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Posts Tagged ‘Magdalena Kozena’

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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I remember a couple of years ago when this young sweet-looking pure-toned mezzo-soprano from the Czech Republic surfaced into the world of classical music media. I first saw her on video singing Bach’s Kantate BWV 199 and was immediately converted into a Magdalena Kozena’s fan. That said, I cannot state I have been an unconditional one – I believe that the French opera disc was a bit misguided (although there is much to cherish there) and the Handel disc… well, scroll down to read what I’ve said about it. But it seems that the fickle nature of the public has turned its thumbs downwards at the moment and, as much as poor Angelina in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, her luck has suddenly changed for a while. The ease with which she has been raised to fame has now become a constant effort to prove herself, which – in my opinion – is extremely unfair. Even when she is wrong, Kozena does not have to prove herself: she has already done it and proved she belongs into the list of serious artists in her generation (I would write “…of great singers…”, but it seems that this kind of artistry is usually measured in dB and histrionics).

I don’t know how wise was the idea of singing Rossini’s Cinderella live in such an inauspicious moment in her career. I remember an old interview in which she said she did not see herself singing anything by the composer from Pesaro in the future, because she didn’t feel connected to his music (truth be said, she mentioned then that Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier would be more like it, but I guess experience probably showed this was something like a pipedream for her). The outcome couldn’t be less promising – reviews were cold at best.

I feel inclined to write that certain externalities has some share of responsibility in the lukewarm impression on Kozena’s Cenerentola. By one of those coincidences made in hell, Cecilia Bartoli happened to be in town with her Malibran-on-the-road and include the Scene and Rondo finale from… La Cenerentola in the programme. It was expected from reviewers to compare them, but when an insensible one had the bad idea of liking Kozena better, the whole legion of Bartoli-fans started a gruesome campaign against the trespasser.

As I didn’t happen to be in London, I have to rely on Parsifal‘s in-house recordings (and thank him for his generosity) to say anything. Before I say anything, I must confess the Roman Diva does not count me among her admirers but nonetheless I muss admit that she still sings the hell out of that scene. I just don’t understand why Bartoli’s so-called supremacy must mean that Kozena should be stoned for her beautiful performance. Yes, I said beautiful.

I was surprised to find, against what I should expect, her low register fully functional in that role. Also, her excursions to the extreme top notes sounded crystalline to my ears, not to mention her fioriture are admirably clean (as usual). I am not a die-hard believer in Italianate style and never resist Mozartian poise (yes, I belong to those who like Gundula Janowitz’s Elisabeth, Gwyneth Jones’s Aida, Tatiana Troyanos’s Amneris [btw, I'll be poisting on this subject next]). However, maybe because Kozena does not has a natural feeling for Rossinian lines (as she herself has acknowledged), her performance is basically uncommunicative. She expresses little sense of infatuation in her duet with the Prince, does not convey the necessary party-stopping glamour in her arrival at the ball and is a bit mechanical in the closing scene (a slower pace might have helped her there, I reckon). However, her vocalism is always secure, musicianly and pleasant in the ear. Therefore, I consider the stern criticism against her rather mean. I would even say she was probably the must-see feature in the show: the settings are widely considered ugly, the orchestra was indisciplined (and the conductor didn’t seem worried about making things less spectacular but tidier) and although Toby Spence sang well, the role is too high and fast for his voice and the results were rather hearty than charming. Of course, Simone Alberghini is a most reliable Dandini (as he was at the Met in 2005) despite a vibrato that can get loose sometimes and Alessandro Corbelli is a most experienced and charismatic if over-the-top Don Magnifico – but one could have sampled them in many other Cenerentole around the world.

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Magdalena Kozená has earned a good reputation in Handel with her Cleopatra in Marc Minkowski’s recording of Giulio Cesare in Egitto. There she almost made us think of Lucia Popp in her warm, charming and touching performance. Inteligent and stylish as her performance is, the reedy purity of her light and high mezzo soprano played an important part in all that.

All that makes it more puzzling why a singer would record a whole CD in which, to use Leontyne Price’s expression, she is singing against the grain of such a lovely voice! I know reviewers tend to be hard on Kozená’s attempts to sing “grown-up” repertoire and how badly she wants to prove that there is a brain under her golden locks – but I am afraid the attempt here ended on being self-defeating.

I understand that a singer would like to infuse her recital with personality in order to imprint her mark on the items recorded and thus ensure that she will be taken in reference for her work (and the competition certainly is hard!), but sheer will has never won over Fach. To translate into general terms, if you had to cast the part of Lady Macbeth or Agrippina in Racine’s Britannicus, would you invite an Audrey Hepburn? Or for that matter, would you invite an Anna Magnani for a Juliet?

Kozená’s new CD opens with an Alcina’s Ah, mio cor. The role of Alcina is written for a prima donna (it is after all, the title role). In our times, the role has been a vehicle for Joan Sutherland, Renée Fleming, Arleen Augér, Anja Harteros, Christine Schäfer. Suffice it to say all these ladies have sung the role of Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Last time Kozená appeared in that opera, she played the part of Zerlina. And that might explain why her basic sound is so polite and small-scale in this aria. There is little space left to tone colouring or variety of dynamics. Abrupt ending of phrases and rolling the r’s will have to make for an attitude. I won’t compare her to Fleming or Harteros, but listen to Augér and you won’t see tiny inserted interpretative points, but the despair, frustration and sadness there from note one (and everybody knows that the first Ah shows if this is going to work or not). Augér’s progressive increase in intensity steady during these 10 minutes only exposes Kozená’s calculated monotony.

Next comes Dejanira’s Where shall I fly?, one of Handel’s most powerful scenes for alto. The scene is extremely dramatic and it is tempting to overdo it. The always immaculate Joyce DiDonato does not survive the test in William Christie’s DVD: the low tessitura does not help her and acting with the voice had to do what the voice could not produce alone. This is not a problem for Sarah Walker in Gardiner’s recording, who lets the text speak for itself and relies on the natural darkness of her voice to produce the necessary impact. Even unaided by Jesús Lopez-Cobos’s pasteurized conducting, Jennifer Larmore reaches tragical grandeur in this scene without sacrificing musical values. Kozená’s svelte mezzo does not evoke in itself the depth of feeling wanted by Handel – her off-pitch and parlando effects only bring about a choir boy’s fit of bad temper. The fact that her English words are rather lifeless makes the proceedings even less spontaneous.

If Where shall I fly? seems to be a bad choice, what to say of Orlando’s Mad Scene, written for none other than Senesino?! To say that one should listen to Nathalie Stutzmann to see how this scene should be sung only explain why Kozená should never touch it – the results are short of embarassing.

The two arias of Ariodante could fit Kozená’s natural range but they both require a heroic quality that eludes entirely her gentle instrumental mezzo soprano. To make things worse, her conductor did not help her. Scherza, infida takes 11′ 39” here. Minkowski goes even further in his recording with Anne Sofie von Otter (11′ 52”), but his soloist “fills out” the slow tempo with her neverending tonal variety and rescues the repeat from boredom with a hushed intimate delivery of the text. Kozená does not command that variety and resorts to expressionistic playing with pitch on trying to produce an intensity not available for her. Here Nicholas McGegan is miles ahead of competition: at 8′ 46” he finds the “heartbeat” pulse that animates this aria, what becomes the shattering performance of Lorraine Hunt. She does not need to “portray” anything – there is unforced despair and revolt in the sound of her voice.

Dopo notte‘s fireworks suit Kozená far better and her amazing skill with coloratura does not let down. Von Otter and Minkowski go deeper into the chiaroscuro suggested by the text, when the singer achieves some expression of joy in her runs. Although the aria is a bit high for Lorraine Hunt, McGegan allows her to relax more and singing her divisions in perfect legato does suggest more lightness. After all, the main idea of this aria is relief after all the predicaments experimented by these characters. Again Jennifer Larmore has rather stolid conducting to deal with, but the flowing ease with which she sings this aria is simply amazing; this is a heroic role and Larmore’s energy and strength are always welcome.

The remaining items are far more pleasant and congenial to Kozená. Sesto’s Cara speme from Giulio Cesare is not an aria d’affetto as its sweet melody might suggest, but Marcon lets himself be fooled by that, offering too dolce an approach to an aria that actually has to do with the satisfaction of justified revenge. But Kozena sings it exquisitely – for once her boyish sound is entirely appropriate to her character. She could have produced a lovely Oh, had I Jubal’s lyre from Joshua, but Marcon mistakes the affetto here and instead of offering any sense of jubilation, produces a rather tense approach that only spurs a certain nervousness in the fioriture of his singer, who is not even allowed to give life to the text, as Kathleen Battle does in her EMI recital. The American soprano even finds an opportunity to show a certain sense of humble gentleness when expressing her frustration for being unable to praise the Lord better. Considering her conductor is the ponderous Neville Marriner, this is no small feat.

It remains the case of Agrippina’s Pensieri, voi mi tormentate and Melissa’s Desterò dell’empia Dite (from Amadigi). Although the voice is again too light and well-behaved for this music, the very calculating approach that makes her Alcina or her Dejanira unconvincing help her to portray the insincerity, the scheming nature of her Agrippina and the hysterical and over-the-top “call to the arms” of her Melissa.

Re-reading this post, I feel that I might give the impression I have some sort of issue with Kozená’s artistry – that is not true. I am an admirer of hers – hence the disappointment not with her artistry, but with her poor decision of choosing arias that only highlight her limitations and almost never show her many natural assets. If she wanted to record soprano arias, why not Dalla sua gabbia d’oro or Un lusinghiero dolce pensiero from Alessandro? Or any other from the arias written for Bordoni? If she wanted some primo uomo arias, why not choosing some of Ruggiero’s arias from Alcina, such as Mi lusinga il dolce affetto or Di te mi rido? Or from Bertarido in Rodelinda? She would have sung an unforgettable Dove sei? ! How come has a major release such as this been prey to such poor judgment?

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Blond ambition

I have the impression that, because Magdalena Kozena is so pretty herself, she makes a point of always going beyond pretty. When I say “beyond”, I do not mean that her singing is unlovely. On the contrary, her crystalline mezzo-soprano is a consistent pleasure to the ears. What I mean is that Kozena takes her recitals in all seriousness and tries to dig out hidden niceties in each song. For example, I had never listened to such a frightening and vehement Waldesgespräch. Even in the merrier Eichendroff settings in Schumann’s Liederkreis Op. 39, she could find a hidden note of melancholy. In this sense, the occasional comparison with Lucia Popp does make sense, since the sorely missed Slovak soprano was a specialist in putting long known songs in new perspective. Kozena, however, cannot look up to Lucia Popp’s in variety of tone colouring – her charming and svelte mezzo tends to come in only one lovely shade. Maybe that is the reason that local reviewers found her Schumann lacking spontaneity and emotional depth. I still find it refreshing to hear her Gundula Janowitz-like austerity in Lieder interpretation, but I would agree that Schubert´s more immediate sense of story-telling would be more appropriate than Schumann to Kozena’s voice.

Beautiful as her Schumann was, I must confess that her rendition of Ravel’s Histoires Naturelles was the highlight of this Liederabend. In her clear French, she told these funny endearing stories with a child’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and the variety of a true diseuse. She should consider recording them. In her effort to avoid the obvious choices, she passed the usual suspects in Rachmaninov’s repertoire and produced gripping renditions of songs rarely treated to such a focused and instrumental voice. Finally, she let her hair down to the manner born in Bartok’s Village Scenes, showing that blondness can perfectly live with Bohemian verve. As encores, she offered her audience Fauré’s Rêve d´amour, sung with classical elegance and an elegiac performance of Schumann’s Mein schöner Stern and a beautifully shaded Der Nussbaum. Yefim Bronfman’s large-scale pianism could hardly be called “accompaniment”. As a result, he felt more at ease once the Schumann part of the program was over. He produced beautiful effects for Ravel, but Rachmaninov and Bartok really gave him the opportunity to unravel the whole scope of his resources.

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James Levine’s credentials as a Mozartian are widely acknowledged. In his hands, the score of a Mozart opera is given the apparently incompatible virtues of suppleness and rhythmic propulsion – all of that dictated by a deep knowledge of theatre, what is of paramount importance in the drammi giocosi by Da Ponte. In this sense, Levine’s perfect understand of shifting in moods is admirable. It is true that a sculptor needs the right marble – and in Levine’s case this is the Vienna Philharmonic, as his rightly famous recordings prove. Although the Met’s orchestra is sincerely dedicated to its maestro, it is undeniable that Mozart exuberant passagework is still hard work for string players. That said, Levine is the kind of conductor who helps his musicians to make their best – and his cast should certainly appreciate that, especially in the trickiest passages, where his beat always came handy in order to give them time to breathe or to develop a line without making violence to the flow of phrasing. In this sense, Lesley Koenig’s production is also most welcome in its unobtrusiveness and elegance. Only director Robin Guarino should bear in mind that this kind of comedy is the one you smile rather than laugh with. This can be particularly bothersome when a particularly difficult roulade or trill is shadowed by the audience’s hilarity.

Barbara Frittoli’s vocal production these days is not immediately compatible with Mozartian repertoire. And that is not because she has poor technique, but rather because her technique is a bit unconventional. The tone has a certain veiled quality that takes to mezza voce almost automatically. One could point out that she is also over-reliant on that ability in order to get away with the most difficult points, where her clean divisions are always a blessing. In any case, once you adjust to her exotic velvety shadowy and ultimately sexy sound, her Fiordiligi is definitely appealing. Unlike most exponents of the part, Frittoli is a sunny, only half-serious girl, more practical and ready to some entertainment than we are used to see.

The lovely Magdalena Kozena was a perky Dorabella, sung in her oboe-like flexible high mezzo and a powerful amount of imagination and charm. Although these sisters’ voice were nicely contrasted, the blending in her duets was simply admirable. More than that, it is praiseworthy that Kozena sounded almost as idiomatic as her Italian colleague. The result was crispy recitatives and a sense of true interaction between both artists.

Alternating Fenton with Ferrando may be a feat in itself, but it may have had something to do with the time Matthew Polenzani needed to focus his high register for Mozartian needs. Because of that, Un’aura amorosa sounded uncomfortable and uninspiring. However, act II revealed the American tenor at his best. Both Ah, lo vegg’io and Tradito, schernito were sung with golden liquid tone even in the exposed high notes and his interaction with Frittoli in their duet was also top class. Even next to such enticing tenorism, Mariusz Kwiecien can boast to have stolen the show with his firm flexible and dark-hued baritone. He is certainly going places.

There is no need to say Thomas Allen was a Don Alfonso to the manner born. Only an occasional lack of space in the bottom register could be singled out in a virtually perfect performance. He too can boast to have idiomatic Italian, as one could see in his scenes with Nuccia Focile’s Despina. It is a pity, though, that this spirited Italian soprano no longer has the technical finish to this repertoire. Some overacting had to do what voice alone could not.

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James Levine’s credentials as a Mozartian are widely acknowledged. In his hands, the score of a Mozart opera is given the apparently incompatible virtues of suppleness and rhythmic propulsion – all of that dictated by a deep knowledge of theatre, what is of paramount importance in the drammi giocosi by Da Ponte. In this sense, Levine’s perfect understand of shifting in moods is admirable. It is true that a sculptor needs the right marble – and in Levine’s case this is the Vienna Philharmonic, as his rightly famous recordings prove. Although the Met’s orchestra is sincerely dedicated to its maestro, it is undeniable that Mozart exuberant passagework is still hard work for string players. That said, Levine is the kind of conductor who helps his musicians to make their best – and his cast should certainly appreciate that, especially in the trickiest passages, where his beat always came handy in order to give them time to breathe or to develop a line without making violence to the flow of phrasing. In this sense, Lesley Koenig’s production is also most welcome in its unobtrusiveness and elegance. Only director Robin Guarino should bear in mind that this kind of comedy is the one you smile rather than laugh with. This can be particularly bothersome when a particularly difficult roulade or trill is shadowed by the audience’s hilarity.

Barbara Frittoli’s vocal production these days is not immediately compatible with Mozartian repertoire. And that is not because she has poor technique, but rather because her technique is a bit unconventional. The tone has a certain veiled quality that takes to mezza voce almost automatically. One could point out that she is also over-reliant on that ability in order to get away with the most difficult points, where her clean divisions are always a blessing. In any case, once you adjust to her exotic velvety shadowy and ultimately sexy sound, her Fiordiligi is definitely appealing. Unlike most exponents of the part, Frittoli is a sunny only half-serious girl, more practical and ready to some entertainment than we are used to see.

The lovely Magdalena Kozena was a perky Dorabella, sung in her oboe-like flexible high mezzo and a powerful amount of imagination and charm. Although these sisters’ voices were nicely contrasted, the blending in her duets was simply admirable. More than that, it is praiseworthy that Kozena sounded almost as idiomatic as her Italian colleague. The result was crispy recitatives and a sense of true interaction between both artists.

Alternating Fenton with Ferrando may be a feat in itself, but it may have had something to do with the time Matthew Polenzani needed to focus his high register for Mozartian needs. Because of that, Un’aura amorosa sounded uncomfortable and uninspiring. However, act II revealed the American tenor at his best. Both Ah, lo vegg’io and Tradito, schernito were sung with golden liquid tone even in the exposed high notes and his interaction with Frittoli in their duet was also top class. Even next to such enticing tenorism, Mariusz Kwiecien can boast to have stolen the show with his firm flexible and dark-hued baritone. He is certainly going places.

There is no need to say Thomas Allen was a Don Alfonso to the manner born. Only an occasional lack of space in the bottom register could be singled out in a virtually perfect performance. He too can boast to have idiomatic Italian, as one could see in his scenes with Nuccia Focile’s Despina. It is a pity, though, that this spirited Italian soprano no longer has the technical finish to this repertoire. Some overacting had to do what voice alone could not.

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