How to train your dragoon

Forty-five years after Herbert von Karajan founded Osterfestspiele Salzburg in 1967 as an opportunity for his Berliner Philharmoniker to act as a pit band, the orchestra and its latest maestro, Simon Rattle, decamped for Baden-Baden. Rattle’s farewell production in March 2012 was Carmen starring Magdalena Kozená (Mrs. Rattle), Jonas Kaufmann, Genia Kühmeier, and Kostas Smoriginas. 

Kozená was a bit of an odd choice for Bizet’s earthy gypsy: she rose to international prominence as Cherubino and other Mozart mezzos and maintains a relatively light repertoire. Carmen is not even mentioned in her Wikipedia biography.

Smoriginas was new to me, and I must admit to not being impressed, although I now see his name on rosters all over Europe.

Let’s be honest: I was there for Kaufmann and Kühmeier, two of my favorite singers, and I was deliriously happy when I landed a ticket in the sixth row of the Großes Festspielhaus.

Kaufmann is, well… you know: some of us adore him, while others constantly deride his vocal production and other idiosyncrasies.

Kühmeier has suffered a string of personal crises, including widowhood at an early age, and has been absent from the stage for the past several seasons. This is truly sad and a great pity, as her voice is absolutely angelic.

Aside from Kaufmann’s hushed, eloquent “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” the highlight of the evening came early for me: the Act I duet between Don José and Micaëla. Blessings on the Regisseur who staged it downstage right, directly in front of me. It remains one of the most certifiably religious moments I’ve ever experience, in or out of a theater.

I could barely breathe during the duet. By the end, I looked down and saw that the entire front of my tuxedo shirt was soaked with tears. I glanced over at the woman next to me with whom I had chatted before the performance in time to see her nab a handkerchief from her purse and wipe the tears from her face. She saw me and flashed a quick smile which precisely asked, “Did we really just hear what we heard?”

It called to mind a New York City Ballet performance of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco after which the little old lady in front of me turned around and said, “It’s enough to make you believe in God” – one of those moments that we all hope for but rarely experience.