Wednesday 30 October 2019

A remarkable reinvention: Verdi's Don Carlos in French in Flanders

Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi: Don Carlos - the Auto-da-fe scene - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi Don Carlos (1886 Modena version, sung in French); Leonardo Capalbo, Mary Elizabeth Williams, Andreas Bauer Kanabas, Kartal Karagedik, Raehann Bryce-Davis, dir: Johan Simons, cond: Alejo Perez; Opera Vlaanderen at Opera Ghen
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 Oct 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Verdi's final thoughts on his Grand Opera, given in a strikingly modern psychological interpretation

Having given us French Grand Opera at its height, with Peter Konwitschny's striking production of Fromental Halevy's La Juive earlier this year [see my review], Opera Vlaanderen has returned to the form with Verdi's Don Carlos, the Italian composer's final, remarkable engagement with French Grand Opera. But the new production of Don Carlos was also an indication of the possible directions for the company, as one of the dramaturges was Jan Vandenhouwe who is the company's new Artistic Director of Opera, whilst the conductor was Alejo Perez, the company's new Music Director.

Don Carlos was Verdi's third opera written for the Paris Opera, the third time he attempted to create his own version of French Grand Opera. Don Carlos is a masterpiece, yet undoubtedly when it premiered in 1867 French Grand Opera was going out of fashion. In five acts, it was also very long, from the outset Italian opera companies tended to cut it. Finally, in the 1880s Verdi produced a more compact, revised four-act version. Not just cut, but substantially revised, tightening the musical material and moving the work closer to Italian opera. This version had the virtue of cyclical form, it omitted the original first act (set in Fontainebleau) and so started and finished in the monastery of San Yuste, by the tomb of Emperor Charles V. This has, however, the disadvantage of omitting the scene where we see Carlos and Elisabeth in love and untroubled, before she learns she has been betrothed not to Carlos but to his father Philippe. So Verdi sanctioned a final version, adding a truncated version of the Fontainebleau act to the revised version to create a five-act opera, what is known as the 1886 Modena version.

That the revised versions were made for Italian opera companies has given Italian a strange primacy in the work, but Verdi worked at all times with a French libretto and French librettists, though a new Italian translation was commissioned for the 1880s revised version.  Frankly, Don Carlos works better in French, the music suits the shape of the French language, but Verdi was relatively pragmatic about language. He was happy for his operas to be sung by Italian opera companies in Paris and in London, but rather expected the Paris Opera, the French national company to perform in French and was horrified to learn that the company planned to perform Otello in Italian.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
We caught Opera Vlaanderen's new production of Verdi's Don Carlos (sung in French, in the 1886 Modena version) at Opera Ghent on Sunday 27 October 2019. The production was directed by Johan Simons, with designs and video by Hans Op de Beeck, costumes by Greta Goiris, lighting by Dennis Diels, and Jeroen Versteele and Jan Vandenhouwe as dramaturgs. Leonardo Capalbo was Don Carlos [we saw him in the role at Grange Park this Summer, in the four-act version, see my review], with Mary Elizabeth Williams as Elisabeth [last seen as Amelia in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at WNO, see my review], Andreas Bauer Kanabas as Philippe, Kartal Karagedik as Rodrigue, Raehann Bryce-Davis as Eboli, Werner Van Mechelen as the Grand Inquisitor, Annelies Van Gramberen as Thibault and a voice from above. It was a remarkably international ensemble, with a Dutch director, Argentinian conductor, Italian-American Don Carlos, American Elizabeth and Eboli, Turkish Rodrigue, German Philippe, and Belgian Grand Inquisitor and Thibault.

Whatever version of Don Carlos you do, it remains a challenge, a complex, large-scale piece with demanding principle roles and some substantial ensemble numbers.
Johan Simons' re-invention of it as psychological drama in a trim production which did not require the engagement of numerous extras, was remarkable in that he did not try to disguise the work's Grand Opera roots but simply used them for his own ends. Central to the production was the relocation of the Fontainebleau act to come second, after the scene with Carlos and Rodrigue in San Yuste monastery. In this way Simon could preserve the revised versions cyclical form. Fontainebleau thus becomes a flash-back, the older Carlos remembering happier days, and in fact the whole opera is presented as Carlos' memories. This allowed Simon to concentrate on details when some productions tended to go for the bigger, grander picture. And whilst, on paper, this concept might come over as Regietheater at its worst, in fact thanks to some superb personenregie, whatever the occasional weaknesses of the concept, the result was gripping.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Annelies Van Gramberen, Raehann Bryce Davis, Leonardo Capalbo - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi: Don Carlos - Annelies Van Gramberen, Raehann Bryce Davis, Leonardo Capalbo
Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
By having Carlos constantly present, watching and sometimes participating in scenes where in Verdi's original he is omitted, Simon presented Leonardo Capalbo with a challenge, expanding the role considerably, one to which Capalbo rose magnificently. Having Capalbo help lay out the scenes worked rather well, but there were some places where his presence seemed redundant, having him swim across the floor at one point was just unnecessarily distracting. But overall, the concept helped focus this as Carlos' story. The weakest moment was the Auto de Fe scene, where Simon's omitted of serried ranks of extras and any ceremonial walking about, yet did not quite manage to find a satisfactory replacement, at one point leaving the stage determindly empty.

The designs were highly imaginative. Hans Op de Beeck's sets relied substantially on video, there was a huge scrim at the back of the stage on which Op de Beeck projected videos of stylish looking sets, but these did not just appear they were assembled in a theatrical way, yet at other times we had abstraction. And occasionally we could see through the scrim to the chorus (and sometimes the principals) sitting waiting and watching, an eerie way of making us aware that everything that happened was watched and understood. Nothing was ever really private. Central to the physical set were a series of remarkable mobile structures, including a day bed which could also become a cage or a cot, evocative of the psychiatrists couch and also of the prison, but perhaps a tomb as well. For the scene in the Queen's garden we had coloured abstract forms, which reappeared as the bald, metal frames in the Auto-da-Fe scene.

Costumes for the principals were eclectic, but with a definite scheme. The women were largely dressed in 1940s style, we first see Elisabeth in a stylish trouser suit, large soup plate hat and gloves, whilst Eboli was similarly 1940s chic but with more of an edge (dare I say slightly tarty). Yet Eboli also had a ruff, and whilst Thibault was dressed in 1960s style, the result was close to a tunic too. Don Carlos remained in t-shirt and long shorts for the entirety, never quite in the action but an on-looker. Rodrigue had a combination of tunic, long-shirt and long shorts which almost approached a shalwar kameez. Philippe wore a jacket over a long garment. This resembled a cassock, perhaps hinting at the religious nature of Philippe's kingship, but it meant that when we first saw Elisabeth and Philippe, she was in trousers and he was in a skirt! The chorus members were all dressed in roughly 16th century period style, but grossly exaggerated to give them an almost surreal look.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo, Andreas Bauer Kanabas, Kartal Karadegik  - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo, Andreas Bauer Kanabas, Kartal Karadegik
Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Whilst the orchestra was the substantial one that Verdi originally wrote for (four bassoons, four horns), the overall approach was a lyric one. That the title role is so challenging in terms of stamina has led it to be cast from more dramatic tenors, but if you can find a lyric tenor who is able to find the necessary staying power, then there are great benefits. Here we had a group of essentially lyric voices, all bringing a remarkable intimacy and sense of communication to the work.

Leonardo Capalbo is a lyric tenor moving slowly into more dramatic territory. His current repertoire includes Rigoletto and La Traviata, but also Don Jose in Bizet's Carmen and the title role of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman as well as a remarkable appearance as Massenet's Le Cid with Dorset Opera. Because of the production's concept as being in Don Carlos' memory, there was a tendency to feel that sometimes the production was happening around Capalbo, and he is not without the tenorial tendency to just stand on stage and sing (though in a long and taxing role like this, that is understandable). But Capalbo created a strong and passionate character, one who was involved with the other protagonists via the sequence of striking scenes which Verdi and his librettists articulated the opera (in the original Don Carlos is does not actually spend very long alone) With Capalbo clearly responding to Johan Simons' strong and detailed personenregie, the result was a series of gripping encounters, and the overall concept gave Capalbo the chance to reveal more of Don Carlos' character than would normally be possible. Capalbo was a fallible, powerfully human Carlos, passionate and unable to let go of the past, rather than damaged or idiotic, and throughout Capalbo sang with a fine, open dramatic tone yet with a lovely intimacy in the quieter moments.

Mary Elizabeth Williams made a strong Elisabeth without ever resorting to histrionics, and whilst keeping the role within a lyric concept. Key to this was her Act Four encounter with Andreas Bauer Kanabas' Philippe over the jewel box where Williams was contained but powerful and in control. Her huge and glorious final aria was thoughtful and personal, rather than grand and melancholy. This was an intimate view of the role, and her relations with Capalbo's passionate Carlos simmered wonderfully, providing a key thread through the opera. Unlike some, you sensed that this down to earth Elisabeth would never really weaken, and the final duet with Capalbo was finely focussed and intimate, heartbreaking in its infinite regret. One other key moment, the aria to her lady in waiting summarily dismissed by Philippe. Few sopranos can match Montserrat Caballe's quietly focussed sense of line hear but Williams brought a quiet intensity to a scene which can often pass too easily by.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo, Raehann Bryce Davis - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo, Raehann Bryce Davis - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Kartal Karagedik was a very moral, upright Rodrigue, very soldierly. His relationship to Capalbo's Carlos was closer to the brotherly than the homo-erotic, yet there were touches of that too, and some interesting tensions, this relationship was not a straightforward one. By starting with the San Yuste scene (in fact Act Two, scene One), the men's relationship was thrown into high relief with their glorious duet giving a strong sense to their passionate relationship. Karagedik delivered a powerful death scene, not lying prone but standing facing the audience with whilst Capalbo leaned over one of the metal structures suggesting an intimate connection with a prone body.

Andreas Bauer Kanabas made Philippe upright and controlling without the hard edges that some give to the character. But Robert Lloyd (who first sang the role in French at Covent Garden before learning it in Italian) has written of the softer edges that the French language gives to the role. Bauer Kanabas was very touching in Philippe's aria in Act Four, melancholy yet very human. But he could also be intolerable, as in his jealousy when dealing with his wife and her supposed relationship to his son. And in the thrilling scene with Werner van Mechelen's Grand Inquisitor, Bauer Kanabas made Philippe very much the Inquisitor's equal. A key to Bauer Kanabas' Philippe was that he controlled but never thundered.

Raehann Bryce-Davis' Eboli was one of the highlights of the opera, chic in dress, confident in her sexuality and, until the Act Four scene, self absorbed, this Eboli oozed sexy charm, control and mischief. She was a complete delight. Vocally Bryce-Davis has a rich mezzo-soprano voice, with a lovely lower register, yet also a mobile extension which meant that the Veil Song was full of charm rather than needing to be sung with punchy drama. A finely sung account of her Act Four aria brought out the intimate sense of revelation necessary to the drama.

Annelies Van Gramberen was a perky, characterful Thibault, joining in a delightful account of the Veil Song with Raehann Bryce-Davis, very sexily done yet without veil, and also Van Gramberen contributed a moving account of the voice from above at the end of the Auto-da-Fe scene.

Werner Van Mechelen took over the role of the Grand Inquisitor in later performances from Robert Scandiuzzi. It was nice to come across an account of the role which was both coherent dramatically and well sung. So that vocally as well as dramatically, King and Inquisitor were well balanced.

The smaller roles, many taken by members of the company's young artists studio, were very well taken, with Justin Hopkins as the Monk/Charles V, Stephan Adriaens as the Herald and the Comte de Lerme. The roles of the Flemish Deputies in the Auto-da-Fe scene (Justin Hopkins, Patrick Cromheeke, Thierry Vallier, Simon Schmidt, Guido Verbelen, Mark Gough) are easily slid over by a critic, but watching the opera given by a Flemish company in Flanders made you realise that, for all the artistic licence and liberties taken with history, the work was dealing with real history.

The chorus, often present watching from behind the scrim and sometimes singing from there rather than taking part in the action, was a strong, powerful presence.  Conductor Alejo Perez drew a fluid, perhaps even brisk, account of the opera, keeing the drama moving, though there was still time for the individual singers. We were sitting at the side of the front stalls and balance sometimes over favoured the orchestra, but the playing was strong and confident, and not a little stylish.

Opera Ghent
Opera Ghent
Opera Ghent is a striking building, built originall in the 1840s and housing not just a theatre but a fine sequence of parade room as well, perhaps in need of a little conservation and restoration, but handsome nonetheless and definitely worth a visit. Opera Vlaanderen is lucky to have as its twin homes a pair of fine historic theatres in Ghent and Antwerp.

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