Opera News, December 2012
BIZET: Carmen

It's not a good sign when Carmen's program notes are more entertaining than the performance, but Stephen Jay-Taylor's writing proves more fresh and illuminating than Simon Rattle's work with the Berlin Philharmonic and an uneven cast. Recorded just after staged performances at the 2012 Salzburg Easter Festival, this Carmen, touted as the "original" version, restores dialogue and musical material cut from the opera's first performances. Jay-Taylor's booklet essay details the bureaucracy and nepotism of Paris's nineteenth-century opera venues and hints at the difficult gestation and rehearsal period surrounding Carmen's 1875 premiere, since everyone involved later blackened over or ripped out pertinent pages of their diaries.

As it turns out, the musical additions are mostly expansions of existing material — a repeat here and there, some variant vocal contours; José's "C'est mal à toi, Carmen, de te moquer de moi" receives a taunting riposte from the Gypsy using the same tune, and he gets an extra "ma Carmen adorée" at the work's climax. The inauthentic accompanied recitatives are omitted, leaving Micaëla without the "C'est des contrebandiers" introduction to her aria, but not much spoken dialogue remains.

Musicological interest aside, why present an un-Mediterranean Carmen, even with a glamorous orchestra? When Jean-Paul Fouchécourt enters as the smuggler Remendado, his authentic French is as startling as the pop of a Veuve Clicquot cork. Jonas Kaufmann and Magdalena Kožená could not be more poorly matched, with his massive and expressive baritonal sound and her pale, pristine, short soprano voice. (Among the four women, not one brings real color.) Rattle's attempt to return to an opéra comique feeling to accommodate his wife's sinewy sound, by stripping away the work's grand-opera accretions, is belied by the opulence of the Berlin Philharmonic and the grandest of grand operatic tenors.

Kaufmann is the best thing about the recording. He's got the dark, tormented, choked-up sound that fits Don José's dangerously psychotic nature, and he inhabits the role totally, delivering the flower song as a measured, heartbreakingly intimate confession. The final scene is a model of vocal acting, as the tenor begins "Je ne menace pas" an empty shell of a man, drained of spirit and direction. His first "Tu ne m'aimes donc plus?" is hushed and incredulous, the repeat a challenging roar, and José's final bellowing demand — "démon, veux-tu me suivre?" — seems to come directly from the abyss.

Kožená growls and snarls a few lines effectively, but the choices seem driven by technical limitations rather than dramatic concerns, and it's hard to imagine how vocal balance worked in a live situation. She skims over high notes and resorts to hooty, pressed tones, the phrasing often compromised with weird rubatos (as in the card scene). It's distressing to experience this winning and thoughtful artist stretched beyond capacity.

If Rattle wants us to hear Carmen freshly, he's got to cast more carefully, because this is not a tone poem. Orchestral color doesn't disguise the opaque and charmless Escamillo of Kostas Smoriginas or provide bloom for Genia Kühmeier's Micaëla. Christian Van Horn brings some vocal swagger to the role of Zuniga, and one senses an effective characterization there, but Andrè Schuen's Moralès sounds too genteel, though his voice is attractive. If you can get through Rattle's frenzied, rushed overture and are able to enjoy Kaufmann in a vacuum, this is the Carmen for you.


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