Verdi - Don Carlos

ONP Bastille, Thursday June 26, 2008

Conductor: Teodor Currentzis. Production: Graham Vick. Sets and costumes: Tobias Hoheisel. Lighting: Matthew Richardson. Filippo II: James Morris. Don Carlo: Stefano Secco. Rodrigo, Marchese di Posa: Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Il Grande Inquisitore: Mikhail Petrenko. Un Frate: Paul Gay. Elisabetta di Valois: Tamar Iveri. La Principessa Eboli: Yvonne Naef. Tebaldo: Elisa Cenni. Il Conte di Lerma: Jason Bridge. Voce dal Cielo: Elena Tsallagova.

After that blazing young Porgy it was back to operatic business as usual with Don Carlos at the Bastille this week. Pep and personality were exactly what was missing from this show, which otherwise had, with one puzzling exception, a fairly strong cast.

The uncontroversial production is familiar to us in Paris, but no-one, apparently, had bothered this time round to direct the singers (presumably Vick wasn't brought back in). There were the same vast, austere walls with cross-shaped openings and a dark smudge of a cross in the floor that at times opened into a cross-shaped trench, at the start filled with flaming tapers, at the end, for Carlo's death, floored with stark white light. The same ingenious use of painted gauzes to bring in landscapes or gardens as needed. The same corny veil song with the ladies of the court twirling round in sea-green dresses, black witches' hats and veils. And the same auto-da-fé scene with large, expensive-looking props: a silver hearse, drawn by dunce-capped penitents, bearing a saint's coffin behind the glass; a giant, stiff, silver-robed madonna; an ebony-and-gold tabernacle at the rear of the stage for the King to emerge from in full regalia, with orb and sceptre, like a cuckoo from a clock. Only this time the extras, supposedly being dragged off to their death, sauntered along as if to a rather boring social event. The costumes are mainly sober, apart from, again, an expensively rich display of siglo de oro court fashions for the auto-da-fé. The lighting is stark and often geometric (including, of course, a cross-shaped pool of light projected vertically to the floor).

If only someone had been there to inject some personality, some life, some acting skills into the perfromance, it might have been an excellent evening.

The loudest applause went to Hvorostovsky. I've never really "got" him, finding his voice monochrome ("colourless," said my neighbour on Thursday) and now definitely pinched at the top; but it has to be said that when he wakes up - and he did for his final scene - the showman in him comes to life and his astonishing breathing allows him to deliver some impressive phrasing. He makes, of course, a shapely Posa in doublet and hose: "good legs," the lady next to me noted.

Tamar Iveri has a silvery, lyric voice, a touch lightweight for Elisabetta, but all the notes are there. What is not there is vocal or acting personality: she makes a placid queen. James Morriss now has an old man's voice - but not as old as that: it's surprising quite what is left, his long experience shows, and he of all the cast crafted the most convincing character. The confrontation with Petrenko's Inquisitor was, as usual with this work, one of the evening's highlights.

The one to watch out for is Stefano Secco. His voice is perhaps too small and bright for Carlo, edgy and resonant, but he's an enthusiastic tenor, throwing himself into the proceedings with all the notes spot on. But he, too, needed a director: for a start, he's a little guy and needs training to behave like a prince; and when agitated, he resorts to waving his arms around like a windmill... In a properly-directed production, these things could be set straight.

What was wrong with Yvonne Naef, our excellent Dido from a couple of seasons back? Was she ill, exhausted, hopelessly miscast...? Or has her voice just gone to pieces? The veil song was ominous: some very rough, honking sounds, some very dodgy tuning (but also some marvellous round, resounding notes in the upper medium). Her obvious discomfort reminded me of Eva-Maria Westbroek in La Forza, but this time in spades. O don fatale turned into a shipwreck: the first top note came out as a parched scream, abruptly shut off; the second one was a blood-curdling banshee wail that started flat and got flatter. She didn't come out for curtain calls.

Conductor Currentzis is supposed, I read, to be the next big thing. To me, he is the sort of opera conductor that pushes ahead with a symphonic reading of the score at the risk of losing the singers, as at times he did. In a way, you might say he loved it to death, or at any rate conducted so lovingly that at times he bordered on mannerism, now too ploddingly slow (putting the soloists at risk), now too fast. But it was a nice change to see the often stroppy members of the opera orchestra swaying along, clearly enjoying the music.

Maestro Wenarto sings "O don fatale".

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