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Posts Tagged ‘Genia Kühmeier’

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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Although Claus Guth’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro has been taped and released on DVD in its original run, when Anna Netrebko sang the role of Susanna and Nikolaus Harnoncourt led the Vienna Philharmonic, I would say that this year’s reprise would have made a more significant document. Not only is the musical performance of superior quality, but also the new cast brought a more natural approach and a more developed sense of comedy that put in perspective Claus Guth’s attempt to Schnitzlerize Beaumarchais. Offering a more convincing performance than Harnoncourt’s is not a difficult task for conductor Robin Ticciati – instead of trying to make a statement by eccentric accents, rit. and acc. effects and schizophrenic choice of tempi, the young English maestro generally gives this music time to breath and even dared to choose paces slower than we are used to hear today in order to let each phrase develop musical and theatrical meaning. This approach might have worked in its full potential if the Vienna Philharmonic were in the pit, instead of a rather dry-toned Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. As it were, phrases expected to bloom and develop expressive tonal colouring were treated to an almost uniformly insipid orchestral sound that only occasionally portrayed the many nuances of expression in Mozart’s music. I found it particularly bothering that Guth insisted on impairing musical values by his dubious theatrical points – whenever Mozart writes a complex ensemble, there is this bothersome actor playing cupid making laugh-provoking jokes to overshadow Mozart’s beautiful polyphony (why?). The poor singer in the role of the Count Almaviva had to sing his very difficult aria carrying the said actor on his shoulders – no wonder he sounded breathless in it (and the fact that he could sing it at all in these circumstances in an evidence of his good technique).

Even if it might be true that Genia Kühmeier is not a big-house Countess, her performance this evening could be the dictionary example of how Mozartian singing should sound. Both her arias were touchingly sung in immaculate tone and absolute purity of line. Curiously, she took first the lower ossia in the act II trio with Susanna and the Count only to nail a very bright and easy top c a few moments later. Marlis Peterson might be lighter-toned, but her high register often sounded richer in comparison and, as a result, she found no problem in presiding over ensembles. She too is a stylish Mozartian with a truly pleasant voice, but the role of Susanna requires a stronger lower register and maybe a little bit more sexiness and playfulness. Even in the acting department, she could sometimes seem too chic for the circumstances (and she was probably the tallest Susanna I have ever seen…!). Katija Dragojevic, on the other hand, has an ideal physique for Cherubino and does not need to work hard for sexiness. Her voice is sensuous and clean-toned, but low notes are not really there and the intonation in her first aria left something to be desired.

Both Simon Keenlyside and Erwin Schrott offer far more varied and interesting performances than the singers featured on the DVD. The English baritone is a truly gifted actor, who brought a very British fastidiousness and an underlying vulnerability to his Count that made his role particularly funny. He seemed a bit short in the lower end of his range and couldn’t always keep a smooth line, but his voice is forceful and well-focused.  Erwin Schrott adapted his own vivacious Figaro to the director’s concept and avoided ad libs and excessive enthusiasm, what made him even more persuasive. I have seen him in stronger voice in this role, but he still sang very well in his full-toned basso cantante.  The minor roles were well taken by Marie McLaughlin, Franz-Josef Selig and Patrick Henckens, but the act IV arias have been cut (as well as tiny bits of recitative during the opera).

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