Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen - Opera in 4 Acts (based on the reconstruction of the original version by Fritz Oeser in 1964 Bärenreiter Edition) (1875)
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo) - Carmen
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor) - Don José
Kostas Smoriginas (baritone) - Escamillo
Genia Kühmeier (soprano) - Micaëla
Christian van Horn (bass-baritone) - Zuniga
Andrè Schuen (bass-baritone) - Moralès
Christina Landshamer (soprano) - Frasquita
Rachel Frenkel (mezzo) - Mercédès
Simone del Savio (baritone) - Dancaïro
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor) - Remendado
Chor und Kinderchor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, concert performances, 16-21 April 2012, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany
EMI CLASSICS 50999 4 40285 2 [71:41 + 78:08]
Bizet a prolific composer for the stage is best remembered today for his opera Carmen his crowning glory. According to the Berliner Philharmoniker website Carmen has become the most performed opera in the world today. Consequently any new recording causes a great deal of interest especially with such a starry cast. Jonas Kaufmann and Magdalena Kožená are two of the most sought after singers on the world stage today. The question is, will this performance from these renowned artistes live up to the elevated expectations?
Before these live concert performances the last time that Carmen was presented in the Berlin Philharmonie was in 1985: Karajan conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker and Agnes Baltsa was Carmen and José Carreras, Don José. I have seen a video clip of the present performance on the BPO website and the soloists were seated behind the orchestra in front of the Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin. They wore normal evening dress not costumes from the opera as the performers of John Adams’ Nixon In China were wearing for the concert performance I saw at the Philharmonie just over a week ago. The Kinderchor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin was located at the right of the stage. Earlier in the month Rattle and his orchestra had taken Carmen to the 2012 Salzburg Easter Festival for director Aletta Collins’ staged version with the same cast of soloists using the Wiener Staatsopernchor. It must be said that the Rattle/Collins Salzburg production had a mixed critical reception.
Premièred at the Opéra-Comique, Paris in 1875 it is difficult to believe today that the overt sensuality of the plot and characterisation of Carmen shocked the early audiences who were clearly unaccustomed to realism in their operas. The libretto was written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a novella Carmen by Prosper Mérimée. Designated an opéra comique the opera’s lascivious scenario and tragic conclusion seemed incongruous with the genre. Set in the searing heat of Seville, Spain during the early-nineteenth century this tale of love and passion, jealousy, betrayal and violence resulting in murder transferred splendidly to the Philharmonie in the bustling modern metropolis that is today’s Berlin. Starting as he meant to go on Rattle takes the Prelude at a very brisk pace. The music just fizzes along conjuring up a broad palette of Latin colours with plenty of dramatic impetus. I loved the playing of the Entr’actes with some simply stunning woodwind playing.
In the title role of Carmen, Magdalena Kožená with her dyed vivid red/auburn hair was mightily impressive portraying the wild and fiery, man-eating Gypsy temptress from the cigarette factory. Her smoky-toned mezzo confidently surmounted the challenges of this demanding part. It was a delight to hear this Brno-born singer develop the free-spirited and sultry siren in such a compelling way. The mezzo’s ability to control her long lines is specially striking. In the famous act 1 Habanera (L'amour est un oiseau) where the cigarette factory workers gather together for their break Kožená sings alluringly of the uncontrollable nature of love, conveying an atmospheric beauty. The act 3 card scene includes Carmen’s moving soliloquy En vain pour éviter which is given a performance with real emotional impact.
Jonas Kaufmann puts his heart and soul into the role of the deserting Dragoon Corporal who dotes on his mother. It’s engaging done with appealing tone and the ability to hold a note remarkably well. One feels for the pitiful Corporal who allowed Carmen to mock his affection for her only to discard him for Escamillo. The act 2 aria La fleur que tu m'avais jetée (The flower song) was marvellously moving and made the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. The moving act 4 duet C'est toi! C'est moi when José pleads in vein with Carmen for her to come back to him is communicated by Kaufmann and Kožená with genuine dramatic tension. On this sort of form Kaufmann is the finest and most versatile tenor currently appearing in world opera. Simply breathtaking was the final act when the desperate José, at his wit’s end and delirious with emotion, fatally stabs Carmen.
With a character directly opposite to that of Carmen, Genia Kühmeier plays, with absolute assurance, Micaëla the strait-laced, rather sorry and uninteresting village maiden. In her act I aria Parle-moi de ma mère! Micaëla brings a letter to José from his mother, suggesting they should be married. The Salzburg-born soprano displays bright appealing tone and enviable diction revealing just the right degree of vulnerability. From act 3 when Micaëla attempts to recapture the affections of José from Carmen with her romance Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante Kühmeier exhibits a peachy voice that projects powerfully, ensuring a thrilling feel to the top of her sweep. Baritone Kostas Smoriginas is formidably cast as Escamillo giving a compelling portrayal of the arrogantly flamboyant and celebrated toreador. A real highlight was Escamillo’s rousing act II aria Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre the famous Toreador Song. It is sung so assuredly by the Lithuanian baritone that one can really imagine the red-blooded, heroic and swaggering Escamillo.
In the supporting roles Christian van Horn as the Dragoon Captain Zuniga displays a rich deep bass-baritone and Moralès the Dragoon Officer, played by bass-baritone Andrè Schuen is highly expressive, singing with strength and passion. It would be remiss of me not to mention the singing from the Chor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden which was as excellent as I expected from this experienced group. In act I the Chorus of Urchins sung by the Kinderchor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden could hardly be bettered such was their bright and enthusiastic tone.
This sturdy EMI Classics double set contains a detailed essay and synopsis of the opera. In addition there are some fine images from the production at the 2012 Salzburg Easter Festival. Sadly I have to report that no libretto or biographies is provided. To obtain those one has to visit: www.simonrattle.com/carmen However, as part of a really tiresome process the page requires personal information to “unlock bonus content” and when I tried it the website declined to show the webpage.
In answer to the question that I posed at the start of this review. Yes, my expectations were certainly met by this highly desirable Carmen.
A highly desirable Carmen.