The New York Times, August 27, 2013
Verdi: Don Carlo, Salzburger Festspiele, 13. August 2013
Salzburg Festival Pivots in New Directions 
SALZBURG — A shift away from radical opera stagings is unmistakable at the Salzburg Festival this summer. Leading the way is the season’s most talked-about production, “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” by the provocative Stefan Herheim. His surprisingly traditional treatment of the Wagner comedy disappointed a number of European critics eager for something like his “Parsifal” for the Bayreuth Festival, which expounded on the opera’s historical and political impact and reception.

Alexander Pereira, the Salzburg Festival’s artistic director, said in an interview that “people are tired of seeing machine guns, and tiredness has led to new directions and new freedom for directors.”

Two other productions, which premiered after “Meistersinger,” reflect the trend in different ways. Peter Stein, who once inspired controversy himself, has of late favored straightforward storytelling but does so to a fault in Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” even failing to exert a firm directorial hand. You sometimes had the feeling that singers comported themselves as they might for a revival of a well-worn staging, bringing to their portrayals what they have learned elsewhere. Details often needed improvement. When the Spanish prince Don Carlo and Elisabeth de Valois, his betrothed, receive the devastating news that for reasons of state his father, Philip II, will marry her instead, he gives a kind of “Aw, shucks” shrug.

Ferdinand Wögerbauer’s ultra-simple décor is too unimaginative to give a sense of the opera’s grandeur. The sight of Fontainebleau peasants stretched out across the huge, empty stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus does suggest the magnitude of their plight, a factor in Elizabeth’s acquiescence in the revised marital plans. Yet for the extravagant auto-da-fé scene, which culminates in burning religious heretics at the stake, a wooden reviewing stand looks sadly paltry, especially since it remains empty until the end of the scene.

Musically, though, the production is superb. The soprano Anja Harteros’s vocalism may not be flawless but she gives a thoroughly involved, grippingly sung portrayal of an Elisabeth unafraid to show her love for Carlo. The tenor Jonas Kaufmann, in sterling voice, sings heroically but also conveys a sense of Carlo’s nervous instability, especially when confronting his father about Spain’s oppression of Flanders. Ms. Harteros and Mr. Kaufmann give a gorgeous, hushed performance of the magnificent final duet in which they sing of meeting in a better world.

The consummate baritone Thomas Hampson sings nobly as the Marquis of Posa, Carlo’s steadfast friend and champion of the Flemish cause. Ekaterina Semenchuk, a mezzo-soprano with Mariinsky Theater roots, sings Princess Eboli with rich-voiced brilliance, but Matti Salminen, who for decades was our most thunderous bass, shows signs of vocal ageing as Philip. Another seasoned bass, Eric Halfvarson, as the Grand Inquisitor, is a formidable adversary of the king.

Leading the Concert Association of the Vienna Staatsoper and the Vienna Philharmonic, Antonio Pappano presides over a nuanced performance that has plenty of Verdian sweep and grandeur. The five-hour production, sung in the standard Italian translation rather than French, restores music Verdi omitted from his final version.

In addition to the now commonly heard Fontainebleau Act, we hear an episode from the Prison Scene in which Philip (singing music Verdi reused in the Lacrimosa of his Requiem) attempts a rapprochement with his son. Also included is a festive chorus and scene for Elisabeth and Eboli at the start of Act 3, which adds Spanish local color and also — because the women exchange clothes — helps explain why Carlo later mistakes Eboli for Elisabeth. You can argue against restoring music that Verdi recognized made a long opera longer, but occasionally in a festival setting, why not?

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