La Scena Musicale

Friday, 25 January 2008

Don Carlos

Ramon Vargas, Iano Tamar, Nadja Michael, Bo Skovhus, Alastair Miles
Orchestra and Chorus of Wiener Staatsoper, Bertrand De Billy, dir.

*** $$$$$

Verdi originally conceived Don Carlos as a French Grand Opera in five acts plus ballet. It premiered at the Paris Opera in March 1867. In 1866, Verdi had already made a number of cuts because of its length, and further cuts were authorized during rehearsals. These included parts of Act One and several extended duets of the principals. This being a Grand Opera, the ballet was retained. Therefore, this monumental work was not performed in its complete form for the premiere. An Italian translation, with further changes, was first performed as Don Carlo later at Covent Garden, followed by a complete version in Italian given in Bologna. Today, the Italian version is the more popular, but occasionally it is sung in French, with the Fontainebleau Scene tagged on. The original uncut five-act French version with ballet, lasting over five hours, is hardly ever revived. This DVD is unique in that it is said to be note-complete, while the earlier Paris Opera production starring Alagna and Mattila (also available on DVD) is not.

So for Don Carlos purists, this is the version to get - or is it? Originally conceived by Peter Konwitschny for Hamburg, it later travelled to Barcelona and Vienna, where this performance was taped. The set consists of a white box with low doors on all three sides, essentially devoid of props, except for a tiny tree religiously cared for by the Friar. Act Four opens with Philip lying on some bedding on the floor, with Eboli. She stays onstage throughout his "Elle ne m'aime pas" and the subsequent scene with the Grand Inquisitor. These unusual twists are nothing compared to the ballet sequence. There's no dancing, just a comedy routine billed as "Eboli's Dream", in which Eboli and Carlos are married and give a dinner party for Phillip and Elizabeth. Eboli burns the dinner so Carlos calls for take-out from Posa's Pizza, delivered by Rodrigo - I think you get the idea. The nadir is reached during the auto-dafé, which started in the opera house lobby where widescreen TVs were set up, complete with commentator and paparazzi. Heretics were brought in through the front entrance and led onstage, as were Philip, Elizabeth, Eboli, and Rodrigo. Is this Verdi? I don't think so. As you can imagine, the audience greeted such goings-on with vociferous booing mixed in with applause. Also conspicuously absent were final solo curtain calls, likely because of boo-birds making their feelings known.

It is a shame that the stage direction hijacked an essentially fine performance. The orchestra under the stylish baton of Bertrand de Billy sounds great. Honours go to Ramon Vargas as a vocally impeccable Carlos. Bass Alistair Miles has all the stately bearing necessary for Philip. The other principals are also quite good. Georgian soprano Iano Tamar impresses with her dark, rich voice, lacking only the necessary high piano. Soprano Nadja Michael pushes her slender voice fearlessly as a glamorous Eboli - her timbre in this mezzo role is lighter than Elizabeth's! Baritone Bo Skovhus (Rodrigo) is almost unrecognizable in his getup, and his singing is a little uneven. Only Korean bass Simon Yang falls short vocally and dramatically as the Grand Inquisitor. If there has ever been a DVD release that cries out for a documentary with interviews of the creative team, this is it - I'd love to hear Konwitschny's explanation of his "concept". The verdict? If you are into extreme Regietheater, you will be amused, I am sure. On the other hand, if you don't like staging not intended by the composer, this version is to be avoided.

-Joseph K. So

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