Austria Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chours (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger), Salzburg Festival and Theatre Children’s Chorus (chorus master: Wolfgang Götz), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 17.8.2012 (MB)
Moralés: Andrè Schuen
Micaëla: Genia Kühmeier
Don José: Jonas Kaufmann
Zuniga: Christian van Horn
Carmen: Magdalena Kožená
Frasquita: Christina Landshamer
Mercédès: Rachel Frenkel
Lillas Pastia: Barbara Spitz
Escamillo: Kostas Smoriginas
Le Dancaïre: Simone del Savio
Le Remendado: Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Aletta Colllins (director, choreography)
Miriam Buether (set designs)
Gabrielle Dalton (costumes)
Andreas Fuchs (lighting)
Peter Blaha (dramaturgy)
It is a little difficult to know what to say about this Carmen, reprised from the 2012 Salzburg Easter Festival. There was much that was admirable. There were no weak performances, though it is arguable that the title role might have been more appropriately cast. The production did its job perfectly serviceably. We had the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, and it played well, if some way from unforgettably. Yet expectations, especially with such a cast, were only intermittently fulfilled.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle. Rattle has long shown great strength in French repertoire: Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen come to mind, likewise his interest in Rameau, though I have yet to hear the latter. Whilst Carmen might not be the most obvious opera for him to conduct, it seems less strange in that context, especially when one considers Rattle’s recent and imminent broadening of his operatic interests. (Manon Lescaut will, so far as I am aware, mark his first foray into nineteenth-century Italian opera.) I am speculating, but can only assume that Rattle’s intention – leaving aside the occasional tendency to linger excessively, less on show here than in some of his recent, unbearable symphonic odysseys – was to restore to the work the intimacy that arguably should be its birthright, originating in the Opéra-Comique rather than the grand Paris Opéra. Certainly there was a great deal that was subdued, but that is not quite the same as intimacy. And the problem remained that this performance was taking place in the Grosses Festspielhaus, not in a small theatre. What above all I missed was a greater orchestral bite, incisiveness far too often lacking. Rattle seemed as though he would have been far more comfortable conducting Pelléas; in the audience, I could not help but wish that Daniel Barenboim, at present in Salzburg to perform a Schubert piano cycle, had been in the pit.
Rattle’s approach seemed to inform the vocal performances too, even that of Jonas Kaufmann. There is no doubting the excellence of Kaufmann in this – and so much other – repertoire, of course, but a little more abandon might not have gone amiss. He sang beautifully, and would doubtless have put most others to shame; however, memories of his Don José at Covent Garden were certainly not effaced. Magdalena Kožená sang well too, yet it was difficult to feel that this was really her role, either vocally or visually. Again, she sounded as if she would have been happier in Debussy. Mediterranean passion, let alone gypsy seduction, is not her thing; she might have been better advised not to attempt the castanets. Kostas Smoriginas was suffering from some variety of indisposition – chattering from a neighbour prevented me from hearing what, though a pre-performance announcement was made – so it is probably unfair to judge his Escamillo. From what I heard, he sang intelligently, but the lower range was a little obscured, and I have seen greater swagger. That may, of course, have been related to his physical condition. Andrè Schuen offered an attractively voiced Moralés and Christian van Horn an impressive Zuniga. The star of the show for me, Kaufmann notwithstanding, was Genia Kuhmeier as Micäela. Her beauty of tone and evident sincerity truly took the breath away; there seemed moreover, more genuine interaction between her and Kaufmann than between him and his Carmen. Choral singing, the children included, was excellent throughout.
Aletta Collins offered a vaguely updated, yet generally traditional production, with a little added dance, as one might expect from a choreographer. The dancers, too many to name individually, all performed highly creditably, though one might have expected Collins to offer them a little more to do, or at least for what they had to do to be a little more interesting, especially in this opera. Otherwise, Seville looked pretty much as one might expect. It was only in the final scene that I realised there had been any updating, apparently to the 1950s or thereabouts. Nothing, so far as I could discern, was made of this chronological shift; there were no Franco references, nor indeed any obvious indication of a directorial concept. The production served its purpose and was not embarrassing as Francesca Zambello’s ‘let’s drag on a donkey’ crowd-pleaser had been. Yet it was difficult not to wish for a little more in terms of insight.
All in all, then, I was put in mind of the dread word ‘lauwarm’ (lukewarm), which sometimes precedes unappetising potato salads on German menus. This was not quite what Nietzsche had in mind when, pitting Bizet against Wagner, he declared, ‘il faut méditerranéiser la musique’. And yet it was not entirely divorced from what he seems to have had in mind either. I can imagine that the performance might come across better in a smaller venue, more redolent of the Opéra-Comique, or indeed on the just-issued EMI CD set, yet, despite Zambello’s resolutely unchallenging production for the Royal Opera, those fancying Kaufmann in Carmen might be better off with the DVD.