Tag Archives: Don Carlos

Moderate Don Carlos

21 May

Ok, time to get back to this blogging lark.  I’ve had some good times over the last few months – smashing Faramondo and Ormisda at the London Handel Festival and the fantastic Exterminating Angel at the ROH and Dr Atomic at the Barbican – but somehow didn’t get to writing them up.  Mind you, there also that Meistersinger… Anyway, back to work and first up is Don Carlos at the ROH which I saw on 15 May.

There is so much that there is wonderful about Don Carlo that it’s quite easy to get into the mindset that any performance short of the extraordinary is, in some way, a failure. It’s an attitude that ignores, first, the real problems with the opera and, second, the fact I would rather see a flawed one than miss the piece at all.  But the overall attitude to the opera is so easy to get into one’s head that I think it explains why people have been rather muted about what struck me as a very decent performance.

The cast, despite two late replacements, was pretty strong.  Bryan Hymel as Carlo sang strongly, if not subtly and made probably as good an authentic Verdian sound as you can get these days.  Maybe the odd pianissimo would be nice and he doesn’t exactly look the young romantic hero.

I was also impressed by Ildar Abdrazakov as Philip who created a very human king indeed. I loved his pianissimo opening to his Act IV aria and the way in which he caught the authority and the dilemmas of the role.  He opened up to Posa humanly.  Whereas with Furlanetto, you felt that here was a king unbending slightly, this was a man who was faced with being a king.

Christoph Pohl was a late replacement for Ludovic Tezier.  I think he’s a rather special baritone.  He has absolutely the right sound for the role: a sort of virile lightness that impressed me.  He caught the open, humanity of the role and looks good.  I wouldn’t mind hearing him again.

There was a gloriously old-fashioned, mezzo/contralto Eboli from Ekaterina Semanchuk: again as good as I’ve heard.  The role seemed to hold no terror for her and if, occasionally, you wanted more subtlety she’d then wow you with a top note or her gorgeous, rich lower register.  Her acting was pretty generic Eboli and I missed the some of the softness that Sonia Ganassi brought when the production was new, but if you want a Verdi mezzo…

I had most reservations about Kristin Lewis as Elisabeth – a late replacement for Krassimira Stroyanova.  She has a dark, Verdian voice, very much in the Leontyne Price mould but without the same control.  There was a real squalliness about her singing and, as with most Elisabeths, I found my mind wandering during her Act V aria and, indeed, the following duet.  I did enjoy her acting, particularly in Act I where she created a loving, youthful, open princess and she charted the journey from that to the sad, despairing queen rather well.

Bertrand de Billy conducting struck me as very fine too: he conjured some wonderful sounds out of the orchestra and his tempi seemed to be effortlessly right.  I really enjoyed the phrasing, particularly of the early parts and the wailing, growling strings in the last act.  He caught the sheer terror of the Grand Inquisitor (Paata Burchuladze, not as effectual vocally as he might have been ten years ago, but a strong presence) and he paced it really effectively, making you listen to the dialogues and the arias.  This was conducting that made you realise what a great work this is.

So maybe the problem was the staging.  Nicholas Hytner’s production had its problems even when it was new.  It’s at its best in the dialogues where, still, the emotions, the characterisations and the ideas ring true and they’re interesting.

The problem comes in the public scenes.  The auto da fe never really worked and, though it’s been reworked, there were just too few people for the space, Carlos’s insurrection was a mess and the picture of people with swords just standing there doing nothing is really poor.  The end of Act IV is similarly weak and the opening of the second scene of Act II can’t disguise the fact that the veil song is just a bit of padding.

The sets are variable.  The shaking trees in the first act are still there and are a bit of a disgrace and, for a lot of the time, the space is just too large.   They’re still beautifully lit.

Overall then, this was a decent, perfectly adequate performance of Don Carlos – the problems I’ve identified with the production are problems that the opera itself presents and Hytner’s failure is in coming to grips with those.  You don’t feel that there’s a vision for the opera or any guiding idea.  On the other hand, I still got a lot of pleasure out of this performance, mostly from the musical side and a newcomer will have got a good idea of why this is such a special opera.

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Kaufmann’s triumph and an unexpected debut

11 May

There was I counting my blessings.  I’d deliberately booked an early performance of Don Carlos simply because I couldn’t imagine missing Jonas Kaufmann singing the title role.  Then, when Anja Harteros announced that she wouldn’t be singing the final four performances, I felt distinctly smug – even more so after the reviews of her performance on the opening night. So when the email arrived on my blackberry at 12.16 on 8th May telling me that Harteros had cancelled that performance because of acute tonsilitis, I probably deserved it.  The Royal Opera House offered assurances that Liana Haroutounian, her replacement, was very exciting and I consoled myself that, with Kaufmann, Kwiecien, Furlanetto and Pappano still there, it wasn’t going to be a wasted evening.

Actually, it was far from that and Miss Haroutounian proved to be very exciting indeed.  More of her anon.  What I’d like to start with, however, is a paean to Jonas Kaufmann.  Carlos isn’t exactly a grateful role and, at this stage in his career, you could forgive Kaufmann if he decided that there are other roles that he’d rather do.  What we would have missed, had he done so, is as fine a portrayal of the role imaginable.  You can chart his portrayal through the three scenes with Elisabeth – the first puppy-ishly enthusiastic with real love that is dashed, the second where he is almost unhinged (he despairing entrance was just right) and the last one where, you feel, he achieves some stability.  Elsewhere he is ardent, alert and always aware of what is going on and his emotions.  And he sings it marvellously.  There were hundreds of phrases that I treasured because they felt so right.  His first aria was sung reflectively, introspectively that it felt sacreligious to applaud afterwards.  In his duet with Elisabeth, he sang the latter part with a wonderfully controlled pianissmo, emphasising the introspection and I was moved as I never have before by this scene – I don’t think I’ve such outstanding soft singing ever.  The man is a genius.  It’s great that he’s got more work planned with the House, but can he come and live here, please?

He was the peak of a hugely accomplished cast.  This is the third time round for Ferruccio Furlanetto and, I suppose, one day it might be interesting to hear another Philip – it’s jsut that, off hand, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather hear.  He’s able to produce an outstanding range of colours in the voice – lightening it for the more introspective, sympathetic parts, but darkening and managing a terrifying intensity for the anger and power.  He understands the role and the words, he listens to the other characters and presents all the complexities of the character.  He charts effortlessly the movement of the debates between himself and, first, Posa, next the Inquisitor.  There’s something shy about him = a difference between the man as King and the human being that he conveys perfectly.  Of the many treasurable moments, I’ll remember the start of the quartet in Act IV as Elisabeth collapses and he holds her up and he conveyed the sorrow and regret for what had happened.  He is a great singer.  I’m looking forward to his Fiesco – any chance of hearing him in other roles here?

He was matched in his scene by Eric Halfvarson’s marvellously powerful Grand Inquisitor – not someone you’d want to meet in a darkened cloister.  Familiar, but very, very welcome.

The rest were largely new.  Mariusz Kwiecien was Posa – a handsome, intelligent, assertive figure.  I wondered if he was in the best vocal health in the early part.  He sounded just a bit anonymous and he doesn’t convey the sheer intelligence and passion that Simon Keenlyside brought to the role.  By the fourth act, however, he was in outstanding form and gave a moving, gripping and really beautiful performance of his aria and death – which seemed the tragedy that it is.

I was less taken by Beatrice Uria-Monzon as Eboli.  She’s a tall, striking figure with a nice, slightly edgy mezzo.  I found her rather a cold, calculating figure, slightly anonymous.  I missed the range of dynamic and imagination that Sonia Ganassi brought to the role when this production was new – particularly in O don fatale.  She was a perfectly decent Eboli but not outstanding.  I wondered if she’d be more comfortable in the French version or whether I might no rather hear her as Charlotte or Dido.

So what of Miss Haroutounian?  I’m always cautious about unknown replacements saving the show – they have nothing to lose, the audience is willing them to be the next star and it’s all a slightly artificial experience.  You can’t necessarily predict a great future. However, simply on this performance, I thought that she is a much more than promising singer and was fully up to singing with colleagues at this level.  Her voice is warm, reminding me of Caballé, and her personality matches it.  She was taking care of the words, reacting and engaging with her colleagues – all the duets with Carlos came over really well and she caught the dignity of the woman as well.  She did both arias well but not outstandingly.  For me, the big test for an Elisabeth is how she manages the final Act aria.  It comes late in the show when the audience is tiring and it’s a very subtle, unshowy piece which is not easy to bring off.  Of the dozen Elisabeths that I’ve heard only Freni and Mattila have convinced me.  Haroutounian didn’t join their number but I felt that she would one day.  I also missed the arching phrasing that others have brought but this is to cavil at a performance that was at a very high level indeed.  I hope that she’ll be back.

Pappano was in the pit and secured the usual excellent playing from the orchestra and singing from the chorus.  As ever, what I admired most was the way he works with the singers and makes it possible for them to give of their best.

The Hytner production is now rehearsed by Paul Higgins.  I felt that it had lost some of the precision that it had had in its earlier performances and that it looked more operatic, the gestures slightly hammier, than before.  I was conscious of how difficult the second scene of Act III is to stage and felt that there were passages where there was just not enough going on and you were waiting for the next piece of action.  There were odd moments when I longed for a less traditional view. For most of it, however, I was gripped by the outstanding acting and singing of the cast and, really, I’m just being picky here.

This was a performance at the highest level and I had a sense of an audience gripped and engaging with one of the greatest and most interesting operas in the repertory.  There was, rightly, little applause during the opera.  At the end, far fewer people were rushing for the exits than usual: we stayed to applaud, forgetting my last train rule.