Wednesday 6 May 2009

Review of Don Carlos

I enjoyed Tim Albery's production of Don Carlos, with sets by Hildegard Bechtler, when Opera North first performed it in 1993 and welcomed its latest revival which we saw in Leeds on Saturday 2nd May. Bechtler's sets were stylishly stripped and pared down, with a limited tonal palette, imaginatively lit by Charles Edwards. The result was one of the most visually satisfying productions of the opera that I have seen - knocking Covent Garden's 2 most recent productions of the opera into a cocked hat (Luc Bondy's 'Habitat' production and Nicholas Hyntner's visually confused one).

Unfortunately this all came at a price. Each scene required a scene change and each scene change lasted an unconscionably long time (some up to 5 minutes). The first half had 3 scene changes and the second half 2, so we were sat staring at the drop curtain for a significant amount of time. These hiatuses impeded the dramatic impetus that Richard Farnes and the Opera North Orchestra created, and nullified Verdi's revision which were aimed at creating a swifter, more compact version of the opera.

It is a shame that, for this revival, Bechtler could not have been asked to provide a slimmed down version of the set which would have needed fewer, shorter scene changes.

Opera North performed the 4-act Milan version in which, by extensive cutting and rewriting, Verdi created a sleeker, more incisive, less discursive opera. Opera North performed in English, neatly side stepping the French/Italian dilemma. Verdi wrote this revision (as with all his versions of the opera) in French but the 4-act version was premiered in Milan in Italian translation and companies have been notoriously reluctant to perform the Milan version in French. The cast are going to record the opera for Chandos in June, which is great news.

Don Carlos was played by Julian Gavin. Gavin is not the most dramatically detailed of actors. But he sang with frank, open tone and was generous and tireless with his voice. He showed that he was well able to pace himself and stayed in impressive vocal form right through to the final duet. Gavin succeeded in making the character of Carlos rather less annoying than usual, developing our sympathy rather than our annoyance (as can sometimes happen).

In this he was able supported by the distinguished and subtle Rodrigue, Marquis de Posa, from William Dazeley. Dazeley's voice is still a half-size too small for the role, but he used it musically and intelligently. Most importantly the role was beautifully sung with no feeling of forcing.

Most productions of the opera shy away from any suggestion of the homo-erotic elements in Carlos and Posa's relationship, elements which seem embedded in the music that Verdi wrote for them. Albery, Gavin and Dazeley seemed to come closest in acknowledging this and as a result developed a strong bond between the two characters. Though frankly, I think there is scope for a version of the opera which acknowledges this bond more directly; by making Pose more 'in love' with Carlos you develop proper love triangle rather than one based on both politics and love.

The role of Elisabeth suffers a bit in the 4-act version. Whilst Carlos gets his Fontainebleau Act aria rewritten and moved to the new 1st act, Elisabeth loses hers. This means that her two solo utterances are the aria sung to console the Countess of Aremberg and the great aria in the final act. Apart from this we see Elisabeth mainly in ensemble with others, almost as if we see her through others eyes. Janice Watson took a little time to warm up. I doubt that she is a real Verdi soprano, but there again who is at the moment. It is pointless listening to Watson and complaining that she doesn't sound like Caballe!. Watson's voice is warm with a strong, but pleasant vibrato. In the opening acts she seemed to have to work hard to establish a good sense of line, particularly in the quieter moments. Also, the high tessitura seemed to give her pause. But by the time we came to Act 4 everything was in place and Watson delivered the sort of fully rounded dramatic performance that we might expect of her. This might have something to do with the fact that it is only here that Verdi gives Elisabeth some real meat.

Princesse Eboli was played by American mezzo-soprano Jane Dutton, recently seen as Santuzza at the London Coliseum. Dutton has a dark, low mezzo voice with a rich (strong) vibrato - ideal for Santuzza and Amneris. I am not quite as convinced that she was as suited to Eboli and frankly I would have preferred a voice which was more used to Rossini (as with Covent Garden's most recent casting of the role). Still, Dutton gave the role her all and did not shirk the high notes, which she sang in a full, frank manner. Her voice is not perfect for the coloratura as her vibrato is slow-ish, but she moved relatively cleanly and evenly.

Brindley Sherratt made a severe, distinguished and slightly elderly Philippe. Sherratt has a dry-ish voice, in fact he reminded me rather of Norman Bailey. And though he might never make a traditional sounding Philippe, he made a very notable one. He was severe rather than the monstrous tyrant. When Robert Lloyd first sang the role, in French, at Covent Garden (in the last days of the Visconti production) he said that he found the role far less tyrannical than he had expected and put this down to the differences in the language; that the role in Italian was more tyrannical. Perhaps something of this has rubbed off on Sherratt.

Bechtler and costume designer Nicky Gillibrand conspired to give us a closed in world, where love was mainly absent. Within this framework the singers worked well, but I wonder whether the personenregie had been more detailed, had more depth when I first saw the production.

The smaller, but still important, roles were well played. Julia Sporsen made a lively and believable Thibault, contributing strongly to the Veil Song. Clive Bayley was an impressive Grand Inquisitor; it was wonderful to have the role sung by a singer still with a full bass voice. This gave his scene with Philippe a balance of voices and an edge which it doesn't always get.

The chorus made a strong showing, as always, and managed the awkward blocking in the Auto De Fe scene so that it looked convincing. The orchestra were on similarly strong form giving a big boned version of the score. Sometimes too big boned as their enthusiasm got the better of them at times and the orchestral sound rather dominated the singers.

Richard Farnes kept the drama flowing, it was only a shame that the scene changes impeded him. Still, we have the recording to look forward to.


  1. Anonymous7:43 am

    Thank you Robert for great review Just a point to say that when you are in the gods the scene changes are a wonderful relief to stretch legs, relax and get ready for the next intense half hour or so. I thought that worked brilliantly. I genuinely thought the pauses were for that! ...and not for the set (floor) changes The crack that grew - the colour that became a space.

  2. I'm always impatient, I want things to go on and not have to wait. But I know what you mean about stretching etc; an opera as long as Don Carlos (with just 1 interval) is hard on the knees!


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