My brother came out of this production cursing the director and indifferent about much of the singing. From the perspective of the head I could to some extent see his points, but I found this performance so dramatically compelling that flaws which on another night might have had me cursing too faded into insignificance.
This was the more remarkable as the version which Runnicles chose to perform here was the significantly truncated four act version. The first time I saw Don Carlos staged was in the classic David Pountney production at the Coliseum, sadly never revived. On that occasion the five act version was performed, including not just the Fontainbleau Act which is now usually included but also the opening chorus of lamenting French peasantry. I am a firm advocate for the inclusion of both these elements, and I above all think that if performing the Fontainbleau Act you should never omit the chorus whatever version you are using as it gives crucial dramatic point to Elizabeth's acceptance of Philip. In last night's performance, we began in the monastery at St Juste. It says a great deal for the dramatic cogency and musical power of the performance which followed that I forgave the truncation.
Marco Arturo Marelli's production has one major problem. It involves a lot of manouvrable walls and the painful fact is that the technical staff at Deutsche Oper are able to manouvre them neither sufficiently fast nor sufficiently quietly (nor on one occasion sufficiently inconspicuously). This is a pity as the grey, dim, closed in environments created really reinforce the darker qualities of the score. The set also seemed, as with Rienzi, to cause the odd problem for choral sound. The Additional Chorus of Deutsche Oper were once again credited but in two crucial places – the auto-da-fe scene and the insurrection following Posa's death – the choral sound just was not loud enough. In addition to the forboding atmosphere there were a couple of striking variants on usual habits. The heavenly voice (well sung by Kathryn Lewek) was personified as a mother with child stage centre as the heretics burn at the back. The image created was powerfully effective. Later the Flemish deputies were kept much more conspicuous than is usually the case, an ongoing reminder of the political tensions of the piece. The connections between Elizabeth, Posa and Flanders were played up. Strikingly, at the end of Act 3 of this version, Elizabeth is left kneeling by the body of Posa who is then borne off by the Deputies. Their massacre at the conclusion was a powerful final image.
Casting this opera is always tricky, and it will come as no surprise that six of the greatest singers in the world were not on stage, and the vocal contrasts between the six singers we did have did not always make for effective balance in the ensembles. That said there were two stand out performers and everybody else managed very creditably – again flaws which on other nights might have driven me mad were subsumed in the evening's overall dramatic punch.
The two outstanding performances were delivered by Markus Bruck as Posa and Anna Smirnova as Eboli. Posa's intellectualism was nicely implied by satchel and glasses. He sang with power, beauty and intelligence throughout and his death was movingly done. Anna Smirnova didn't quite have the necessary vocal flexibility in the Veil Song, but elsewhere she had secure power, and her O don fatale was utterly thrilling. In fact I can't recall another live performance of it I've heard which has reached the same level. I would take such a performance over flexibility elsewhere in the part any day.
Alastair Miles who I last heard as Pognor in the Glyndebourne Meistersinger sang Philip II. He has the makings of a fine Philip but the voice does not yet have quite enough power and weight. He was slightly in danger of being out-powered by the Grand Inquisitor in the confrontation scene, and in other ensemble moments he didn't always carry loudly enough. That said his Ella giammai m'amo was well done and the interpretation of the part from an acting point of view suited his voice. Kristinn Sigmundsson made a suitably chilling Inquisitor (far better than the miscast John Tomlinson in the last Royal Opera revival).
I was more favourably disposed to the Carlo of Massimo Giordano than other members of the party. He produced some singing of fine, ringing power, and was never to my ear unpleasant to listen to. If occasionally he too disappeared under the orchestra this was again a price I was prepared to pay. Finally we come to the weakest link of the six, the Elizabeth of Meagan Miller. In the early acts there was a worrying thinness of tone and sense of insecurity and I awaited the Act 4 scene with some trepidation. However, while not perfect, I thought she improved here and again the overall sense of drama mitigated the flaws.
Once again the Orchestra were on fine form and Runnicles conducted, as will by now I imagine be clear, an intense, highly dramatic performance of this magnificent score. For me it was a glorious ending to a great ten days in Berlin. Hopefully it won't be too long before I can get back there.
Some day I'd really really like to see a great performance of Don Carlo(s). The last two go-rounds at SFO were big disappointments in various ways, like the strictly mediocre Marina Mesheriakova as Elisabeth both times; the genuinely awful tenor brought in during rehearsals because the guy they'd originally hired neglected to learn the role in French; the horrible Attilua Jun as the Grand Inquisitor...well, you get the idea.
I'd settle for six of the greatest singers in the world.
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