Sex-free Carmen is an oxymoron. This was the opéra-comique that broke the mould and scandalised Parisian audiences in the 1870s, the work that remapped the route from desire to death in the opera house. Suddenly Emile Zola’s voluptuous, immoral Nana had gatecrashed Ambroise Thomas’s expressive Mignon, making for a very different kind of party.
Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Ko‑ená is a lyric Carmen; she sings the part scrupulously and there’s much to enjoy in her performance, but when Micaëla the good girl is sexier than the bad girl, something is awfully wrong. Ko‑ená, you feel, is looking in on the wild gypsy rather than inhabiting her. Indeed, in her final confrontation with Don José with his knife already out, she mimics a hectoring fishwife rather than a woman ready to stare fate straight in the eye.
On the other hand, Jonas Kaufmann’s Don José is the real thing. The voice is darker now and richer in the lower register with echoes of Plácido Domingo at the top. His characterisation is packed with telling detail, so there’s a sense of weary regret when, in the last act, he almost repeats Carmen’s line at Lillas Pastia’s ‘Tu ne m’aime pas’. The anger has gone cold.
Kostas Smoriginas struggles with Escamillo, but how many baritones really have the dark velvet bottom to their voices for this role? Soprano Genia Kühmeier is a winning Micaëla. (For once Don José should have listened to his mother!) And the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle is superb, with the woodwind on sparkling form as they should be in this score. If Rattle sometimes races his tempos, there’s less lingering over incidental beauties than you’ll sometimes find in this opera.