Opera Today, 05 May 2013
Verdi: Don Carlo, Royal Opera House London, 4. Mai 2013
Superlative singing : Verdi Don Carlo, Royal Opera House
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann ? Kaufmann was brilliant in
this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the
cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle
for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit.
Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect
ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's
Act One started a little tentatively. Perhaps it takes time
for the drama to unfold and Kaufmann knew how much was yet to come. His
pacing was deft : when he needed to stun, his voice rang out with ferocious
colour. This was a Don Carlo one could imagine defying the Spanish Empire,
its violence and tyranny. His vocal authority was matched by physical
energy. Kaufmann embodies the part perfectly. His interactions were
outstanding. His voice balances well with Anja Harteros (Elisabetta) and
Marius Kwiecien (Rodrigo), and he allowed the duets and trios to work
seamlessly. There was no big name ego dominance, Kaufmann placing his art
Verdi prepares us from the start for the
turbulence turbulence that will meet Elizabeth of Valois. Even before she
leaves home, Elisabetta experiences extreme changes of mood within a
compressed period of time. Anja Harteros delineates these intense feelings
deftly, without exaggeration, so they arise naturally from her singing. When
she bids goodbye to the Countess of Aremberg (Elizabeth Woods), Harteros
sings as though she were bidding farewell to life itself. Indeed she is, for
Elisabetta is now alone, trapped in an alien world. Harteros creates
Elisabetta with such conviction that she dominates the drama even when she
is silent. Her presence is felt even when others are singing about her. When
Harteros sings "Tu che le vanità", we feel that Elisabetta has reached
valediction, after a long and tortured journey. She sings of Fontainebleau
and her brief day of happiness so tenderly that the agony of "Addio, addio,
bei sogni d'or, illusion perduta!" becomes truly overwhelming. Harteros and
Kaufmann have taken these roles before together. Here, in London, they
Ferruccio Furlanetto was equally outstanding.
His years of experience in the part give him authority. Verdi writes the
part to reflect the personal austerity for which the historic Philip II was
known. A solo cello introduces his big aria "Ella giammai m'amò",
emphasizing the King's loneliness., despite the trappings of wealth and
power around him. Later, violas and basses extend the mood of melancholy.
Furlanetto sings with force, but with colour and tenderness. Because he
makes us feel the man beneath the public persona, we realize that the
tragedy involves Philip as well as his wife and son. Furlanetto makes us
realize that the king is just as much trapped by the system as they are.
"Beware the Grand Inqusitor !" he cries, for the Grand Inquisitor is perhaps
the only truly evil character in this opera.
Verdi introduces the
Grand Inquisitor with music that exudes menace. Slow, low rumbling sounds,
suggesting a snake slithering, oozing poisonous slime. Eric Halfvarson was
indisposed with a cold, but this didn't affect his singing. The Grand
Inquisitor is supposed to sound diseased. "Did God not give his only Son to
save the world ?". Theology is twisted for evil purposes.
Kwiecień was a clean voiced, muscular Rodrigo, and a perfect complement to
Kaufmann's Don Carlo. The dynamic between them is very good : they're both
relatively youthful and fresh. This similarity is important, for it
reinforces the tragedy, and the theme of sacrifice. When Kwiecień sings
Rodrigo's last aria, "Per me giunto è il di supreme", he infuses it with
warmth and love, so it connects with Elisabetta's farewell to life.
One of Béatrice Uria-Monzon's signature roles is Carmen, so when she sang
the Pricess of Eboli, she brought a Carmen-like sharpness to the role, which
was entirely in order. Her Veil Song was a showpiece, but the song is a
mask, since the princess's true feelings are also hidden behind a veil. When
she realizes her mistakes, her personality disintegrates. When Uria-Monzon
sings of the convent, she suggests the horoor of living death.
Bijelic sang a sprightly Tebaldo. Even the Flemish Deputies made an impact
greater than the size oif their parts : extremely tight ensemble, yet
individually characterized. Robert Lloyd sang Carlo V credibly. The Royal
Opera House Orchestra and chorus, always excellent, were on even better form
than usual. Verdi is Antomio Pappano's great strength. He's inspired towards
an highly individual but vivid reading which emphasizes dramatic detail.
He's also a singer's conductor, who lets voices breath, as we heard so
This would have been an almost perfect Verdi Don Carlo,
but is lamentably let down by the production. Originally directed by
Nicholas Hytner and revived this time by Paul Higgins, it was first seen at
the Royal Opera House in 2008. The designs (by Bob Crowley) feel outdated,
serving little dramatic purpose. Huge expanses of space are filled with
grids of holes. Perhaps these represent windows, walls or even the spying
eyes that are ever present in tyrannical regimes. If the image had been
developed well, it might have enhanced the paranoia that runs through this
opera. Instead, the image lies inert, like a weak joke endlessly repeated.
In the scene where the ladies of the court listen to the Veil Song, there's
a wall of red plastic cubes which look like they've descended from Legoland
for no obvious reason.
The greatest weakness of this Don Carlo was
that the staging missed the deeper, more challenging levels of the opera.
The monastery of Yuste is depicted by the tomb of Charles V with the name
"Carlos" engraved in huge letters so they can't possibly be missed. Charles
V, the Holy Roman Emperor renounced his power and retreated into the
monastery where he died ten years before the Revolt of the Netherlands.
Opera isn't history. But when a composer like Verdi adapts history for
art, there is a reason. In this production, the political aspects of the
story are downplayed. Even the asceticism of Charles V and Philip II is
sacrificed to decorative imperative, although the words "addio, bei sogni
d'or, illusion perduta!" pertain to more than Elisabetta. This is the kind
of production that gives modern staging a bad reputation. Yet because it's
comic book cute, it's probably popular. Staging is much more than decor.
Like every other element in a production, it should contribute to meaning
and drama, rather than distract. A cast of this exceptional quality deserved