Notes and Editorial Reviews
EMI Classics's studio opera recording of Bizet's Carmen marks the 10th anniversary of the artistic 'dream-team' partnership of Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Carmen is by far the most popular French opera and this recording boasts a stellar cast with Magdalena Kožená in the title role and Jonas Kaufmann as Don José. Carmen tells the story of the mesmeric but ultimately fatal attraction of the Gypsy Girl Carmen, and the tragedy of Don Jose, who falls in love, but is ultimately rejected. Unable to live in a world without Carmen, he kills her, to the accompaniment of the triumphs of her new lover, the Bullfighter Escamillo.
The dramatic story of the French soldier Don José and his
ill-fated love for the wild gypsy girl Carmen is packed with some of the most familiar and striking melodies ever written, including Carmen’s Habanera, Séguedille and ‘Chanson bohème’, Don José’s poignant Flower Song and Escamillo’s swaggering Toreador Song.
Magdalena Kožená Mezzo Soprano, Carmen
Jonas Kaufmann Tenor, Don José
Genia Kühmeier Soprano, Micaëla
Kostas Smoriginas Baritone, Escamillo
Christian van Horn, Bass-baritone, Zuniga
Andrè Schuen, Bass-baritone, Moralès
Christina Landshammer, Soprano, Frasquita
Rachel Frenkel, Mezzosoprano, Mercédès
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Tenor, Remendado
Simone del Savio, Baritone, Dancairo
Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin
Berliner Philharmoniker / Simon Rattle
R E V I E W
Simon Rattle has been principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra since 2002, and this recording is their 10
th anniversary present to one another. It is also timed to coincide with performances of the opera in Salzburg with Rattle and exactly the same cast of singers. At the Easter festival the Berliners joined them in the pit for their final hurrah before they controversially relocate their Easter operatic business to Baden-Baden. For performances of the Salzburg production this summer the Vienna Philharmonic take over.
Carmen isn’t a piece you might initially link Rattle with, but his much-praised work with Debussy and Ravel has shown that he is comfortable with French music and, while this recording might not bring many revelations, it is thrilling in many ways and is well worth exploring. Rattle has assembled a good cast of singers crowned by an outstanding principal pair. Magdalena Kožená, Rattle’s wife in real life, doesn’t have a voice one naturally associates with Carmen – her mezzo is lower than many famous sopranos who have taken the role for a start, and she sometimes sings at one remove from the character’s raw passion – but she brings something compelling and exciting to her portrayal of the amoral gypsy. She injects an unusual element of sexiness into her traversal of the part, and she uses the natural depth of her range – her middle and lower notes are extraordinary – to point up the element of danger in the character, thereby sounding sultry and alluring without ever sounding quite Mediterranean. She showcases all of this in the
Habañera: you might struggle to visualise her dancing but the raw sexual power of the character is undeniably there. There is a wonderful strain of insolence, even mockery, to her voice as she defies Zuniga after the riot in Act 1 and her ensuing
Seguidilla is more alluring and more beautiful than the preceding
Habañera, and rightly so as this is explicitly a song of seduction rather than a summary of her character’s views on life. The gypsy dance that opens Act 2 builds to a thrilling climax: again, it’s hard to visualise Kožená dancing to her own song, but the authority with which she sings makes it very easy to imagine her compelling others to dance to her tune. The colour of the orchestra is exceptional here too, each aspect of the gathering frenzy captured to perfection. She is no one-trick pony, however, becoming something of a visionary as she describes the smugglers’ retreat in the mountains, and a unique haunted quality enters her voice once she sees her own death during the Card Trio of Act 3, compellingly dramatic, especially in contrast to the carefree nature of what has gone before.
She is partnered by a thrilling Don José in Jonas Kaufmann. His interpretation of the role at Covent Garden is already available on DVD. His Berlin version doesn’t differ dramatically but is still treasurable for enshrining a great performance, reinforcing his reputation as a great interpreter of this role. In many ways his dark, sexy tenor evokes the Mediterranean colour that Kožená avoids: his top notes, as in the
Seguidilla duet, resonate with real, hot-blooded passion with never a tinge of affectation and he is never less than exhilarating to listen to. There is beauty aplenty – just listen to his remarkable
Flower Song – but also a scarcely concealed element of danger and, primarily, psychological instability which becomes more pronounced as the opera progresses. He clearly means business in the duel with Escamillo and the moment at the end of Act 3 when he sings of how fate has bound him to Carmen for ever is electrifying, a man on the very edge of sanity. The final duet is a very satisfying ending, built up like a slowly tightening screw, but it is Kaufmann who dominates. A savagery, just short of a snarl, enters his voice as he realises that he cannot have her and his ultimatum,
Pour le dernier fois, bubbles with barely restrained passion. He then utterly changes the colour of his voice for his final confession,
Vous pouvez m’arrêter, sounding totally deflated and having lost his reason for living.
As Micaëla, Genia Kühmeier’s voice is perfectly contrasted with Kožená’s. Hers is a bright, clear soprano which crests the top notes with ease. The contrast is almost startling when hearing her first duet with Don José straight after the Habañera. The phrases where she invokes José’s mother are beautiful in their purity, and the angelic nature of her Act 3 aria is a striking contrast in the surrounding context of the smugglers’ lair. Kostas Smoriginas doesn’t have quite the necessary macho power to impress at his first entry: in fact, he is shown up badly in contrast to a fantastically swaggering orchestral introduction to the
Toreador’s Song, after which he sounds effortful and insecure, loud and blustery, and lacking in genuine character portrayal. He grows into the part, the second verse more convincing than the first, but it’s difficult to shake that first impression and he isn’t compelling in the last two acts. Still, the rest of the supporting cast are very capable, with a lovely quintet of smugglers in Act 2 and some suitably rakish soldiers in Act 1.
Be in no doubt, however, that if there is a star in this recording then it is the man on the podium. Rattle’s reading of the score bristles with vitality and his vision brings the Berlin Philharmonic to life in a way that few other orchestras could manage for this opera, especially on disc. Hearing this orchestra in an opera is akin to having a ride in a Rolls Royce, and from the very first bars you know you are experiencing something special: every semiquaver of the prelude is articulated with razor-sharp precision, captured in spectacular EMI sound which brings the strings forward but balances them naturally against the brass and percussion. The acoustic of the Philharmonie is also captured triumphantly, with lovely depth and perspective and just the right amount of bloom to the sound without losing precision. Rattle’s direction of the music is inspired. The first appearance of the
Toreador’s Song in the prelude flows with such a persuasive swing that I can imagine Rattle conducting with a smile and a wink, but the Fate theme then bursts onto the scene in a way that is truly haggard, the cellos and winds shuddering with the intensity of a torture scene. Throughout the action Rattle conducts with a mixture of red-blooded excitement and French élan. For a good example listen to the introduction to the chorus of the cigarette girls as they come out for their break in Act 1 (CD 1, track 5): in the orchestral build-up Rattle whips up the orchestra into a veritable frenzy of anticipation, before relaxing with almost a Gallic shrug as soon as the main theme enters, swooning and flirting its way onwards. It’s a lovely juxtaposition and it’s merely typical of many such touches that Rattle finds throughout the work. Even some cases which sound a little misjudged on first hearing tend to deliver the goods in the end: the
Aragonaise is a little heavy, for example, but it carries tremendous power and acts as a great curtain-raiser for the fourth act.
I loved listening to this recording, and I will do so again and again, as much for Rattle and his orchestra as for the vocal riches of his principals. It won’t replace classics such as those from Abbado, Karajan (twice) or, more recently, Plasson, but any lover of the opera should find a space for it on their shelves. This is made easier by the fact that it’s available at close to bargain price in slimline packaging, consisting of a very handsome hardback booklet that contains an excellent contextual essay from Stephen Jay-Taylor and lots of colour photographs of the Salzburg production. No texts or translations are provided, but these are all made available on line. Get it while it’s hot!
-- Simon Thompson, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Carmen by Georges Bizet
Christian Van Horn (Bass Baritone),
Jonas Kaufmann (Tenor),
Genia Kühmeier (Soprano),
Magdalena Kozená (Mezzo Soprano),
Kostas Smoriginas (Baritone),
Andre Schuen (Bass Baritone),
Christina Landshamer (Soprano),
Rachel Frenker (Mezzo Soprano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra,
Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus
Written: 1873-1874; France
Venue: Philharmonie, Berlin
Length: 70 Minutes 20 Secs.
Be the first to review this title