The Jerusalem Post, 09/07/2013
Verdi: Don Carlo, Salzburger Festspiele, August 2013
Celebrating the centenaries of Verdi, Wagner and Benjamin Britten 
At the Salzburg Summer Festival, passion, pride, anger and remorse take center stage.

SALZBURG – During the current six-week Salzburg Summer Festival, there were 11 new operatic productions, seven of which were staged.

Verdi’s epic masterpiece, Don Carlo, adapted from a play by the German dramatist, Friedrich von Schiller, is the longest and most ambitions in his canon. It is a love story set in a background of political intrigue and uncompromising religious fervor. Its 1867 five-act premiere took place in Paris; Verdi subsequently made a shorter Italian version in which he jettisoned the first act and made additional cuts.

The current production used the original French edition sung in Italian. In the first act, Don Carlo encounters by chance Elisabetta, daughter of the king of France, in the forest of Fontainebleau. She had been betrothed to him as part of the peace treaty between Spain and France. Unbeknown to them, Don Carlo’s father, Philip ll, rescinded this and decided to marry Elisabetta himself.

Omitting this first act makes it difficult to understand the evolving love affair between Don Carlo and his adopted mother.

Peter Stein directed this production, which ran for just over five hours. Anja Harteros as Elisabetta is a Verdi soprano of stature, with dramatic acting ability, imposing stage presence and a gleaming voice, equally striking in both the low and high passages. It is not easy to portray Don Carlo’s reckless, vacillating and hysterical personality, but tenor Jonas Kaufman proved to be up to the task and gave a poignant, vocally committed performance.

Both consummate artists complemented each other in their three encounters. Their initial meeting reveals two immature passionate lovers. In the next act, Elisabetta, now queen, rebuffs Don Carlo’s advances. In their final encounter, they realize the futility of their relationship, which evolves into one on a spiritual level.

Veteran bass Matti Salminen as Philip II started somewhat hesitatingly but summoning his vocal reserves, rising to the occasion and giving an outstanding portrayal of this great role. Bass Eric Halfvarson was the uncompromising grand inquisitor, and succeeded in bringing out the malice of the character. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk took on the role of the duplicitous Eboli, who is in love with Don Carlo and when rebuffed, betrays him and the queen. Her singing and acting captured all the dramatic changes in her demeanor, displaying arrogance, pride, anger and remorse as necessary.

The most complex but key character of the opera is Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, which was sung by baritone Thomas Hampson. This character is a creation of Schiller, and has no historical authenticity. Rodrigo is the only true friend and confidant of the king, and is also the bridge of communication between Elisabetta and Don Carlo. It is he who encourages the latter to support the Flemish insurrection against Spain. Hampson’s voice still retains its wonderful mellifluous character, making him one of the world’s foremost baritones.

To me, Act 4 of this opera represents the pinnacle not only of Verdi’s oeuvre but arguably of all opera. It has everything: love, devotion, pity, sacrifice, hate, jealousy, revenge and anger, set in the background of religious and political conflict. It begins with the great soliloquy of “King Philip Ella giammai m’amo” (She never loved me), sung with passion, dignity and sadness by Salminen – when he bemoans the fact that his wife has no affection for him. Then follows the confrontation with Philip and the grand inquisitor, where the former confides that his son has committed treason. The inquisitor agrees to the king’s decision to kill him, but asks in turn for the head of Rodrigo. Philip angrily refuses. This famous duet between the two basses was most convincingly executed.

Then there is the altercation between Philip and Elisabetta, when he mistakenly accuses her of infidelity, and Eboli’s great show-stopping aria, “O Don fatale” (O fatal gift), when she admits that it was she who betrayed the queen. The final scene of this act is set in prison where Rodrigo comes to visit the detained Don Carlo, and is shot on the king’s order. In their final poignant duet, sensitively and beautifully rendered by these two great singers, they expressed their undying devotion – climaxing to the strains of the leitmotif that is heard in their earlier encounters.

Ferdinand Wogerbauer’s sets were sparse, unimaginative and somewhat sterile. The dominant color in the costumes was black. The only nod to the forest in Act 1 was a pile of logs on either side of the giant stage. In the distance, through a passageway, one could discern a multistory building. The staging of Act 3, when Don Carlos mistakenly confuses the disguised Eboli with the queen, consisted of a marquee in the background and what seemed like a turnstile line, with barriers through which the soloists had to negotiate. The great auto-da-fe inquisition scene, occurring later on in this act, was impressively staged.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Antonio Pappano was in top form and captured all the nuances of this great score. Particularly noteworthy was the outstanding cello obbligato in Philip’s great aria at the beginning of Act 4.

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