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Posts Tagged ‘Bizet’s Carmen’

The last time Bizet’s Carmen was performed in the Berliner Philharmonie was under Herbert von Karajan in 1985 – Agnes Baltsa, José Carreras, Janet Perry and José Van Dam in the leading roles, exactly as in Salzburg a couple of months later, albeit with the Vienna Philharmonic. This recording is one of the references in the discography, not exactly as a paragon of French style, but as a breathtaking tour de force from the Berliner Philharmoniker. This evening, the memory of Karajan seemed to be haunting the place. There we were – a concert performance from Carmen, as in Salzburg, with the venerable orchestra and star-studded cast, as in the old days. As much as Karajan, Simon Rattle seemed determined to inscribe his name in the history of performance of this opera. This was very much a symphonic performance, with the Berlin Philharmonic as the main soloist, dazzling the audience with the most exciting orchestral playing one will probably witness in his or her lifetime under the loving eye of a conductor who read the score afresh and unearthed everything that was there to be found. As much as I like Karajan’s recordings (all of them – the old ones with Giulietta Simionato and Nicolai Gedda, the film with the invincible Grace Bumbry and Jon Vickers and the above-mentioned Baltsa/Carreras), I am afraid that Rattle has gone even deeper in his understanding of this opera. The tempi are excitingly fast, except when singers need a bit more space for expression, the rhythms are irresistible, the tonal palette is surprisingly wide (some really earthy sounds from the Berliners), the passages supposed to be merely “exotic” seemed to spring from a performance of a zarzuela and some some moments were truly revelatory – for instance, the usually superficial quintette Nous avons en tête une affaire sounded almost Stravinskian in its kaleidoscopic instrumental effects and sharp rhythms, the entr’acte before act III refreshingly devoid of sentimentality and, in the “flower song”, there was nothing like a soloist and orchestral accompaniment: it was a collective musical statement, of surpassing beauty. I guess everyone in the Philharmonie will never have again the same pleasure on hearing Bizet’s most famous opera. If one does not concentrate too much in the singers.

Well, I actually wrote the last sentence to make some suspense. There is no tragedy to report here, but there was nonetheless room for improvement. When Carmen is referred to in the libretto as a bohémienne, I am sure that the idea was not the Czech Republic. All right, Magdalena Kozena is from Moravia and wouldn’t qualify anyway, but I am sure that my 12 or 13 readers are probably curious to know how she fared in this role. The fact that hers is a light and not big voice is not a novelty – Teresa Berganza, for instance, was a famous Carmen, and her repertoire was Rossini; Anne Sofie von Otter’s Carmens were not truly famous, but she did sing it, more than once etc etc. It must be said that Kozena has experience in French repertoire – I have seen her sing mélodies very commendably, she has sung Mélisande, Lazuli in  Chabrier’s L’Étoile, French baroque music, she even recorded a CD with Marc Minkowski in which she sings one scene from Carmen. So, in a nutshell, she knows the style, the language and her voice has indeed gained in weight and size. Her middle-register was far more solid than I could have predicted and the low notes were almost all of them there, practically without the help of breaking into chest voice (what the French would probably consider “authentic”) and, differently from the last time I saw her (the above-mentioned L’Etoile), I didn’t hear the sort of constriction and brittleness that sometimes affected her singing when things got high and loud. It remains the fact that her voice in both ends of her range lack impact – she would often disappear in ensembles (the repeated “la mort” in the card scene would be overshadowed by Frasquita and Mercédès), and although she could hit exposed high notes all-right, maintaining them cost her a big effort. So she generally just touched them and either cut them short or filled-in the note value with downward portamento. The last scene had to be dealt with with some “acting with the voice”, but there weren’t any ugly sounds. So the question is – has the effort paid off? Well, she was a musicianly Carmen, her phrasing unusually elegant and truly rooted in French style (I mean – I guess, one would need a crystal ball to understand what the French consider “French style”), she has really given great deal of thought about the text and the music and, although her personality is not really close to what Carmen is, she tried to emulate a Carmen personality: hand on the hip, barefoot, throwing her chin up, swinging her hair, you name it. Berganza, for instance, who was really Spanish, never tried any of that – and her more libertarian than libertine Carmen fitted her bright, light elegant voice. But, to sum it up, yes, it was musicianly and the voice is beautiful – but, again, Tatiana Troyanos, for example, had all that – and the voice too. If you want a blond Carmen today, Elina Garanca, for instance, gets the job done far more easily. But it seems that if you are a mezzo, you basically cannot die without singing this role…

Jonas Kaufmann is a famous Don José – probably the finest today. He was not in excellent voice and his once fine attack of notes now is marred by pushing and the lacrhymosity is getting more and more pronounced. That did not prevent him from producing some big heroic acuti and also from singing with nuance, offering floating mezza voce in his duet with Micaela and, if his pianissimo on the high b flat was not smooth as it used to be, he does sing it (who else does these days?!). I have the impression that the frequentation of heavier roles is making the experience of singing roles like this less fun than it used to be – no wonder he couldn’t resist to sing his “Ma Carmen adorée” “before the time” and call it a day…

Baritone Kostas Smoriginas too produced some big heroic high notes and, almost as everyone else, found the role at times too low-lying. I only found it puzzling that his was the less “attractive” voice among the pleasant-toned (and very good) low-voice singers this evening – Christian van Horn (Zuniga), Andrè Schuen (Moralès) and Simone del Savio (Dancaïro). His French is perfectible too (Rattle used the Oeser edition – although Jean-Paul Fouchécourt was the only native speaker in the cast, the level of pronunciation was generally high, especially Kaufmann’s).

In Karajan’s 1985 performance the chorus from the Opéra was imported from Paris, and it was a wise choice, for the chorus of the Deutsche Staatsoper struggled a bit, especially with the conductor’s fast tempi and loud orchestra. The Staatsoper’s child chorus must be mentioned for their amazingly clean performance – the best I have ever heard.

I leave the best for last – the lovely Genia Kühmeier, a radiant Micaëla. What a special singer she is – and to think that there are so few recordings with her… It’s a shame!

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Looking back on my opera-going experience, I have noticed that, if there is an opera when things can get pretty awful when they go wrong, this opera is Bizet’s Carmen. I would primarily relate this phenomenon to this opera’s popularity, which basically means that packs of dispersive tourists invade an opera house whenever it is performed, ruining the artists’ concentration with thunderous coughing worthy of a sanatorium, obsessive-compulsive candy-unwrapping and chatting as one would never find in a movie theatre. Then there is the fact that intendants believe therefore that they should not waste intelligent creative teams in entertainment for the masses, hiring the most deplorable stage directors and set and costume designers. Subtlety is really something you can forget under those circumstances.

I won’t waste anyone’s time writing again the Deutsche Oper’s dismal production, but I must confess my surprise to find Yves Abel’s conducting so different from what he did last year. Maybe because the cast did not involve large voices, the orchestral playing was limited to recessed volume, which, allied to a matte aural perspective, gave an impression of distance and lack of enthusiasm. One could see the careful matching of tonal quality between different sections, but the effect was finally too discrete in a large hall such as the Deutsche Oper. To make things worse, the chorus seemed to be trying to infuse alone some animation into the proceedings, the result being messy ensemble.

While I would not dare to propose a no-hip-shaking rule for the title role, it should be obvious that the hip-shaking is not an end in itself, but rather a means to convey seduction. If the whole routine suggests rather pelvic disorder than sultriness, it is better to forget it. I would even go as far as suggest that Carmen does not really need to be showily seductive. Some singers have opted instead for earthiness and feistiness and ended up on being quite convincing. I particularly remember one Carmen who was indeed attention-gripping because she was the only unsmiling person on stage – and her unaffected intensity made a strong effect on Escamillo (and on us) when, among all the other frisky girls, she was the one whose “l’amour” fell on a dissonant note.

I write all that trying to express my sympathy for Anna Caterina Antonnacci, lost in this mediocrity fest. Although she is very attractive herself, anyone who has seen her off stage knows that she is a notably serious lady. In the Covent Garden production available on video, that seriousness is used to good effect, interestingly so in a vampiric closing scene, in which Carmen is shown in glowing golden colors and Don José is a pale, lifeless image to drag her from life into his personal void. Not this evening, where she had to follow every item in the Carmen-checklist. It was obvious that she was dying to break the cocoon of clichés in which she had been wrapped by the director, trying to insert some truly meaningful gestures in the proceedings, but an inert Don José was the coup de grâce to her intents and she finally seemed to have given up in a truly ineffective – musically and dramatically –  final scene.

Vocally speaking, this was not an unmitigated success either. Antonacci’s hybrid vocal quality does not mean, as with Shirley Verrett or with Grace Bumbry before her, a soprano voice with exciting low notes or a mezzo voice with powerful top notes (I won’t say who is who in these descriptions, for the subject is controversial), but rather a voice that really flashes in the middle range with some interesting excursions below but a rather tense upper range in dramatic moments. Beyond the technicalities, it is a indeed a seductive, well-focused voice with richness of tonal colouring and flexibility. All that allied to beautiful command of French made her first act especially sophisticated, with intelligent word-pointing, illuminating twists of phrasing and a huge amount of imagination. If someone can rescue the habanera from routine, this woman certainly is Anna Caterina Antonacci. In the remaining acts, her willingness to dare seemed to decline in the context of the prevailing shabbiness.

Jacquelyn Wagner has a pretty voice and her French is quite idiomatic. She is also stylish and musicianly, but I had the impression that her soprano is too light for this role and exposed high notes showed tiny but noticeable sourness. Ryan McKinny’s Escamillo turned around throatiness. Then there is Massimo Giordano’s Don José. The Italian tenor is a veteran in the Deutsche Oper’s Carmen and yet seems lost in the concept (if there is some concept to speak of) of this production. In 2009, his performance had already been plagued by uncertain pitch, poor French and unstylishness – but this evening he did not seem besides to be in good voice, sounding effortful and gusty in the Flower song.

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The Deutsche Oper’s present Carmen is the refurbishment of Pier Luigi Samaritani’s 1979 production re-directed by Soeren Schuhmacher. It is a traditional, not really imaginative but not unpleasant staging, which has its moments of restricted budget, such as the invisible parade of a bullfighting team which should show up on stage (as shown here, only Escamillo and two other guys appear to the audience). Being traditional, however, is not the problem here: the moments when something “new” was tried were precisely the most disappointing, unfortunately concentrated on the last act, when Frasquita and Mercedes appear as black-clad angels and Carmen is shown in an extremely unbecoming and unexplainable bullfighter outfit.

Fortunately, the bad news are restricted to the stage – Yves Abel’s vital, energetic and theatrical conducting kept excitement at high levels throughout. The Deutsche Oper responded with animation and precision. To some extent, the orchestra would remain the most expressive soloist on stage. In the title role, Kate Aldrich has a fruity, seductive mezzo soprano with reserves of chest resonance that resented loud dynamics though. At the end of the Lilas Pastia scene, her appealing tone sounded bleached and even rasping sometimes. The single intermission proved healthy, for she could regain tonal quality for the final scene. She has the physique du rôle and, although her seduction looks a bit calculated, it does also look effective. Nicole Cabell’s velvety soprano lacks carrying power and her breath could be more generous, but the voice is extremely charming and she phrases with good taste and sensitiveness. Although no-one in the cast has really idiomatic French, hers came closer to the mark. Tenor Massimo Giordano also has a most appealing tone, but his whole method was too Italianate to this role and the amount of scooping and uncertain intonation was a bit dangerous. He must be praised for his attempt of producing mezza voce in the end of his aria, but things did not work really smoothly there. Most unfortunately was the fact that the usually reliable Stephen Bronk was in very poor voice as Escamillo – and he looks quite older than the role. Minor roles could be better cast too.

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Although I dislike the pastel-coloured Seville recreated by Franco Zeffirelli for the Metropolitan Opera, I thought that maybe Olga Borodina could add some zest to the proceedings and tried my luck this evening. I am an admirer of this Russian mezzo-soprano, but I had the impression she might be too formidable for the role. However, as this truly special artist has done with many roles not easily associated with her voice and personality, she made it her own.

I don’t want to sound ungracious, but Borodina doesn’t have the figure and the legs of some singers previously featured in this production, such as Nancy Fabiola Herrera or Denyce Graves – but that does not faze her at all. As portrayed by Borodina, Carmen is neither flirtatious nor sluttish, but rather an affair of panache. Her forceful attitude, her appetite for life, her independence of character makes her rather a conqueror than a seductress – and that is a very good psychological point. It is also true that Borodina’s earthy mezzo-soprano has nothing French about it, but its endless repertory of resources is entirely used to make sure that both the music and the text are dealt with with intelligence and sensitivity. She handles the often abused grace notes with accuracy, scales down for velvety mezza voce when this is required and has amazingly clear French vowels. If I had to be critical about her singing, I have noticed since her last Amneris at the Met a certain harshness in her forte top notes that didn’t exist a couple of years ago.

The role of Don José fits Marcelo Álvarez’s dulcet yet strong tenor. Although his approach is a bit lachrymose (that was a bit of a turn-off in the Flower Song), he can hold an elegant line and, whenever he does it, it is always really pleasant in the ear. He is not a bête de scène, but – maybe because he comes from Argentina – he does rather well his macho routine.

Maija Kovalevska has a rather pretty sweet voice, a basic requirement for Micaela, but I have the impression she was a bit overparted. Some high-lying phrases sounded a bit tense and she had to compensate it a bit with “acting with the voice”. Truth be said, she was one of the most energetic Micaelas I have ever seen – I almost thought that nothing really scared her.
Lucio Gallo’s baritone has become rather juiceless these days, but he was able to keep focus in the role’s low tessitura, what is always a challenge to high baritones. All minor roles were excellently taken and ensembles certainly benefited from that.
From bar one in the overture, one could see that Emmanuel Villaume’s idée fixe was making it fast and exciting – in the end I’ve only really got the lack of polish. Some of Carmen’s most “colourful” pages do require a more sophisticated approach – otherwise it may – as it did – sound like small-town band music.

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