La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Don Carlo: Munich Opera Festival

Don Carlo Curtain Call (l. to r.: Thomas Hampson, Rene Pape, Nadia Krasteva, Ramon Vargas, Marco Armiliato, Olga Guryakova, Paata Burchuladze)




For Verdi Opera lovers, any performance of Don Carlo is an occasion. Based on the Schiller play, this is one of Verdi's grandest operas, one that operates on multiple levels - social, geopolitical, religious, historical as well as individual/human levels. It's one of those operas that one gains more insight with each viewing. A truly grand work that requires a large orchestra and singers of the first rank, it is certainly not a show that can be done on the cheap. Originally composed in French in 1865-67, with its 5-act plus ballet version, Verdi reworked it on several occasions resulting in a number of permutations. Perhaps the most frequently performed version has been a 4-act version sung in Italian, without ballet, and with Carlo's aria moved from act 2 to act 1, and occasionally with some of the music from the excised Fontainebleau Scene tagged on, in what one would call a hybrid version. However, many houses in recent years, such as in Paris and Amsterdam, as well as our own Canadian Opera Company have performed the "original" 5-act version, but invariably there are cuts and selective restorations of the original score. Some are basically Italian versions sung in French plus bits of the Fontainebleau Scene - as in the 1977 COC production, while others have restored more of the original music, such as the 2007 COC version with Adrianne Pieczonka as Elisabeth. This opera has been subjected to the radical "Regie-Oper treatment", like the Peter Konwitschny's Don Carlos production seen in Barcelona and Vienna. Konwitschny restored the ballet music, but instead of dancers, he had the singers miming their roles in a outrageously funny 25 minute sequence he called Eboli's Dream. While it provided a moment of comic relief in an opera that is unrelentingly gloomy, I have often wondered what Verdi would have made of this new creation.

The Bavarian State Opera's version isn't anything so radical. It is the 4-act Italian version, plus the Fontainebleau scene, with Carlo's aria moved to the beginning. [Note: Originally, I had made a mistake stating that it was "minus" - instead of "plus" - the Fontainebleau Scene. A reader wrote to point out my error. I stand corrected - that's what I get for writing this review in the middle of the night!] After the death of Rodrigo, a standard cut has been restored, with the music which Verdi later re-cycled as the Lacrymosa in the Requiem. The 10-year old Jurgen Rose production is austere, dark, spare, and uncontroversial. The three walls are black, as are almost all the costumes except for Rodrigo's which is brown. As a result Eboli's Veil Song lacks any sense of light and playfulness. A huge Christ on the Crucifix, propped on the left wall, dominates the proceedings. The ending, with Charles V wrapping his cloak around Carlo and going down into the crypt, is one that was quite common once but has since gone out of favour. Some productions have Carlo shot, some have him tortured beforehand, like the one in Toronto where he is blinded first - gruesome business. The auto-da-fe in Munich was impressively staged, with the heretics over the enormous woodpile looking quite real from a distance, even though they were dummies with movable arms and legs. This was one of the few moments in the whole production with some vivid colours, the rest of the time it was either white on black or grey on black.

To my ears, the best thing about the performance on the 22 was the singing of the men. Rene Pape was simply outstanding as Filippo, a voice of power and and resplendent beauty. Not far behind was the Posa of Thomas Hampson, whose voice sounded full and rich, and his acting as vivid as ever. Tenor Ramon Vargas started a little tentatively, with a minor crack early on, but he settled down to give a very fine performance. Even Paata Burchuladze, whose voice is now afflicted with a persistent wobble, rose to the occasion as Grand Inquisitor. Christian Van Horn, a frequent artist in Munich, was excellent as the Friar/Charles. I am sorry to say the women were not on the same level. As Elisabetta, Russian soprano Olga Guryakova displayed a big, dramatic voice under imperfect control. She sounded unfocused in the passaggio and occasionally off pitch. She had difficulties with dynamic shading, struggling with the high piano phrases. Her lovely stage presence and dramatic acuity were at least in this performance undermined by her vocal insecurities. Mezzo Nadia Krasteva, heard recently as Carmen in Vienna, had problems with the coloratura and the high notes in the Veil Song. "O don fatale" went better, but she ran out of steam near the end of this very strenuous aria. Her best moment was the trio in the Garden scene with Carlo and Rodrigo. The orchestra responded well for Marco Armiliato, who gave a lyrical reading of the score. Once again like Tosca, there were moments when it was too slow, particularly in "Tu che le vanita" - perhaps that's the curse of a singer-friendly conductor, to accomodate the singer. Given his sympathetic baton, Guryakova did her best work of the evening in this aria. Even with the uneven casting, there were enough fine moments to make this a well-spent four and a half hours in the opera house.

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