Classics Today
Review by: Robert Levine
Strangely Mediocre Carmen with Kasarova and Kaufmann

One might speculate as to why this 2008 performance of Carmen from Zurich has just been released, but frankly, it is not quite worth the concern. The draw here–unless you’re a Vesselina Kasarova groupie–is Jonas Kaufmann’s Don José. He does not disappoint, but he’s heard to very similar effect in a finer performance and production from Covent Garden with Anna Caterina Antonacci as his Carmen, recorded just a couple of years prior to this one.

This production is directed by Matthias Hartmann and designed by Volker Hintermeier and Su Buehler. The action is updated–to the early 1970s, perhaps; in Act 2 there is a small TV with an old-fashioned rabbit ears antenna, and dress is similarly “modern”. The minimalist set is a round disc on which the barest of props are used: Act 1 has a white umbrella and beach chairs that Don José sits on, and a small gate with a neon sign in the shape of a cigar (there’s also a stuffed dog that remains in position throughout the act); the second act is chock-full of chairs that get knocked over a lot (in addition to the TV) and also has a string of colored lights; the third features suitcases and trunks and sleeping bags for the smugglers; and the last, back in the blaring sun, sports one big tree. There is no attempt at Spanish flavor or verisimilitude, not even a gypsy dance.

In addition to this lack of Spanish-ness, director Hartmann has few new ideas. José is more nerdish and bookish than usual, with no hint at all in the first act of any sort of temperament other than nervousness: he mostly sits and does a puzzle of some kind while everything goes on around him. When Micaela shows up, the soldiers tear her dress off, leaving her in a slip; when José spots her, he doesn’t even notice. She seems very hot for him but he is thoroughly disinterested; he turns away when she tries to kiss him on the lips.

In Act 2 he crawls on the floor when Carmen upbraids him for wanting to return to his barracks. It’s as embarrassing to watch as it must be to act. His rage in the last act seems almost arbitrary, but he continues to act like a teenager. Carmen is not a slut here; there’s the occasional hip-swinging, but otherwise she’s a cool character with a bad hair-do and tacky dress (which she never changes, throughout the four acts). Escamillo is less subtle and amorous than a braggart. The smugglers are a particularly vicious crew–they slash Zuniga’s throat near the close of Act 2–but the rest is par for the course.

Kaufmann, within the framework of the production–nerd-pathetic nerd-jealous nerd-killer–is his usual magnificent self. He looks great and the voice is in superb form, able to spin out long, legato lines softly and to release cascades of power when needed. At times he seems to be trying too hard here–his whole performance is more integrated at Covent Garden–but he still earns his superstar stripes. Kasarova has precisely the right voice for Carmen–smoky, darker at the bottom, and with secure top notes. But she is not in very good voice, with serious intonation issues and register breaks that sound more out-of-control than being-used-for-effect. She’s also not particularly graceful, and the murky direction, poor make-up and costumes, and weird, non-sets do not help. I did enjoy her second-act mood-swings–coquettish one minute, utterly spiteful and cold the next.

Michele Pertusi’s Escamillo, as mentioned, is bull-headed, but he sings the role handsomely and is particularly impressive in the third-act duet with Kaufmann. Isabel Rey’s Micaela is cookie-cutter but well-sung; walking around in a slip all evening can’t be easy. The others–gypsies, smugglers, soldiers–are all top notch.

The edition includes some spoken dialogue and occasional bits of music in places I’ve never heard before–the “revised score” is credited to Michael Rot. There’s nothing jarring about it. Franz Welser-Möst’s leadership is classy and never less than expert, but nice, French transparencies are sacrificed for a driving energy and build-up. Only French, English, and German subtitles are included; a booklet contains track listings and an unhelpful essay about the production. Stick to the Covent Garden version, although the Met’s, with Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna, both in peak form, is superb as well.


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