Saturday, April 11, 2015

Don Carlos: As It Should Be (mostly)

Verdi: Don Carlos
Theatre du Chatelet
Antonio Pappano, Conductor/Luc Bondy, Director
Roberto Alagna, Karita Mattila, Jose van Dam, Thomas Hampson, Waltraud Meier

Pappano leads an almost achingly beautiful effort from his soloists and the Chatelet orchestra and chorus. Perhaps my favorite Verdi opera, this is also regarded as one of his most unusual and problematic scores - often sounding simultaneously traditional yet somehow remarkably modern for its time. Pappano brings out all of these elements and his pacing of the entire long evening is beautiful, near perfection never once feeling either dragged out or rushed.

I've had ups and downs in my listening experiences with Roberto Alagna, but here, vocally and dramatically he perfectly captures every nuance, and every heartbreaking weakness of this character, taking a weak, problematic "starring role" and somehow turning him into Hamlet. It doesn't hurt that he is in astonishingly beautiful voice, his tone ringing and with a remarkable sheen. His ability to shade the voice in a variety of colors and dynamics made this an uniquely individual portrayal. He is not the "hero" Don Carlos some old-timers may wish for, but I hold this role to be almost the antithesis of heroic.

The production is simple effectively emphasizing the story telling and Verdi's music. Clearly well rehearsed, Luc Bondy's production has not a false note throughout its considerable length, every detail, every movement flowing with a rare and natural ease. In Gilles Aillaud's sets, Moidele Bickel's costumes and Vincio Cheli's beautiful lighting, every frame looks like a Murillo or El Greco masterpiece coming to life. Two particularly arresting images stand out in the St. Just scene; the first, just before the the entrance of Philip and Elisabeth - Carlos accepts Posa's request to return with him to Flanders, as Carlos kneels, Posa rests his head Carlos's shoulder. The second such moment follows the King and Queen's procession; Carlos extends his right arm out towards the now offstage couple as Posa grabs his other arm preventing his friend from following; creating a canvas of tortured angles: all arms, necks, heads, legs, backs, walls and shadows - all transformed into a tragic tableau of pain and comfort rejected.

The Fontainebleau scene (the opening cut a bit) is remarkably done and should convince any naysayers that it must be included to make the rest of this difficult work make true sense. In a barren forest of white birch, Carlos and Elisabeth draped in deep crimson, become as a single heart beating in this forest of death. Karita Mattila brings a dramatic quality that I've never before encountered in this role; at first coltish, tom-boyish, as Carlos lights the fire in the woods. Then, as he mentions that she will marry the son of Philip, becoming girlishly nervous. In only a few moments she establishes a bewitching and compelling character. In true princess manner, this Elisabeth is slightly vague yet clear she is smitten by and flirts with Carlos, her outward strength a facade - clearly a girl raised at court, aware she is but a pawn and dutifully plays the part she's given. At the news Elisabeth is to marry Philip instead of Carlos , the young lovers are crushed as the chorus, in ghostly white, enters singing her praises, lifting her into the air, placing her on a white horse and led away, knowing she is not leaving behind not only home and family, but any dream or hope of happiness as all turn away from Carlos who, alone, falls onto a rock, utterly destroyed. "Destiny has shattered my dreams." Having seen the Fontainebleau scene scene so staged I can't imagine its being left out of any production again.

Throughout this production Bondy and Pappano have encouraged their singers to live these roles and the electricity between all of the characters is stunning. Here is a theatre director who understands opera, and makes enormous use of music's ability to expand emotions in a unique way. Another example of his vision is the sheer physicality of the scene between Carlos and Elisabeth outside of the convent which takes on a desperate, violent quality that is, to say the least, startling to experience in an opera house.

As Rodrigue, Thomas Hampson gives what one of the best performances of his career. Combining humility, loyalty, compassion, pride and a sense of justice, his Posa is remarkably complex, and by far one of the most interesting good guys in all of Verdi. The voice is never big, but rich, well controlled and his sense of phrasing and attention to detail nothing short of remarkable. He also has a wicked good trill. At times, especially in his big scene with Philip, Hampson's voice seems to take on a tenorial quality - a remarkably lyrical Rodrigue, but with a sure sense of strength of purpose.

Mr. Van Dam's Philip is firm of tone, every word distinct, filled with meaning. The role, at times lies a bit low for him, but for the most part fits him like the proverbial glove. I have always want to despise Philip, but Bondy and Van Dam have made him more pathetic, a mere pawn of the Inquisitor, and Van Dam pulls off this vulnerability without once
sacrificing the strength of his character. A most complex, interesting characterization.

Waltraut Meier couldn't have been anybody's idea of an ideal Eboli, yet, she inhabits the character so fully turns in a magnificent performance, and looks damned stunning in doing so. Her vocalism in the Veil Song was kind of bizarre - it had a "warble" like quality that made it difficult to tell just what pitch she was actually on, yet she was beguiling and pulled it off. Once that was out of the way, everything else came from strength. I do wish that this mezzo would cultivate some chest voice. Her low notes seem to be her weakest and they sound exactly (except nearly inaudible) as her middle voice.

As Elisabeth, Mattila is, quite simply, a wonder. A voice capable of so many colors while retaining a unifying, individual sound. Having previously heard her in so much of her native music and Mozart, it's a tough voice to categorize, capable of riding the orchestra and cutting through it with laser like clarity, yet retaining a youthful sweetness most unusual to the typically "steely" type of voice we associate with that type of singing. Her sustained, high piano singing is nearly miraculous, a thin thread of sound perfectly placed, as clean as can be imagined then producing an effect that sounds as sensuous as silm gauze feels (two examples: her farewell to her lady-in-waiting, and reminding Carlos she is now his mother). It's all sung piano, yet she makes these moments sound entirely different. This is singing rare and refined. And remarkable. Every movement, gesture and sound came directly from this Elisabeth straight into my heart.

With the least amount of stage time, Eric Halfvarson's twisted, crippled Grand Inquisitor truly becomes a dominant central figure; the very physical embodiment of evil setting a tale of corruption, politics and religion already near chaos and spinning it completely out of control.

Nearly every scene in this long work is filled with heartbreaking magic and beauty, making it difficult to single out one scene in particular as standing out from the rest, though Posa's death perhaps takes place of honor in an evening filled with memorable music making and drama.

As one would imagine, the Chatelet audience responds with a thunderous and extended ovation, making me wish, even more, I'd been there.

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