Wednesday 7 November 2018

Intimate grandeur: Fulham Opera in Verdi's five-act version of Don Carlo

Verdi: Don Carlo - Fulham Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: Don Carlo - Fulham Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi Don Carlo; Albero Sousa, Philippa Boyle, Keel Watson, Andrew Mayor, Siv Iren Misund, dir: Lewis Reynolds, cond Ben Woodward; Fulham Opera at St John's Church, Waterloo Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Vivid drama and grandeur in an intimate account of Verdi's large-scale opera

Staging Verdi's Don Carlo, his longest and most complex opera, is a big stretch for any opera company and might seem over ambitious for an opera company staging works on a small scale in a church. But Fulham Opera, which presents staged productions with chamber orchestra accompaniment in St John's Church in Fulham, is no stranger to large-scale challenges having presented Wagner's entire Ring Cycle.

Don Carlo was given in the 1886 five-act version (Verdi's revised four-act Modena version of the opera with the original Fontainebleau act restored), shorter than Verdi's 1867 original but still a long stretch. The work was sung in the Italian translation, rather than the French original. Fulham Opera double cast the piece, and on Tuesday 6 November 2018, we saw Alberto Sousa as Don Carlo, Keel Watson as Philip, Philippa Boyle as Elisabeth, Andrew Mayor as Rodrigo, Siv Iren Misund as Eboli, Gerard Delrez as the Grand Inquisitor and Hannah Macaulay as Tebaldo. The production was directed by Lewis Reynolds, with designs by Alexander McPherson and lighting by Davy Cunningham. Ben Woodward conducted with an orchestra of eleven.

It might seem fool-hardy, trying to boil Verdi's grandest of grand operas down to a chamber size, but in fact, much of the action lies in a series of tense encounters between just two or three people. Lewis Reynolds sensibly concentrated on these scenes and encouraged his principals to bring out a real truthfulness in their performances. The setting was more installation than set, the presence of the altar of St John's Church was not disguised and it was brought into play in a number of imaginative ways. The claustrophobic inner scenes worked very well, though we had to take a lot for granted when presented with the forest of Fontainebleau or the palace gardens.

The production was intelligently modern dress, set in some sort of neo-Fascist state with close integration of church and state. There were some nice details in the settings, I particularly liked the fact that the women wore mantillas for the visit to the monastery, and manners were suitably formal. Design wise it was all black and white, with just touches of red, and there was a central role for the relic of a crowned skull in a perspex box which became a striking feature of later scenes.

But it is simply not possible to shirk the larger scale scenes, and the Auto-da-Fe scene at the end of Act Three was somewhat of a stretch for the company, requiring the personnel of the men's chorus to be spread rather thinly and showing up the budget limitations of the production. Reynolds attempted to do everything required of the libretto, including burning the victim, and I feel that something more abstract might have worked better. Similarly, the prison scene in Act Four might have been more effective without the rather simplistic cage.

That the production worked and remained engrossing was thanks to some superb performances from the principals, we were presented with real characters who engaged us and kept us hooked.
Alberto Sousa made a dark-voiced, thrilling Don Carlo. He paced himself well, and by the end of this long role it was clear that he had both the resources and the stamina, it was an impressive achievement. But it was more than that, because Sousa's identification with the role created a real sense of drama. This was a highly self-absorbed Don Carlo, and we learned about him not so much from his encounters with others as from Sousa's intensely detailed vocal and facial expressions. Sousa has profoundly expressive eyes, and this Don Carlo was intent, verging on the manic, whilst all the time thrilling us with his voice.

As his love interest, Philippa Boyle was similarly impressive. She has a focused, jugend-dramatisch voice (she sings Eva in Fulham Opera's The Mastersingers next year) yet with plenty of straight tone. Perhaps Act One was a bit too full on, but she settled down and turned in a finely tuned performance. This Elisabeth was feisty, and her scenes with Don Carlo, with Philip and with Eboli all fairly crackled. If, perhaps, the farewell to the Countess of Arenberg in Act Two lacked an ideal evenness of tone, it was still very human and Boyle kept the best till last, turning in a mesmerising performance of Elisabeth's huge aria in Act Five.

Keel Watson's Philip was quite simply remarkable, a highly physical performance where Philip's martinet nature was embodied in every gesture. This was also highly detailed, and it was wonderful to watch the play of emotions on Watson's face as scenes played out, particularly intense encounters such as with Rodrigo in Act Two and the Grand Inquisitor in Act Four. But it was a musical performance too, and Watson even made us sympathise with the poor old man in his Act Four aria, though not for long as other emotions came into play too. It is too easy to play Philip simply as a caricature, and Watson's performance was so richly complex and truthful that we saw far more than that. It is certainly a performance which deserves to be seen on a bigger stage, and I would love to hear him sing the role in the original French.

Siv Iren Misund made a wonderfully vibrant and sexy Eboli. Misund has glorious lower and middle registers, creamy and darkly sexy, but she also has a lively top and encompassed the challenges of the Veil Song with ease. This was a very complete Eboli, sexy, jealous, political yet softly human and needing to be loved. She and Sousa really made the Act Three trio, with Andrew Mayor's Rodrigo, tellingly dramatic, and her great Act Four aria was all one might have hoped. A vibrantly mesmerising performance.

Andrew Mayor played Rodrigo as a stiff military man, always very proper and on his correct behaviour. He sang with admirably firm tone and has in many ways an ideal voice for this repertoire, but compared to the other principals he seemed a little stiff. This was most noticeable in the scenes with Alberto Sousa's Don Carlo, where Mayor's approach to Sousa was more fatherly than anything else. There is (or at least should be) a strong homo-erotic charge in this relationship, and different singers bring out different aspects, but this was perhaps the least homoerotic performance I have seen. Only in the last minutes of Rodrigo's death scene, when Sousa cradled the prone Mayor in his arms did we get a glimpse of something else. The opera is richer if the homo-erotic pull is there, another thread in the tangled skein which links the principals.

The smaller roles were all well cast, but perhaps not all were quite at the same intensely detailed level as the five principals. Gerard Delrez made a strongly dramatic looking Grand Inquisitor and whilst his scene with Keel Watson's Philip was tense, I did not feel that Delrez quite matched Watson for the vivid detail of his performance. Hannah Macaulay was a charming Tebaldo and joined with Siv Iren Misund for a lively rendition of the Veil Song. John Wood combined the roles of the Count of Lerma and the Herald to create a strong supporting character, whilst chorus member Corinne Hart was the admirable voice from heaven. Ian Wilson-Pope certainly looked the part as the monk who might (or might not) be Charles V, but Wilson-Pope's voice did not quite have the ideal firmness of centre required in this repertoire.

The chorus worked hard and in the bigger scenes they were needed to make up the lack of grandeur in the staging. They worked and sang with a will, and filled the auditorium with energy.

The reduced orchestration was imaginatively done, and only the very electric sounding electric organ jarred. There was much sensitive playing, with a great many solo lines, and moments like the glorious cello solo in Philip's Act Four solo worked beautifully. Some of the bigger moments seemed, however, a little uneven and you felt the pressure of rehearsal time in such a big work. Having orchestra and conductor in the side aisle, with Ben Woodward not necessarily in his singers' sight lines, led to some unevenness of coordination but these are details which will be ironed out with further performances.

This was an impressive achievement and more, Lewis Reynolds, Ben Woodward and their cast created a feeling of living drama in front of us and kept us engaged and involved despite the sheer complexity of the challenge. This was vividly upfront and intimate Verdi, in a performance which also caught the large-scale musical grandeur of the piece too.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Lincolnshire Remembers: Britten's War Requiem from Lincoln Cathedral - concert review
  • Enjoying the musicianship: Josquin masses from The Tallis Scholars  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Brushing away cynicism: Philippe Jordan & the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven - (★★★★) CD review
  • The Unknown Traveller: The Fieri Consort in Italian madrigals from Musica Transalpina and Ben Rowarth (★★★★) - CD review
  • Disturbing intensity: Lucia di Lammermoor at ENO (★★★★) - opera review
  • Voices of Aotearoa - Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir at Cadogan Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Die Walküre - Royal Opera House Live  - (★★★½) Opera review
  • Confidence: Julien Behr in 19th century Romantic French opera arias (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Musical drama: Bellini's Norma with Helena Dix in the title role  - (★★★★½) - Opera review
  • New music in Manchester - I chat to Tim Williams, artistic director of Psappha  - my interview
  • A walk with Ivor Gurney: Sarah Connolly and Tenebrae at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Colour and movement: orchestral music by Kenneth Hesketh (★★★½) - CD review
  • Abbandonata: Italian cantatas from Carolyn Sampson and Robert King  (★★★★) - CD review
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