Monday, July 07, 2008

Opera At Its Best

Don Carlos at Covent Garden 12.10.58

From ’The Scotsman’ (

“To mark the centenary of the opening of the present Royal Opera House in Covent Garden a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlos was given on Friday night.

A magnificent cast has been assembled to give the work in Italian, with Luchino Visconti and Carla-Maria Giulini , the most renowned producer and conductor in Italy today. No expense has been spared to make this new offering a celebration worthy of the occasion.

On many similar occasions when such an effort is made, with all the stops pulled out, the result falls short of expectation. But this presentation of Don Carlos exceeds hope, and is nothing short of magnificent. There have been, since the Opera House reopened after the last war, comparable musical experience – notably Kleiber’s Rosenkavalier, Wozzeck, and Elektra, Beecham’s Meistersinger, Kubelik’s Jenufa and Kempe’s Ring, but of no opera has there been any complete performance as good as this Don Carlos.

Here everything combines to give the work in all its glory: singing, orchestral playing, musical direction, acting, décor – this is opera at its best. ‘Integration’ is the word that comes to mind to describe the rare harmony between first-rate talents that have combined to give here the most complicated of art-forms a near perfect representation.

Never have I seen such good use made of the big Covent Garden stage; each of the seven sets is a beautiful sight in itself and completely right in the context. Visconti has not only produced the opera, but also designed, with the help of two assistants, these sets and the fine costumes. He is perhaps better known as one of the foremost Italian film directors, but he shows himself now as a masterly operatic producer.

The opera – written in 1866, preceding Aida – is a long one, for Verdi sets himself the task of working out the many conflicts in Schiller’s drama of the court of Philip II of Spain: Catholic Spain opposed to Protestant Flanders, the liberal Rodrigo to autocratic State, King to Grand Inquisitor, and also the frustrated love between Don Carlos and the Queen, his intended bride who becomes his stepmother instead, owing to a change of State plans.

Verdi succeeds in his task and creates six substantial parts for singers: six genuine operatic characters of considerable depths. The score has many fine things in it, but the quality is not even; individual numbers do not always sustain otherwise excellent scenes and the promise of the opening scene in the forest of Fontainebleau is not made good until after the big auto-da-fé scene in the third act. In the opening scene of Act IV occurs the extraordinary scene between King and Grand Inquisitor, two basses, followed by several numbers, including a quartet, that are amongst Verdi’s very finest creations.

The singing reached a high level; Boris Christoff, as the King, gave a performance that combined dramatic power with musical refinement; Gre Brouwenstijn, as the Queen, sang with more warmth and beauty of tone than hitherto; Tito Gobbi was in excellent voice and made a convincing Rodrigo; Jon Vickers both sang and acted with more subtly than would have been suspected from his past performance; and Marco Stefanoni was suitably dark-voiced for the Inquisitor. Fedora Barbieri had the misfortune to catch a frog in her throat in ‘Don Fatale’, impeding a performance that was anyhow not in the same class as her colleagues.

But the performance was dominated by the conducting of Giulini. Here was the complete realisation of the score in what was easily the finest Verdi that London has heard for many a long year.”

Hindsight: Even forty years later I still think that this Don Carlos was the best thing I ever saw on the operatic stage, the most completely integrated performance including all aspects; conducting, singing, acting, production, sets. Part of the secret of its success was, I believe, due to the fact that the designer/producer Visconti and conductor Giulini attended every stage rehearsal. Giulini at this stage of his career was at his most dedicated and passionate.

However, I have modified my view of the work in as much as I can now appreciate that the three duets at the end of act two are a marvellous dramatic feat even if the Posa-Philip one, despite endless revisions by Verdi, does not contain the beauty and depth of the act four wonders.

After Giulini, nothing can eclipse his total realisation of its strength, emotional pull and mastery. Pappano gets near but lacks the ultimate, quite how I find it difficult to say. Chorus and orchestra gave their worthy best. And Nicholas Hytner’s production is spot on.

Roland Villazon’s tenor rings out superbly, he is as neurotic as hell and taking vocal risks all the time – can he keep it up at this intensity? Marina Poplavskaya was truly adequate as the Queen without revealing any strong character in the voice. Simon Keenlyside was pure gold, bold, sympathetic and papering over the cracks in the role of Posa, political ardour and impulses not being the best weapons in Verdi’s armoury, sincere and motivated though he was. The Tebaldo of Pumeza Matshika was the best Tebaldo the page that I have seen, Sonia Ganassi was not, though it must be said that this role has seen many an Eboli stumble, the role is a Beecher’s brook. Ferruccio Furlanetta’s voice is not the most beautiful but his artistry is very fine (wonderful legs too!) He was the only Italian to appear (as the King) in this Italian sung version.

All in all it was a pleasurable, powerful evening (11 June) devoted to Verdi’s sprawling masterpiece, when the performance was obviously more trouble- free than the first night.

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