Bizet: Carmen, complete (CD review)

Magdalena Kozena, Jonas Kaufmann, Genia Kuhmeier, Kostas Smoriginas; Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic. EMI 50999 4 40285 2 7 (2-disc set).

Because so many people these days, particularly younger people, expect to get their music free or nearly free, and because the weak world economy has been making it hard for most orchestras to produce records, we are seeing fewer and fewer major symphony ensembles in new recordings. When we do get a few new recordings, the orchestras themselves most often release them on their own label, or they record them in front of a live audience in which instance the paying folk essentially subsidize some of the costs. So, it’s a pleasure to hear a new, 2012 recording such as this one from a big record label like EMI of one of the world’s great symphony orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic.

French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875) would never live to see how popular his final completed opera would become, the work seeing a poor opening in the year of the composer’s early death. Nevertheless, nowadays Carmen is among the handful of most well-known operas the world over, the epitome of opera for a lot of opera fans and non-fans alike.

Still, to compete, any new Carmen contender has to come up against formidable rivals. We have great recordings of it from conductors like Karajan (DG and RCA), Bernstein (DG), Beecham (EMI), Solti (Decca), Abbado (DG), Plasson (EMI), Petrie (EMI), Sinopoli (Teldec), and others. Does Rattle’s new recording make the cut and join the ranks of greatness, a Carmen for the ages?  Maybe, maybe not.

Set in Seville, Spain, during the early nineteenth century, the opera’s narrative concerns a beautiful and tempestuous Gypsy girl, Carmen (Magdalena Kozena), who lavishes her affections on a young, unsophisticated soldier, Don Jose (Jonas Kaufmann). He becomes so enamoured with Carmen, he spurns his former lover, deserts his regiment, and joins Carmen and a crew of smugglers. When Carmen subsequently rejects him and takes up with a bullfighter, Don Jose becomes so enraged with jealousy, he murders her. After Bizet’s own death, critics and audiences found enough drama and romance in the piece to help transform French opera comique into the emerging Italian realism of Verdi and Puccini.

Over the years there have been any number of scores used in the opera’s production, Bizet having died before he could make any absolutely final editing of it. According to a booklet note, the text used for this EMI recording “is based on Fritz Oeser’s revolutionary 1964 Barenreiter edition, which was the first to restore not only the original dialogue but virtually all of the cut material, especially in the long first act.”

Sir Simon Rattle’s interpretation overall sounds quite refined, smooth, and elegant, yet it seems to lack a little something in sheer earthiness, in rawness and swagger. In other words, it sounds a mite too pat, too polished, too safe, at least for my taste, even though his tempos are on the moderately quick side. This is not surprising to me, though, as I have found the conductor’s performances getting progressively more sedate ever since he took over the principal conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002.

The choruses--the choir and children’s choir of the German State Opera, Berlin--sound most cultured, letter perfect in their execution. The children, markedly, sing in charmingly sweet voice.

When Czech mezzo-soprano Kozena enters as the seductress Carmen, we hear a beautifully dramatic reading of the role, without being quite as sensual as some fans may like. The Habanera flows in wonderfully lyrical fashion, yet neither the singer nor conductor quite manages to wring from it the last ounce of lusty sinuousness.

Tenor Kaufmann as the naive, ill-fated Don Jose seems well suited to his part. When he and Kozena finally get to sing together, they make a good pair. However, I still don’t hear some of the sexy allure of competing versions. That is, this Carmen may not be as overtly melodramatic as it could be. Rattle and his players perhaps try too hard to tame it.

The celebrated Toreador tune, featuring baritone Kostas Smoriginas, comes off well, with a full-bodied tone and authoritative air. Indeed, it is one of the highlights of the set, not counting a few lifelike stage effects.

Nevertheless, things get more exciting as Rattle finally warms to the project and the closing action commences. It’s almost as if the conductor were holding everything back for a big finish. I suppose it’s as the Bard wrote in his famous play of the same name: “All’s well that ends well.”

The recording, which EMI made at the Philharmonie, Berlin, in 2012, is slightly more distant and veiled than I would have expected--not excessively so but noticeably. Individual instruments like castanets come over with excellent clarity and attack, but the full orchestra seems less than transparent. There is a relatively narrow stereo spread, too. I mean, half a century ago EMI made a more open recording for Beecham and his crew, so it’s hard to convince me that the state-of-the-art in audio recording has advanced that much over the years. Anyway, the sound is dynamic, with a wide range; and voices, all-important in an opera recording, are fairly natural. It helps a bit to play this one a tad louder than usual in order to nudge it into coming alive. Then it’s fine, and you’ll enjoy it.

EMI managed to get the opera onto just two discs, which they package in a hardbound Digipak-type container. It’s most handsome, with the discs inserted into sleeves on the inside front and back covers. Bound within the covers are more than sixty pages of text and pictures. However, the company do not include a libretto; for that, you have to go to EMI’s Web site and download it. This appears to me a massive inconvenience, not only to download but to store afterwards. Oh, well, the package is attractive in any case.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa