Sunday 15 June 2008

Don Carlos at the Royal Opera House - Beg, borrow or steal a ticket if you have to*

*Please note, we here at Where's Runnicles are not actually advocating theft, and our title should not be construed in this manner, it is merely a turn of phrase. However, as the following review will elaborate, this production is a superb evening at the theatre and you should do everything legally in your power to obtain a ticket if you don't have one already.

But before I get down to the review proper, two rants. Rant one is that last night's audience were fairly awful: whispering, the gentleman next to me who had to clear his throat every two minutes, the gentleman next to him who coughed without putting a hand over his mouth, or making any effort to limit the volume. Indeed, such was the level of coughing you would have thought either that summer and autumn had got lost in a weird time warp and we were in the midst of winter flue season or that there had been an outbreak of SARS. They also insisted on applauding after arias, often when the music had still to finish, and carried on when Pappano got going again. If Verdi hadn't wanted us to hear those notes he wouldn't have written them, so please people, if you must clap, at least wait for the quiet. Of course, no one involved in the production should be blamed for that.

The second rant is more serious and concerns the version of the score in use. Now, in fairness to those involved, there do exist more editions of Don Carlos than Ben and Jerry's have flavours of ice cream [Editor's note - it seems unlikely there are quite this many versions of Don Carlos]. Even if the question of French of Italian is set to one side, there is the four act and the five act, then the question of which cut scenes to restore. Fortunately Pappano adopts a five act version. A programme note by Christopher Wintle sets out the reasons for choosing the 1886 Modena which restores the shortened Paris act one (though not the opening chorus that was cut before the first performance). The reasons for this choice are than this was Verdi's last thinking on the subject. While this is may be true, I don't think it's a justification. Verdi might well have put more material back in had an opera house wanted to do it that was less concerned with length. I quibble more over some cuts than others, but there are two which simply do not make dramatic sense, and that should surely be the overriding criterion.

The first cut is from the very start of the opera. The Modena version opens with Carlos in the forest at Fontainebleau, but cut before the Paris premier was a scene were Elizabeth, wandering, comes upon a group of woodcutters and their wives who lament their awful situation, which owes something to the war. This cut matters not so much because it's beautiful music, though it is, but rather because at the end of act one the King of France has promised Elizabeth in marriage to King Philip of Spain to settle the peace agreement. Philip, however, wants Elizabeth to marry him willingly. In the meantime, of course, she has met and fallen in love with Carlos. When faced with this choice, there is a brief encouragement from the court before she picks Philip. However, to me, the suffering she has seen, and wants to alleviate, explain that choice convincingly in a way the Modena text does not.

The second cut is even more critical. During the ball (and the ballet) Elizabeth and Eboli swap masks. This causes Carlos to make love to Eboli, believing her to be the queen, with disastrous consequences. In the Modena version we jump straight to the tryst and have to rely on a programme note informing us he's received a note - but what's given him to think it's from Eboli, it isn't very satisfying. You could happily cut the ballet and still have a sensical scene at not too huge a cost in time.

Along the way the title seems to have become Carlo when in Italian, not Carlos. That said, Verdi continued to call it Don Carlos in its first Italian productions, and in this one his grandfather's tomb had the name Carlos embossed on it, which makes a Carlo title seem silly. To me, and throughout this review, it will always be Don Carlos, no matter what Covent Garden and others may choose to call it.

For the record, as far as the Italian or French question goes, I have very much enjoyed performances in either and, to be honest, as long as the singers can cope (and that's a big if - Abbado's La Scala performance is something of a train wreck as the cast fail in their attempts to grapple with the French, not helped by the absence of a language coach, or certainly one who was up to the task). However, if the choice is good French or good Italian, I'm not sure I have a preference, the music seems to respond well to both. I wonder what English would be like? After Gardner's Aida, I'd be more than curious to hear him have a go.

Right, now that all that's out of the way, Saturday's performance can be considered. From the moment the curtain rises, it is clear we're getting a traditional production. Indeed, under Nicholas Hytner's direction and Bob Crowley's designs we get a faithful and literal production, something all too rare these days and the more welcome for it. The sets and most costumes are uniformly beautiful and well done. The forest at Fontainebleau is created with vivid but slightly pole-like white trees, these work their way upstage until they blend into a backdrop drawn in the same fashion. There is a white carpet, representing the winter snow with a black path snaking through like a river (and showing those responsible for the Parsifal golf course how this sort of thing should be done). Carlos, played by Rolando Villazon, is lent an unfortunate resemblance to Edmund Blackadder (think the Elizabethan one) by his costume. His acting is a little wooden, as too is that of Marina Poplavskaya as Elizabeth. But the singing is what really counts. Now, someone once remarked that Don Carlos is easy to do: all you need is the six best singers in the world. There is a lot of truth to that [though you also need an excellent conductor, chorus, orchestra and budget - Ed.]. It is next to impossible to assemble such a dream cast. Villazon is good, though he doesn't always have quite the volume at the loudest moments. Poplavskaya's voice seemed rather hollow early on, but this improved and by act five I found her utterly compelling. Pumeza Matshikiza, as Elizabeth's page Tebaldo, was much less successful. I feel a bit bad criticising her: it was announced that she was suffering from back trouble and would sing from a chair at the side of the stage. I feel strongly that this should not be permitted. This is at least the second time I have seen and heard it, the balance of the voices does not fit and the actor just looks plain silly. I can see why a singer might want to do this (not least as the performance was being recorded and so there may well have been a financial implication to her) but I don't feel it serves the audience well and I can't think Opus Arte were too happy. Not only was the balance odd, but her voice was rather shrill. Still, she has a mercifully small role. The chorus were excellent though, and well directed: there was a wonderful flourish of cloaks being laid down in a manner than would have pleased Walter Raleigh as Elizabeth is borne to her litter. They sang well too. Pappano's conducting is harder to pin down. At first it sometimes felt a little underwhelming, but then when the fireworks sounded, he found fireworks in the score. Indeed, he, and the orchestra, were particularly impressive in the climaxes. There was a great sense of drama and pageant as they processed off stage into the rear wall (though they might have done better to walk slower or drop the curtain faster, as it did start to look a little silly as they all ran into each other).

Act two's scenes were similarly fine. Now that we're in Spain rather than France the costumes give us a different sense of place. The dimly lit monastery features a huge tomb for Carlos's grandfather, also Carlos, his name emblazoned across it, which complete with statuettes looks more like the Ark of the Covenant. As the scene progresses this moves across the stage and a wonderful line of columns drops down silently, which get smaller as they retreat upstage. The elderly priest, who doubles up as the voice of Carlos V when he appears at the end, is superb, but there is arguably a little too much by way of monks processing. Simon Keenlyside's Rodrigo was little short of astonishing. Long one of my favourite singers, not least because in addition to his fine voice he can really act.

The scene then transformed to the exterior and a ruby coloured pyramid (possibly the most adventurous bit of set) with a wonderfully lit sky background. As the scene progressed this turned a deeper red towards a stunning dusk. A job extremely well done from lighting designer Mark Henderson. Having done backstage work, albeit in an amateur context, I know whereof I speak. I found Sonia Ganassi's Eboli much less convincing. Her voice seemed rather haughty and her aria as the court waits for the Queen had none of the breathtaking beauty that Fedora Barbieri found for Giulini fifty years ago. Indeed, the staging here was the one area where I think WNO beat this production (though their Eboli was worse as she struggled with the French). Still, I was clearly in the minority as she got quite an ovation. Ferruccio Furlanetto's Philip was superb though. He and Keenlyside complemented each other wonderfully, their scene being a real highlight. When he sang "beware the inquisitor" all I could think was that I could hardly wait.

Prior to Act three we received another announcement from the management, that Villazon had suffered an allergic reaction but would soldier on. The curtain rises for act three and, having dispensed with the ball we are left with Carlos and Eboli meeting in an alley of trees, projecting outwards in a v shape. I've noted above why I don't think this works, and that may be why the scene as a whole didn't grab me. When Posa threatens to kill Eboli, I didn't quite believe him, the one chink in Keenlyside's acting armour. The singing between them is good though. As they leave a wall drops and rises impressively soon to reveal a vastly different set. At the back a gold palace has been flown in and stage left is a fabric screen with Jesus's face, crown of thorns on his head. The mob make for a stunning choral entrance and Poppano ratchets up the tension throughout the scene for a thrilling conclusion. The monks lead on the condemned whose white costumes, a little reminiscent of the KKK, perhaps, have fabric flame patterns. At first I thought this was how they would symbolise burning them alive, but since they in the end use real fire that can't be it, as a result they look odd. The Priest Inquisitor and the herald are both good and the voice of heaven, Anita Watson, is superb, and well placed for a nicely ethereal effect. Time and again the drama is almost overwhelming, as when Rodrigo demand's Carlos's sword. Then, in stunning climax the lighting changes and we can see past Jesus's face to the pyre it was hiding, which ignites most impressively, though the actors playing the condemned have now been replaced by dummies.

Act four's set is much simpler, walls at the back and stage left form a vast room, walls that are rather like a portcullis (only with the holes very small and the wood in between much wider). There are a few free standing candlesticks (the real candles are a nice touch, Philip tell us they're burning down and, by the time the Inquisitor has left, they are out), a desk, some chairs and a shrine. There is a tenderness to Pappano's conducting at the outset. Philip's insomnia driven aria is touching and moving after his power and coldness earlier in the opera and display an awesome range from Furlanetto, he received a big and deserved ovation. Eric Halfvarson hobbles onto the stage, supported by two monks, as the Inquisitor. He is every bit as powerful and chilling as the part demands and as he leaves the throwaway "perhaps" as Philip pleads for him to forget their meeting leaves no doubt as to where the power truly lies. Elizabeth's voice is more convincing here, her faint dramatic, and Eboli better matched to the scene.

Another portcullis wall drops at the front, the props are removed, it lifts back up and we are in Carlos's cell, a line of halberdiers penning him in. There is a coldness to Posa's murder (as a monk whispers to a soldier who turns and shoots - you could almost blink and miss it) and his concern for Flanders moves to the last. Philip's sorrow at the death is palpable as he asks who will return him. Posa's sacrifice and the ultimate futility of it is one of the great aspects of this tragedy. Pappano wisely doesn't stop here, as Giulini did in 1958, and the mob arrives, the rear wall rising part way to allow them in. Such is Halfvarson's performance that you well believe this infirm man could quell them.

Act five is set as act two, in the monastery, though the tomb has been moved more prominently in relation to the pillars. Villazon and Poplavskaya gave arguably their performances of the evening, and despite Villazon seeming a little pale, he managed remarkably given the circumstances. This act can sometimes drag in the wrong hands, no so with Pappano who kept a firm grip, and then delivered a knock-out blow with the death of Carlos and the appearance of Carlos V.

This is a long opera, but thanks to Poppano's conducting, singing that is for the most part good or great and Hytner's superb production it never drags. Not only does it compel, but it is musically and visually beautiful and a real piece of theatre dramatically. Coming out I felt it was about the best night I'd had in an opera house, comments I overheard seemed the same. That probably isn't true, no performance is quite that, but it was certainly up there with the Glyndebourne and Mackerras Makropulos Cases, The Death of Klinghoffer, St Francis of Assisi (last weekend in Amsterdam, review to follow) and the Scottish Opera Ring. The Mackerras is an interesting comparison because, of course, while musically it was probably the greatest, production wise it wasn't. There will always be some nagging flaw somewhere, but this is to all intents an purposes as good as it gets. Tickets are like gold dust, but if you get the chance it is one to see. If not, Opus Arte were recording, I can't wait for the DVD.

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