Monday, 27 June 2016

Grandeur and intimacy - Verdi's Don Carlo at Grange Park Opera

Auto da fe scene - Verdi Don Carlo - Grange Park Opera - photo Robert Workman
Auto da fe scene - Verdi: Don Carlo - Grange Park Opera - photo Robert Workman
Verdi Don Carlo; Stefano Secco, Virginia Tola, David Stout, Clive Bayley, Ruxandra Donose, Alastair Miles, dir: Jo Davies, cond: Gianluca Marciano, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Grange Park Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 25 2016
Star rating: 4.0

A miracle of compression, Verdi's grand opera at Grange Park

Verdi's Don Carlo is a challenge for any opera company, but mounting his grand opera (even in his revised four-act version) in a small opera house like Grange Park Opera was always going to be tricky. In the event the production, directed by Jo Davies, sets designed by Leslie Travers, was a triumph of compression. Don Carlo was Italian tenor Stefano Secco, with Operalia winner Virginia Tola as Elisabetta. Clive Bayley was Philippo, David Stout was Rodrigo, Alastair Miles was the Grand Inquisitor, and Ruxandra Donose was Princess Eboli. Costumes were by Gabrielle Dalton, movement by Lynne Hockney and lighting by Anna Watson, Gianluca Marciano conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The opera was performed in the four-act revised version which Verdi produced in 1884. The original 1867 five-act version, premiered in Paris, proved too long for Italian opera houses and Verdi took advantage of the revision to produce a tauter version. Sadly at Grange Park it was sung in the contemporary Italian translation rather than the original French.

Ruxandra Donose, Clive Bayley - Verdi Don Carlo - Grange Park Opera - photo Robert Workman
Ruxandra Donose, Clive Bayley - Verdi: Don Carlo - Grange Park Opera - photo Robert Workman
Key to the production were Leslie Travers striking and elegant sets, based around a pair of massive yet movable walls which provided a suggestion of the ecclesiastical architecture and a sense of stripped back massiveness, whilst being imaginatively multi-use; decorative slots doubled as candle holders, and the upper level embrasures formed balconies for the chorus in the auto-da-fe scene. At the centre was a moveable glazed element which came and went, sometimes with candles in it (for the opening and closing scenes), sometimes trees and sometimes replaced by a grill. The set had all the substance needed to bring the opera off, with all the functional requirements, yet managed to be simple and elegant. Within this, Jo Davies took a similarly stripped back and straightforward approach to the drama, so that the stage was never fussily cluttered. Even the auto-da-fe scene had a clarity to it, though Davies was marshalling multiple groups of singers (courtiers, priests and Flemish deputies) plus soloists. My only real complaint was the rather unnecessary changes to the opera's closing scene.

Perhaps a key to Jo Davies approach was that she did not have a particular axe to grind, instead told the complex story with directness and intense sympathy for the leading characters. The costumes were loosely period, with the women in black gowns which were essentially 19th century but with 16th century detailing, and similarly the men wore trousers but carried swords. The colour palate was very restricted, simply blacks and browns with the odd flash of white standing out (the women's collars, Philippo's shirt in his solo scene in Act Three).

Middle period Verdi is increasingly difficult to cast, and Grange Park Opera fielded a cast which would have made many a big opera house proud. It wasn't perfect, but the principals all played to their individual strengths and made a great team. Central to this was the tireless tenor voice of Stefano Secco. I have to admit that I found his voice a little too edgy, he seemed to sing a half a notch too loud for the theatre, and occasional high note had a tightness to them. But he paced himself well and had plenty of stamina for the great final scene, and sang Verdi's music with an admirable fluency, supplying a superbly well filled line that would be the envy of many casting directors in this opera. He had a rather solid, middle-aged persona, lacking the dynamism necessary yet on the smaller stage at Grange Park this mattered less and when he came forward we could see and hear every detail.
David Stout, Stefano Secco - Verdi Don Carlo - Grange Park Opera - photo Robert Workman
David Stout, Stefano Secco - Verdi: Don Carlo - Grange Park Opera - photo Robert Workman

He was partnered by Virginia Tola's dignified Elisabetta, with the two of them creating a sense of intensity and tension in their relationship. Without the Fontainebleau act we have to take some of this as read, but Tola and Secco made the central relationship of the opera key. Tola looked every inch the upright, dignified queen which made her moments of weakness all the more telling. She has the ability to spin a fine quiet line, and some of her best moments were when she sang softly. She has quite a vibrant voice, with a sense of attack and the ability to convey fragility, yet I missed a sense of sustained line which can make Verdi's music all the more moving.

This central pairing was surrounded by a trio of really stand-out performances, yet no-one pulled focus and the whole was a balanced drama. Clive Bayley's Filippo was wonderfully implacable, with a strong belief in the rightness of his faith. Bayley is a finely reactive performer, and it helped that we could see Bayley's face so the we registered every flicker of emotion as it passed across. Whilst in the public scenes Bayley was implacable, yet without overly caricaturing, in his private scenes were saw the inner man; the thrilling Act One duet with David Stout's Rodrigo, and the superbly moving solo which opens Act Three.

Rodrigo is a character whom we see in the context of other people, and David Stout showed himself immensely sympathetic and reactive. Yet Stout also impressed with the way his voice has developed, creating a Verdi baritone voice of some power. There was an effortless shapeliness and even bravura to his phrasing, and a secure sense of style and I look forward to hearing him in many more Verdi roles. The Act One duet with Secco's Don Carlo was thrilling and only marred by a sense that Secco's voice was a little too dominant. The scene with Princess Eboli in the cloister (as they talk French fashion whilst Elisabetta reads Don Carlo's letter) was a delight and the subsequent duet with Clive Bayley's Filippo fairly crackled. Rodrigo's death scene was profoundly moving, a rightly the musical climax.

Virginia Tola - Verdi: Don Carlo - Grange Park Opera - photo Robert Workman
Virginia Tola - Verdi: Don Carlo - Grange Park Opera - photo Robert Workman
Ruxandra Donose was similarly impressive as Princess Eboli, whilst making the character part of the drama rather than simply a series of set pieces (the Veil Song, 'O Don Fatale'). Donose had a remarkable ease at the top of her range which made the Veil Song a complete delight, and gave the piece the sense of lightness which it needs (and showed that Donose has a nice sense of humour). Whilst the Act Three scene with Tola's Elisabetta was moving, and 'O Don Fatale' had just the right combination of drama and pathos. Overall this was a lovely fluid and flexible performance, taking every advantage of singing in a smaller house to bring subtlety to the music.

Alastair Miles was a thrilling Grand Inquisitor, making the scene with Bayley's Filippo full of tension as two implacable men faced each other. Miles did not make too much business with the Grand Inquisitor's blindness which made the performance stronger, and he and Bayley both have dark, yet contrasting voices which made for a lovely combination of low timbres in the scene (combined with some superb playing of Verdi's bass line from the bassoons and double basses).

Jihoon Kim made a powerful Monk, with his thrilling dark voice. Carrie-Ann Williams was a delightful Tebaldo, joining well with Donose in the Veil Song, but I could have wished her performance was more androgynous and less feminine. Alberto Sousa made the Count of Lerma a sympathetic presence, though he had little to do in this version. Philip Clieve was the Royal Herald and Sarah Lambie was the Countess of Aremberg.

Ruxandra Donose & chorus - Verdi: Don Carlo - Grange Park Opera - photo Robert Workman
Ruxandra Donose & chorus - Verdi: Don Carlo - Grange Park Opera - photo Robert Workman
The hard-working chorus were impressive, singing with vivid vigour and they made moments like the Auto-da-fe scene really thrilling, despite not having the weight of numbers that you might have in a bigger house. Verdi's writing was significantly influenced by his encounter with French grand opera, with the Paris Opera's requirements for a large and expressive orchestra. Gianluca Marciano and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra were central to the whole performance, making full use of the expressive potential of the score, with the many orchestral passages having a lovely depth of expression. I was particularly struck by the scene with the Grand Inquisitor and Filippo, but this was only as one example amongst many.

This was a wonderfully grand farewell to Northington Grange as Wasfi Kani and the Grange Park Opera company prepare to leave the theatre and move to a new theatre being built at West Horsley Place in Surrey next year, whilst a new enterprise The Grange Festival will continue at Northington Grange under the artistic directorship of Michael Chance next year.

Recommended recordings:
Verdi - Don Carlos (original 1867 French version) - Joseph Rouleau, Andre Turp, Edith Tremblay, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Matheson - Opera Rara
Verdi - Don Carlos (1884 version, sung in English) - Julian Gavin, Janice Waston, Alastair Miles, Opera North, Richard Farnes - Chandos
Verdi - Don Carlo (1886 five-act Modena version, sung in Italian) - Placido Domingo, Montserrat Caballe, Sherrill Milnes, Ruggero Raimondi, Carlo Maria Giulini - Warner

Elsewhere on this blog:

1 comment:

  1. The role of the Herald was actualy sung by Paul Milosavljevic.


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