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Album review: Bizet, Carmen

By William Dart

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Carmen by Bizet - Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with soloists Magdalena Kozena , Jonas Kaufmann , Genia Kuhmeier and Kostas Smoriginas.
Carmen by Bizet - Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with soloists Magdalena Kozena , Jonas Kaufmann , Genia Kuhmeier and Kostas Smoriginas.

Carmen must instill hope in the bosom of many a frustrated composer. Bizet's opera was a resounding flop at its 1875 premiere but would soon attain the sort of wide-sweeping popularity that even united arch-rivals Brahms and Wagner in their admiration for it.

EMI's handsome new recording, housed in a hard-covered 60-page booklet, is a starry occasion, fresh from performances at this year's Salzburg Festival.

Magdalena Kozena and Jonas Kaufmann head the cast, with Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

From the first burst of Prelude, one is increasingly incredulous that Carmen was not always a runaway success. Yet the piece is much more than just a string of hits; Rattle and his orchestra constantly remind us of Bizet's persuasive palette, right down to the humblest entr'acte.

Dash, swagger and voluptuousness are all here, but Rattle lavishes just as much affection on an understated string quartet snatch of The Toreador's Song in the third act Finale.

Magdalena Kozena, just months after her and Rattle's excellent Deutsche Grammophon CD, Love and Longing, works hard to catch a character she has described as a female Don Giovanni. The Czech mezzo has no worries with twisting Bizet to her own ends, and her seguidillas is perhaps even more beguiling because of it. She can snarl, but she also has an effective line in cool, although one does miss a sense of Mediterranean passion.

Those who have thrilled to Jonas Kaufmann singing Mahler and verismo will not be disappointed with his noble Don Jose. If your affections have lain with Roberto Alagna's hero in EMI's 2003 set, then be prepared to shift loyalties.

A lyrical Genia Kuhmeier invests Micaela with an inner strength that eludes some sopranos but Kostas Smoriginas's Toreador is a let-down; a charisma-free zone that has one wondering why the Berlin State Opera chorus is rallying so enthusiastically behind him.

Aficionados may appreciate Rattle choosing the controversial 1964 edition of the opera, with its reinstated music and crucial spoken dialogue. The latter, however well done, can seem intrusive in an operatic context and perhaps even more so on disc.

4/5 stars
Bizet: Carmen (EMI)
Verdict: Despite uneven casting, a Bizet classic benefits from Berlin's orchestral opulence.

- NZ Herald

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