“Carmen” with Simon Rattle, Magdalena Kožená and Jonas Kaufmann

21 Apr 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Magdalena Kožená, Jonas Kaufmann

  • Georges Bizet
    Carmen, reconstruction of the original version by Fritz Oeser (concert performance) (164 min.)

    Magdalena Kožená Mezzo-Soprano (Carmen), Jonas Kaufmann Tenor (Don José), Genia Kühmeier Soprano (Micaëla), Kostas Smoriginas Baritone (Escamillo), Christian Van Horn Bass Bariton (Zuniga), Andrè Schuen Bass-Baritone (Moralès), Christina Landshamer Soprano (Frasquita), Rachel Frenkel Mezzo-Soprano (Mercédès), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt Tenor (Remendado), Simone del Salvio Bariton (Dancaïro), Children’s Choir of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Vinzenz Weissenburger Chorus Master, Eberhard Friedrich Chorus Master

  • free

    “Carmen” at the Berlin Philharmonie (17 min.)

For many, it was the operatic event of the 2011/2012 season: Bizet’s Carmen at the Salzburg Easter Festival with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle. In a highly anticipated debut, Magdalena Kožená sang the role of Carmen for the first time in a staged performance. At her side, an outstanding tenor of the younger generation, Jonas Kaufmann, as Don José. After the festival, the musicians presented their interpretation to audiences in both the Philharmonie in Berlin and in the Digital Concert Hall.

Carmen is one of the most fascinating figures in the operatic repertoire: sometimes erotic, sometimes cool, sometimes spontaneous, sometimes calculating – a factory worker and smuggler, she reigns like a queen over her people with a magical aura. A heroine like this was unacceptable to audiences in Bizet’s time. Similarly, the plot was too direct, too drastic and appeared un-operatic. But it is exactly these characteristics that ensure the opera’s enduring popularity.

The music comes across as authentic as the characters. Even if its gorgeous melodies and colourful flair appeal to almost everyone, Bizet never tries to curry favour with audiences. The score was probably best characterised by Friedrich Nietzsche: “This music seems to me to be perfect. It ... is evil, subtly fatalistic; at the same time it remains popular .... Have more painful, tragic accents ever been heard on the stage? And how are they obtained? Without grimace! Without counterfeit coinage! Without the imposture of the grand style!”

“Obscene, vulgar and depraved”

Notes on Bizet’s Carmen

Georges Bizet’s Carmen is the most frequently performed opera in the world today, outstripping even Mozart’s Magic Flute and Puccini’s La Bohème. Yet its premiere at the Paris Opéra-Comique on 3 March 1875 was such a critical failure that many biographers consider the composer’s early death to have been an indirect, if not direct, result of this fiasco. The 36-year-old Bizet died on 3 June – exactly three months after Carmen’s premiere – though more likely from the complications of an abscess and a rheumatically diseased heart than from a “broken heart”. The premiere audience received the work coldly and the reviews were scathing. The music was described as bizarre and incoherent, but the chief thrust of the attacks was directed at the piece’s vulgarity and immorality. Carmen was given 37 times until 13 June 1875 – often to a half-empty auditorium; 13 further performances in the following season were not much more enthusiastically received.

A day before his death Bizet had signed a contract with the Vienna Court Opera, where Carmen was produced on 23 October 1875, but with alterations that would leave a lasting mark on the work: Bizet’s student friend Ernest Guiraud replaced the original dialogue (spoken, in accordance with the Opéra-Comique’s traditional practice) with recitative and added a ballet arranged from other works by the composer. This version remained the basis of most performances well into the 20th century. Not until 1964 did the musicologist Fritz Oeser reconstruct an “original version, critically revised after the sources”, which forms the basis for this evening’s performance. After the staging in Vienna (where the influential critic Eduard Hanslick’s withering assessment of the work as “semi-art” did nothing to alter its success, or lack thereof), others followed in cities including Brussels, Marseille, Lyon, St. Petersburg, London, Dublin, New York and Naples. In many of these productions, the title role was taken by the original Carmen, Célestine Galli-Marié. In April 1883, eight years after its premiere, Carmen finally returned to Paris and the Opéra-Comique. Initially the eponymous heroine was sung by Adèle Isaac, but she was so poorly received by audiences that the theatre’s director Léon Carvalho brought back Galli-Marié for the revival on 27 October. Her sizzling stage presence now contributed to the previously unappreciated work’s triumph. 22 December saw its 100th performance, 21 October 1891 the 500th, and 23 December 1904 the 1000th.

If you take into account all the plans, fragments and works he later destroyed, Carmen was actually Georges Bizet’s 30th stage composition. On 22 May 1872 his one-act opera Djamileh had its premiere at the Opéra-Comique. It was only moderately successful and disappeared from the repertoire after eleven performances, but “what gives me more satisfaction than the opinion of all these gentry”, he wrote to his pupil Edmond Galabert on 17 June 1872, “is the absolute certainty of having found my path. I know what I am doing. I have just been ordered to compose three acts for the Opéra-Comique. Meilhac and Halévy are doing my piece. It will be gay, but with a gaiety that permits style.” Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, most famous for their collaboration with Jacques Offenbach, were one of the most successful librettist teams on the Paris stage. They gladly took up Bizet’s suggestion of adapting Prosper Mérimée’s novella, which had appeared in 1845 in the Revue des deux mondes. Fascination with the heroine – one of world literature’s first femmes fatales – attracted the composer as much as the story’s exotic setting in Seville.

A prime influence behind the craze for Spanish songs in France at that time were Sebastián de Iradier’s collections L’Echo d’Espagne (1858-59) and Fleurs d’Espagne (1864), which contain not only “classics” like La paloma but also the habanera El arreglito that inspired Bizet in the composition of Carmen’s famous habanera “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”. The Spanish elements in his score – from the seguidilla “Près des remparts de Séville” to the fandango-like Chanson bohème “Les tringles des sistres tintaient” and the malagueña in Act IV – all evince careful research and stylization without ever lapsing into folk cliché. Using augmented intervals, chromatic blurring of the major/minor tonality and polymelodic layering, Bizet brilliantly manages to suggest a Spanish exoticism that perfectly suited the prevailing Parisian musical taste. The score also offered enough modernisms, however, to put off the conservative public. The hyper-chromaticism, at the very edge of functional tonality, in the Smugglers’ Chorus “Prends garde de faire un faux pas!” that begins Act III would have sufficed to brand the composer as a partisan of “music of the future”, which is precisely what the wagnérien critic Adophe Jullien did.

“I know what I’m doing,” Bizet wrote, and there is indeed hardly another opera that “functions” as perfectly as Carmen. Along with the “stylish gaiety” that Bizet envisaged, it displays the “light, flexible” beauty that Friedrich Nietzsche experienced and the “operetta-like clarity” that Attila Csampai and other writers have attributed to the opera. In 1931, the Austrian philosopher-historian-critic-actor Egon Friedell even claimed in his Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit that “this work, which weds Spanish passion to French grace and elemental vitality to playful high spirits, is in fact the idealized operetta”. Among other virtues, the drama unfolds with exemplary directness and strictness – without flourishes, without exaggerated emotions, without psychologizing. Had the accolade “opera of all operas” not already been bestowed on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, it could easily have been coined for Bizet’s Carmen.

And so it wasn’t so much the music that caused Carmen to fail but rather the title figure herself, who outraged the self-righteously prudish public: “Don’t you see that all these bourgeois didn’t understand a single word of the work I’ve written for them?”, exclaimed the despairing Bizet when a young colleague congratulated him on the “success” of his opera. And in the press it wasn’t only Carmen’s “obscenity” and “vulgarity” that were criticized, but also the intensity with which Célestine Galli-Marié had incorporated them on stage: “She is the incarnation of vice, and even in the sound of her voice there is something lewd,” wrote Léon Escudier in L’Art musical, while François Oswald in Le Gaulois maintained that her performance was “on the brink of provoking a ban by the police”. Meilhac, Halévy and Bizet even underscored these traits by contrasting Carmen with her polar opposite, the pure, innocent type of woman represented by Micaëla – a character not found in Mérimée.

Carmen is an archetype – in a sense the female counterpart to Mozart’s Don Giovanni: “sexuality itself”, as Theodor W. Adorno writes in his Fantasia sopra Carmen, “primeval and pre-intellectual”. She is a surface for the projection of all men’s erotic fantasies: passionate, instinctive, mysterious and uninhibited. The other – if you like, “modern” – side of the character is the freedom and accountability with which this emancipated, uncompromising woman takes responsibility for her actions. In the history of opera she belongs somewhere between Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata and Alban Berg’s Lulu: perpetrator and victim rolled into one, thus counterbalancing the public’s abhorrence and its fascination. Carmen contravenes the “convention of opera” – to quote Adorno again – that “cannot do enough to express its envy of the colourful and unfettered lives of those who are outlawed from the bourgeois world of work, condemned to hunger and rags and suspected of possessing all the happiness which the bourgeois world denies itself in its irrational rationality.”

Michael Stegemann

Translation: Richard Evidon

Jonas Kaufmann studied singing at the Academy of Music in his native Munich. Even while he was still a student, he was already appearing in comprimario roles at the Bavarian State Opera and the Theater am Gärtnerplatz. He also attended masterclasses with Hans Hotter and Josef Metternich. It was, however, with Michael Rhodes that he perfected his vocal technique. A prizewinner in the 1993 Nuremberg Mastersingers’ Competition, he was a member of the Saarbrücken State Theatre from 1994 to 1996. Since 2001 he has been closely associated with the Zurich Opera. His wide-ranging repertory has taken him to leading opera houses in Europe and the United States of America as well as the Salzburg and Edinburgh Festivals and important concert halls all over the world. During the present season he has enjoyed great personal success as Bizet’s Don José at La Scala, Milan, in the title role in Massenet’s Werther at the Opéra Bastille in Paris and as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. For his performances as Wagner’s Lohengrin at the 2009 Munich Opera Festival he was voted Singer of the Year by the German-language magazine Opernwelt. Among the conductors with whom Jonas Kaufmann has worked to date are Sir Colin Davis, Riccardo Muti, Michael Gielen and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. An important part of his schedule is devoted to lieder recitals with his regular accompanist Helmut Deutsch, with whom he has appeared throughout Europe and as far afield as Japan. Jonas Kaufmann made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2003 in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust under the direction of Charles Dutoit. He was last heard here in the Philharmonie in February in a lieder recital with works by Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, Henri Duparc and Richard Strauss.

Magdalena Kožená, was born in Brno (Czech Republic) and studied there at the local conservatory and also with Eva Blahová in Bratislava. A winner of many competitions, including the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg in 1995, her first engagements were at the Janáček Theatre of the National Theatre in Brno and at the Prague Spring International Music Festival. Since then, she has appeared in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet (in the female title role in Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice), at the Opéra Comique and at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées (Mélisande), at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (Varvara in Kátja Kabanová) and at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin in productions of Der Rosenkavalier and the Chabrier opera L’Étoile. Well known for her interpretation of Mozart roles (Cherubino, Idamante, Sesto, Zerlina), Magdalena Kožená has appeared at many major festivals such as Edinburgh, Salzburg, Aldeburgh and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. She is also acclaimed world-wide as a concert and Lieder singer, accompanied by pianists such as Daniel Barenboim, Yefim Bronfman, Malcolm Martineau and Mitsuko Uchida as well as leading orchestras and conductors. In 2003, Magdalena Kožená was awarded the title “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French government; Gramophone voted her “Artist of the Year” in 2004. Since September 2003 she has performed many times as a soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker, most recently in Berlin in January 2012 with songs by Dvořák, Ravel and Mahler, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Genia Kühmeier studied in her native city at the Mozarteum University Salzburg and at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna where her teachers included Marjana Lipovšek. After her debut at La Scala in 2002 as Diane in Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide, she sang the role of Inès in Donizetti's La favorite at the Vienna State Opera in 2003, where she was a member of the ensemble until 2006. With a repertoire that includes works by composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Salieri, Beethoven, Bizet, Wagner and Strauss, Genia Kühmeier has performed at, among others, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, at San Francisco and Los Angeles Opera, De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, at the Salzburg Festival and the RuhrTriennale. As a concert soloist with leading orchestras and major conductors such as Sir John Elliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Seiji Ozawa and Sir Roger Norrington, and also as a performer of Lieder, the soprano has made appearances all over the world in renowned musical capitals and festivals. Genia Kühmeier worked together with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2008 and 2009 at the Salzburg Easter Festival in concerts conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and Franz Welser-Möst, singing roles in works by Haydn, Mozart and Verdi.

Kostas Smoriginas began his studies at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre at a young age. After moving to London in 2005, he represented his country at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He completed his training at the Royal College of Music, then in 2007 in the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where his roles included Alidoro in La Cenerentola, the Marquis d’Obigny in La traviata, Angelotti in Tosca, Zuniga in Carmen and Bello in La Fanciulla del West. Other successes came in the role of Tomsky in Pique Dame, in Brahms’ Requiem in Budapest and as Baron Duphol in La traviata in Aix-en-Provence. He recently made his debut at La Scala in Milan as Masetto in Don Giovanni. His regular concert repertoire includes the Requiems by Verdi, Mozart and Fauré, Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Magnificat, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass and the great works of Russian composers. He received high critical praise for his debut at the BBC Proms in Stravinsky’s Les Noces under Ed Gardiner’s leadership at the Royal Albert Hall. In these performances of Bizet’s Carmen, Kostas Smoriginas appears with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time.

Deutsche GrammophonMagdalena Kožená appears by courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.


Jonas Kaufmann appears by courtesy of Decca Classics.

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