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Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival ( 8 )
Simon Rattle conducts Carmen

Georges Bizet • Carmen

Miscast, well conducted: Salzburg’s Carmen was smoothly and accent-free performed by Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic. Anyone expecting musical exoticism might have disappointed, but then how exactly do you authentically fake faux-Spanish flavor with an Austrian Orchestra led by an English conductor, supporting an international cast in a French opera? The singers meanwhile weren’t able to distinguish themselves quite as much.

This Carmen (in the Oeser edition) is something of a road show, first aired (and recorded) in Berlin, with the same cast but the Berlin Philharmonic. Then it traveled to the Salzburg Easter Festival, where it had Aletta Collins’s production fitted. [Edit: The other way 'round: First at Salzburg's Easter Festival, then on the road in Berlin.] And on August 14th it was billed as a premiere (again) at the Summer Festival. To imagine Collins’s work, think Baz Luhrmann, minus any excitement: An ever so slightly modern take on the most traditional-imaginable concept; a laborious direction that relies almost entirely on its perfectly gorgeous sets (Miriam Buether); the dreamt-up early 20th century idea of a tobacco factory in act one; the sumptuous, velvety red-and-black lounge and bar with mini-stage in act two; the conveniently hygienic sewer under the border wall in act three; and finally the embarrassingly campy, colorful Spanish pre-arena cityscape / costume-processional of act four.

Magdalena Kožená as a tall, read-headed Carmen, is cast against the grain, intentionally, not unlike Anne Sofie von Otter was, ten, twelve years ago. Instead of being a counterintuitive revelation, she ended up a decent Carmen, but a vulgar one that never quite clicked. The part was successfully enough sung and with redeeming fourth-act moments of character-maturation, largely stipulated by a dowdy red, tulip shaped skirt (costumes Gabrielle Dalton) that prevented her, at long last, from squatting like a two-dime hooker, which had been her modus operandi in the first two acts. Apart from her barefooted ‘look-at-me-I’m-a-hooker’ gyrations, Kožená wasn’t an eventful Carmen. As a thin-lipped redhead of attractive maturity, she could have developed a particular sensuality, indirect and quite different than would a sultry black-maned wildcat. But neither she nor the direction played to those strengths. Her smoky, heaving Habanera was tarter than it was seductive.

Jonas Kaufmann wasn’t at his most impressive, or even anywhere near it; on this occasion his tenor, slightly fuzzy and lachrymose, noodled along harmlessly, only occasionally rousing, ma non troppo. He did look ever so lovely, though, which suited the production in its shallow ways.

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G.Bizet, Carmen,
S.Rattle / Berlin Philharmonic
Kožená, Kaufmann, Kühmeier et al.

Kostas Smoriginas, who had already struggled through the part of Escamillo during the Easter performances, was truly out of his depth: He cracked and whimpered, capitulated before the low notes, and was substituted at half time since a sudden allergy attack (so we were told), left him in no condition to sing any further (this we didn’t need to be told). He still got to play-act his part on stage, limply mouthing his words vis-à-vis Kaufmann and Kožená, while Massimo Cavalletti (Marcello in Salzburg’s Bohème) belted the music very impressively from the sidelines.

Genia Kühmeier, who has a lovely voice—in fact the most impressive of the night: clear and responsive through the entire range she needs—and she uses it well. But unless a part is dramatically spelled out for her, she’s as interesting as watching paint dry. Christina Landhamer and Rachel Frenkel as Frasquita and Mercédès, in lush comparison, provided a dash of diversion as kinky blonde twin entertainers. The Salzburg Festival kid’s chorus (directed by Wolfgang Götz) was well coached and—very unusually—nearly believable in their dramatic hoppings-about.

So safe was this production, so seemingly inoffensive, so very eager to please—and yet the Festival audience booed poor Aletta Collins, who doesn’t at all seem the kind of director who thrives on-, or even expects boos. As I quietly watched myself, I gained some newfound respect for the Salzburg audience, apparently unwilling to be pandered to, all-too explicitly.

All pictures courtesy Salzburg Festival, All © Forster, except (excerpted) picture of Jonas Kaufmann above, © Luigi Caputo