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.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa