I wonder how this all got started. Magdalena Kozena has enjoyed a successful international career, but how in the world did she land a recording deal to produce a Carmen in Berlin? Is she suddenly our foremost mezzo?
Of course something is suspicious. I wonder if her husband could be behind this. No doubt he was anxious to acquire a birthday present for her that wasn't the usual boring fare. Holding the keys to the most luxurious orchestral environment on earth, why not give her the title role in the classic Bizet opera? She was delighted, no doubt. After all, how many singers get to take a lead role in Berlin? Simon also assured her that he would find a great singer to fill the role of Don Jose: Jonas Kauffman.
The arrangement was admittedly cute, yet the problem is that neither husband nor wife had extensive background in the opera. Rattle is hardly known for opera, and Kozena's soft-contoured voice seems out of touch for feisty, rugged Carmen. So heading into this affair, we have a foreboding feeling that sincerity may not be at its highest.
But considering the team's disadvantage heading into this venture, the result isn't bad at all. By now other reviewers have pointed out the obvious: Kozena doesn't sound novel; she sounds out of touch. Her voice is beautiful, which is the problem--there's never a bratty moment. The singer whose commitment is undivided is Jonas Kauffman, who sings with heartfelt sadness while still sounding big and rich. The rest of the cast is first rate, but none showcase Kauffman's conviction. The Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin is a real joy; we can't complain here.
But I was most curious to see how the man at the podium would fare. First of all, I'm sure everyone wants to know if Rattle is fussy. While he certainly has mannered moments, he seems alert and alive. He doesn't sound particularly operatic, though. In his hands, Carmen veers towards a towering, forward-looking symphony with choirs and singers added. Some listeners will despise such treatment. But he sounds big and daring, with Germanic applications that occasionally makes us wonder if we've wandered over into Wagner. He's blessed with French sensibility, though, which keeps this from being all about bombast. I dare anyone to point to a Carmen where the orchestral accompaniment is half as thrilling.
The problem is that he engrosses himself in the opera's orchestration rather than its plot. Frankly, I don't care, because I'm not an opera fan to begin with. I love the stupendous orchestral playing guided by a conductor who lets every nuance pierce the ear. But most listeners will miss a maestro who makes the story come alive. To summarize Rattle's conducting, it's exuberant and passionate, but not operatic, which can cause it to sound somewhat episodic.
I'm arbitrarily giving this album four stars instead of three because I love the orchestral sound scheme and Rattle's enthusiasm, captured in dazzling sonics by EMI. Listeners will have to decide if it's worth the investment to acquire a Carmen where the lead singer seems uncomfortable and the conductor isn't operatic. If you get this CD, it should be for the vibrant Jonas Kauffman and the otherworldly playing of the Berliners.