative artistry as Don José. Though his tone lower down grows ever more baritonal (the duet with Kostas Smoriginas’s Escamillo sometimes sounds like two baritones fighting a vocal duel), there’s no sense of break as it climbs into the higher regions, where its tenorial shine is unimpaired. Scrupulous in observing dynamic markings, Kaufmann also supplies dramatic urgency in every phrase; you sense that he lives the role. He’s far and away the best of the principals.

Magdalena Kožená’s Carmen is frankly a disappointment. She’s at her best in the final scene, where Kaufmann’s dramatic fire seems to spark something in her. Her solo in the Card Scene is also engaged. Elsewhere, she registers as small-scale and colourless, most of all in such set-pieces as the habanera and seguidilla, which fall pretty flat, not helped by the fact that she makes so little of the text. This is a good-girl Carmen, encroaching not just on Micaëla’s man but also on her artistic territory.

In the soprano role Genia Kühmeier doesn’t offer enough contrast or dramatic warmth in a reading that is similarly small-scale and charmless. Her best moment, fortunately, is her Act 3 aria; though even there one feels little depth of foundation to the tone. Smoriginas is again limited in impact, hampered by poor French and a characterless reading of the part, even in the Toreador’s Song. Taken altogether, the result is lacking far too much to enter the list of classic accounts.


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