Opera News, October 2008
Bizét: Carmen, Zürich, 28 June 2008
Expectations ran high on June 28, when the curtain opened on Zurich's new Carmen. For two decades, the role of Bizet's Gypsy had been the local property of Agnes Baltsa — a smouldering, lusty tigress, formidable in every respect, whose voice holds a glittering spectrum of color despite its undeniable leanness. The company's new Carmen was Vesselina Kasarova, darling of Zurich audiences, who started her conquest of this Matterhorn of prima-donna roles at the rather mature age of forty-three. A singer of markedly different virtues and temperament than the tempestuous Baltsa, Kasarova proved to be a cool, highly individual Carmen, her singularity of a piece with the entire production, which was conducted by Franz Welser-Möst in his final assignment as the house's Generalmusikdirektor before taking up his new position as chief conductor at the Vienna State Opera. Carmen was staged by Matthias Hartmann (designated to take over the direction of the Vienna Burgtheater, that city's number one playhouse), designed by Volker Hintermeier and Su Buehler, with Martin Gebhardt in charge of the lights and Ernst Raffelsberger reigning over the enlarged chorus.

The first surprise was the absence of any Spanish local color — no tobacco factory, no Gypsy dances. Instead, a sloping circle in front of an endless horizon was the sole platform for the four acts, variously decorated with a gate, a chain of colored light-bulbs to suggest the inn of Lillas Pastia and a single olive tree for Seville's Plaza de Toros. It looked very intellectual and very brainy, resembling a setting designed for Wieland Wagner's Bayreuth — or for a Brechtian interpretation of the Carmen myth — and yet the sunny Mediterranean atmosphere was irrefutable. In Act I, bored townspeople relaxed in the sun right up to the moment when Micaela arrived; the poor girl was mobbed by soldiers, who tore off her dress so that she narrowly escaped in her underclothing. When Don José entered, he was a bespectacled mama's boy, munching a sandwich, isolated from his pals and concentrated on solving his a puzzle. It was his very indifference that attracted Carmen: all his comrades lusted after her, and she ignored them. Kasarova intoned "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" rather hesitatingly, molto piano, hardly moving, but nonetheless with cunning determination. José soon started to melt, and it was she who bound his wrists, seducing him by flirtatiously suggesting unbound (and unbounded) pleasures waiting for him "Près des ramparts de Séville." Kasarova's performance steadily gained in weight and depth, with sinister and almost fatalistic overtones in her card song, but she remained in full control of her acting and her singing: she declaimed her texts with uncanny fervor, milking every syllable for its emotional content. It's her well-integrated middle register that sounds so irresistible, remarkable for its consistency and evenness as she glides smoothly from the velvety depths of her lower range (where her colleagues often sound so hairy-chested) to the enraptured climaxes. Kasarova's Carmen is no sluttish whore but a woman who has opted for freedom and is prepared to pay for it. The mezzo created a character of unusual strength and force: she imbued her lines with sensuous beauty, phrasing "Là-bas. là-bas, dans la montagne" in such a way that it sounded like the promise of paradise, but lashed at Don José with whip-like scorn.

Jonas Kaufmann's Don José grew from a spoilt mother's darling to an avenger who abandoned all control in the pursuit of his amour fou. The tenor's voice gained steadily in power and strength: when he advanced in truly pianissimo fashion to his B flat at the penultimate phrase of the flower song, Kaufmann left no doubt that he was a smouldering cauldron waiting to explode. (That he duly did in the finale, when the "demon" took possession of him.") Kaufmann's slightly baritonal quality served him well in his "Tu ne m'aimes donc plus," which had shattering theatrical force; a slightly veiled mistiness lends his tenor an almost otherworldly dimension, especially striking in "et j'étais une chose à toi," which was declaimed like a poem. Kaufmann is a spine-tingling Don José on his way to his coming out as Otello.

The other members of the cast include the somewhat placid Micaëla of Isabel Rey and Michele Pertusi as a big-mouthed but rather jovial Escamillo. As Mercédès and Frasquita, Judith Schmid and Sen Guo joined Kasarova for a ravishing trio. Among the gentlemen, Gabriel Bermúdez was a particularly dashing Dancaïre, Morgan Moody a Zuniga who not only got chained but was cruelly slaughtered.

In his final contribution to the Zurich repertory, Welser-Möst proved once again what a carefully attentive accompanist of the singers he is, as he lovingly phrased the abundance of chiseled details in the Michael Rot revised score. Faithful to Bizet's markings, he conducted a lean, elegant performance constructed on clearly modelled lines, bathed in Southern sunlight, more European than French in flavor and seasoning. Welser-Möst will be badly missed in Zurich: he represented that almost extinct type — the all-round kapellmeister, equally at home with Monteverdi and Mozart, Wagner and Strauss, Verdi and Puccini, Janáček and Britten. One hopes that he will at least occasionally return to the cozy opera house adjacent to Lake Zurich.

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