Kožená’s First Gypsy Girl: Carmen from Valladolid

G. Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León, Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid, Escolanía de Segovia. Conductor: Lionel Bringuier. Auditorio Miguel Delibes de Valladolid. 23.06.2011 (JMI)

Semi staged version

Director: Calixto Bieito


Carmen: Magdalena Kožená
Don José: Nikolai Schukoff
Escamillo: Gabor Bretz
Micaëla: Alexia Voulgaridou
Zúñiga: Wojtek Gierlach
Morales: José Manuel Díaz
Frasquita: María Eugenia Boix
Mercedes: Marifé Nogales
Remendado: Francisco Vas
Dancaïre: César San Martín

The obvious interest of this Carmen-in-concert was the presence of Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená in the title role of the opera. My expectations were lowered for the occasion, since it was Kožená’s debut as Carmen and I had not seen or heard evidence, in principle, that the vocal demands of the character would be met by the Czech star.

The version offered was ‘semi-staged’, with soloists singing without score and moving around in front of the orchestra, without costumes. Calixto Bieito did the choreography, roughly in line with in his production from Barcelona’s Liceu.  I am not convinced that Carmen is worthwhile being seen if it can’t be the whole nine yards. Costumes and crowds are vitally important for Carmen, and without them not much is left; the difference between semi-staged and a pure concert being negligible.

The version offered was rather peculiar: The opera was given with dialogues, but those reduced to a minimum, cutting off recitatives, particularly the one preceding to Micaëla’s aria in Act II… a strange choice, considering that we were then given the whole scene of the fight between Escamillo and Don José. The musical direction was entrusted to young (25) French conductor Lionel Bringuier, who is currently the chief conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León. It is not easy to cope with a score like Carmen and this young conductor showed strengths and weaknesses… energetic and intense at times, but falling significantly short in the emotion department. I found it rather superficial, even as he got an very polished performance out of his orchestra.

Carmen must have a special appeal for singers; there have been few who have resisted its lure. The results of these attempts have not all been positive, in fact: rather the opposite. But the attraction of the character remains and Magdalena Kozena was not going to be an exception. The result was a mixed bag. Ms. Kozena is a great professional, as she came to the concert with her homework perfectly done, knowing the score inside out. But even my low expectations were not much exceeded. Her mezzo soprano works fine, singing with intention and good taste, although the volume is somewhat limited and the timbre is too light for this character. She has a voice more suited to Melisande than to Carmen. On a few occasions one misses a stronger low register, as in the aria of the cards… Still, she dealt admirably with the difficulties of the score. What I didn’t find convincing was her interpretation of the role, her understanding of the character, despite being a good actress. Her Carmen lacks joy and zest for life, resulting in a rather sad and depressing character, quite out of the idea of both Merimée and Bizet. It is hard to believe that this woman—for all her attractive looks—would be the object of obsessive passion among the men around her. Nor did Bieito’s ideas help her case; it might have been better to just let her do her own thing. I am sure Ms. Kozena will draw her own conclusions of this experience, although it is clear that the public was not enthusiastic about her performance.

Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff was a Don José with the right means, but a singer needs more than voice. His tenor is powerful, well-pitched and with more than enough “squillo”. It often happens with Don Jose that the singer either falls short in the first half or in the second half, with only very few the singers able to shine throughout the whole opera. Schukoff shone in the second half, especially at the end of Act III, while he looked more uncomfortable in the first half. His flower song left much to be desired. His attempt on the high B flat in piano

came out as pure falsetto. A good performance was turned in by Hungarian Gabor Bretz as Escamillo. This character is very difficult to cast as it comes  too low for baritones and too high for basses. Gabor Bretz was unusually well suited for the role. Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou was Micaëla was more powerful than moving and the secondary roles were well cast, too… particularly the quartet of smugglers.

José MªIrurzun

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