Press quotes on the back of this new release from EMI of Georges Bizet’s masterpiece promise ”a stylish and cliché-free Carmen” and on most fronts I think it’s a fair assessment. This is Sir Simon Rattle’s first recording of the ubiquitous fan-snapper and it was made in a hell of a hurry between performances with the same cast at the Salzburg Easter Festival in April of this year and then concert performances in Berlin immediately following.  

The recording was being released to coincide with the a round of stagings in Salzburg this time with Vienna in the pit. For anyone who missed the news, the Berlin Philharmonic is moving their festival duties to Baden-Baden, having been offered a princely sum, and Thielemann and Dresden will be stepping into their place.

The byproduct of all this dashing about is what could be considered a very well-rehearsed recording even by the standards of yesteryear.  Sir Simon’s leadership is both fresh and unassuming. In a score that’s brimming with glitter and flash he leads a beautifully measured and prudent performance. It’s full of energy and with a stunning amount of orchestral detail but rarely succumbs to the temptation to do something idiosyncratic to take attention away from the performers themselves.

His handling of the fate motif in its many guise is a good example. He never lays into it like so many conductors do as if to say,”listen to this!” Rather, he gives the theme its proper weight when it appears but doesn’t let it pull the dynamic,either sonically or dramatically, out of proportion. He’s particularly successful with the preludes and the big choral scenes which are blessedly played straight, for a change, with a complete lack of studio sound effects and extraneous crowd noises not called for in the score.

EMI has managed to fit this enterprise on two CD’s by excising the bulk of the dialogue from the Opera-Comique version, and although I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t dilute the  atmosphere a bit, it does keep things moving along and we’re spared a lot of bad French accents. (No tears shed over the loss of the Guiraud recitatives either.)

I’ll begin with the very strong and youthful sounding supporting cast of smugglers. None of them, I’m sorry to say, is very individual but all them do good work in the ensembles, which is praise enough. Really, when was there ever a Frasquita of inspirational genius?

Escamillo is written for a true bass-baritone and Kostas Smoriginas proves why. Suited by nature to only the latrer part of that job description, he’s weak on the very lowest notes and tends to sound lightweight in spots, most especially his last act arioso. Otherwise he’s suitably vigorous in his entrance aria and very responsive during the fight with José in Act III. Meanwhile, José van Dam sleeps soundly tonight his crown still resting securely on his brow.

Micaëla is tremendously difficult to bring off, on stage or in the studio. Genia Kühmeier has established a fine career with her beautiful, full lyric, soprano with a lot of cream and a little metal on the very top.  She does some exquisite singing both in the duet in Act I, where she seems determined to break each heart in the room with the sincerity of her every utterance, and later in her aria which is delivered with equal parts of modesty and strength. That said, Mirella Freni and Kiri Te Kanawa just kissed each other good night over the phone and toddled off to bed to sleep like babies.

Every time I hear Jonas Kaufmann I feel like I’m listening to Jon Vickers‘ greatest hits. He has all the technique, and maybe a bit more, if not all the voice that the great Canadian tenor had and still has yet to fall into the habitual late to mid-career slump where you know what every note coming out of his throat is going to sound like before he sings it. He remains a fresh and vital singer with a voice that isn’t easy to define.

His Don José is certainly a known commodity with the 2008 Decca DVD from Covent Garden. I can say that he does improve upon that performance here mostly in the subtleties of language and phrasing that are part and parcel of the recording studio rather than the dash of live performance. He matches Kühmeier in a beautifully floated, if brief, closing to the Act I duet. Later, at the end of the Flower Song, he not only gives us the B-flat piano but adds a stunning messa di voce effect onto the note. Bravo. For those of you who might be worried about all this effete artistry, please don’t, he brings the big guns in the last act, locked and loaded.

Now I’m picturing an evening not so long ago at the Maison Rattle and there’s Sir Simon in his jammies, tucked in with his woolly Penquin ready to slumber off when suddenly Lady Rattle turns to him and says,”Darling, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we did Carmen together?”. Lights out. There’s just no other way I can picture our Maestro suddenly embracing one of the most hackneyed pieces in the 19th Century repertoire all of which he’s so deliberately avoided his entire career.

I’ve been a fan of Magdalena Kozená since I first saw the DVD performance of the Gluck Orphée from the Chatelet over a decade ago. My high opinion was confirmed further by her stunning recording of the Handel Cleopatra for Minkowski which, frankly, I don’t think anyone can touch. She’s an astonishingly vivid performer with a keen musical instinct and she communicates beautifully in the French language. When I first saw her name on the cast list I wanted to ring 911 because, surely, there had been an accident. But, after all, she’s a mezzo and he’s turning 40 soon. We should have seen it coming.

All in all she makes a lovely Spanish gypsy. Yes, she’s on the light side, lighter than Berganza even. But, she works the Habanera, and the whole role for that matter, for nuance and subtlety like no else before her with some stunning tempi and shading. I wish someone had positioned the chorus a tad farther in the background since they sound like the Gibichung’s in full battle cry in between her verses.

She’s all over the grace notes in the Seguidilla in the same fashion but the jump to the A-sharp on the repeat made me think the water for tea was ready. Luckily, that’s the only misstep in a fine performance that isn’t marred by a series of vocal compromises,as it progresses, instead of true artistic choices.  She and Kaufmann are excellently partnered and since he’s not a shouter they complement each other in the best ways. The Act IV duet is wonderful and striking.

The recorded sound is especially seductive even with EMI’s normally clinically dry acoustic. Orchestral detail is amazing in spots and yet it still remains a fresh, full performance with attention evenly meted out amongst all the participants. Placement of the chorus is almost always front and center, like in a concert hall, which makes for some surprises at times. No ad hoc groupings to make it seem like your living room is slowly filling up with passing singers.

The marketing and art departments at EMI deserve a special acknowledgment for the vintage 70’s era airbrush van art that graces the cover. Once you get inside, of course, you realize that pictures from this regie-rubbish staging could never sell this recording. Inside, a fascinating essay explains why Carmen was such a shocker back in the day overshadows the synopsis as condensed for Reader’s Digest. No libretto. A whole book but no libretto.

Taking all of this into account, anyone who’s a fan of these artists, in whole or part, will find this a rewarding experience and well worth the purchase.