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Bizet in Salzburg

Salzburger Festspiele
08/14/2012 -  and August 17, 19, 25, 2012
Georges Bizet: Carmen
Magdalena Kozená (Carmen), Jonas Kaufmann (Don José), Kostas Smoriginas (Escamillo), Genia Kühmeier (Micaëla), Christian van Horn (Zuniga), Andre Schuen (Moralès), Christina Landshamer (Frasquita), Rachel Frenkel (Mercédès), Simone del Savio (Le Dancaïre), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Le Remendado)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna State Opera Chorus, Children’s Chorus of the Salzburg Festival, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
Aletta Collins (director and choreographer), Miriam Buether (sets), Gabrielle Dalton (costumes)

J. Kaufmann & M. Kozena (Courtesy of Salzburg Festival)

Carmen is one of the most commonly performed operas in the world, so frequently performed that many devoted opera fans find it hackneyed and even avoid performances of it while disparaging those who do attend for their unsophisticated ways. In what one could interpret as a demonstration of Salzburg’s appeal to musical cognoscenti, the opera has not appeared at its annual summer festival since 1986.

Aletta Collins’s new production debuted at the Salzburg Easter Festival earlier this year and returned for four performances in the classic summer festival. The effort looked like a starry one. Famed young tenor Jonas Kaufmann boldly took on the challenging role of Don José, the opera’s murderous hero. Noted mezzo Magdalena Kozená sang the title role, under her husband Sir Simon Rattle’s baton. Of course the pit was graced with one of the world’s greatest orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic.

But was the performance truly worth the price of the tickets, which topped 370 euros and still sold out months in advance? Probably not. Any premiere can easily encounter difficulties, but it was truly disappointing that the management allowed baritone Kostas Smoriginas to perform the smaller but very important role of Escamillo while he suffered from allergies. One can sympathize with a singer in this predicament, but he was only relieved after a torturously problematic rendition of the Toreador song. The role was satisfactorily picked up by Massimo Cavalletti, who is singing Marcello in Salzburg’s La bohème, but he merely provided the music from the side of the stage while Smoriginas continued to act the role. Surely a high-priced Salzburg production could offer a fully trained understudy. Kozena is a well-respected singer. I wondered, though, whether the voice is right for Carmen. At times it sounded too heavy to be really sultry, and the dramatic attempts to capture irresistible sex appeal seemed rather resistible. It was not a bad performance, though there were a few boos. Kaufmann, however, offered a shining example of rich singing, with clarion high notes and exciting stage passion. One thought of the young José Carreras in the role. And it was a treat to have Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s lyric tenor deployed in the small role of the smuggler Remendado. Simon Rattle is better known as an orchestral conductor. At times he drove Bizet’s score with great engagement. Too often it sounded forced and lacked subtlety, almost like he was conducting a Mahler symphony.

The production suggests a twentieth-century Spain, as so many Carmens do, but nothing in the sets of costumes suggested why this was important to the story. I kept wanting to think of the Spanish Civil War, the era of which is definitely suggested by the costumes, but saw little evidence of a social environment that could produce such characters as one finds in the opera. A few elements of stagecraft were entertaining – the first act sets slide away to reveal the tavern of Lillas Pastia – here a kind of house of burlesque with a stage for Escamillo to perform on. And the stage itself wrapped around the orchestra pit to give the characters more freedom of movement. I was less enthralled with the Spanish dancers, whose performances were good but distracted noisily from the general mood.

Paul du Quenoy



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