I would have liked to start this without repeating “Verdi’s Don Carlo” is one of the most difficult operas in the repertoire”, but again if any of you has seen a perfect performance of this opera, please let me know. Not even Georg Solti’s studio recording with Renata Tebaldi, Grace Bumbry, Carlo Bergonzi, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Martti Talvela is considered perfect – and I bet any of my 11 or 12 (it seems that I have more readers now) would have died to see this cast live. What I mean to say is that a “disappointing” Don Carlo is the most natural thing in this world – but I still believe that it is important for opera houses to try to keep the level of disappointment low. This is not an opera that works its charm almost per se (such as Carmen or Le Nozze di Figaro) – if creative minds are not making it work, it just does not work. This evening, for example, it did not. If I were paid to do what I do, I would probably ask my publisher to get me a ticket to another performance, for this one was – and anyone who has worked with theatre knows what I am talking about – one of those evenings when the “energy’ is just not there. I say this because I would perfectly believe in anyone who said “you know what, Saturday it was actually good”. I wouldn’t believe, though, if this person told me that it was “great”.
To start with, Marco Arturo Marelli’s new production is new because it has never been done before, but it has no freshness about it. Although he says that his concept turns around people whose lives are made so unlivable because of religious oppression that death is very much present as a satisfying “option”, his approach is essentially “decorative” – the sets are quite elegant in their concrete-like blocks constantly rearranged while preserving the outline of a cross… and the lighting is quite efficient. There are some isolated ideas: there are no soldiers here and priests do themselves the dirty work, the voce dal cielo is a just an ordinary woman soon to be sent to the stake; Charles V appears as the grim reaper in the last scene. But don’t expect much filling in the blanks: the stage direction is extremely conventional: stand-and-deliver is the less annoying problem here. In the first scene, Elisabetta could have stepped on Don Carlo, for she “doesn’t notice him” lying on the floor 30 cm from where she is standing; Rodrigo is shot to death but other than scratching his belly to produce artificial blood that never actually appeared, stood quite upright there singing as if he had all the time of the world until he drops dead to the ground from one second to the other; the Great Inquisitor finds it really ok to sit on the bed the Queen had just slept in (by bed I mean a mattress with cushions and duvet bought at KadeWe). The auto-da-fé is particularly confusing: although the production is stylized, ladies still have big dresses, guys have their swords with them etc. So it’s supposed to be “once upon a time” – but when Philip II says that Spain was doing really well then, I have to believe him, for common people carry a rich supply of printed books with them. Actually, the auto-da-fé has to do with burning books, lots of them, the priests confiscate them themselves among the crowd, who are allowed free access to the Queen, to the King and to the Infante. To be more specific, while these very literate people in dirty rags are being harassed and tortured by the priests a few centimeters from the royal family (no gentry invited), they sing “The day of rejoicing has dawned, all honor to the greatest of Kings! The peoples have confidence in him, the world is prostrate at his feet” – curiously, they first sing this to Carlo (who is not the king – but you could say “they consider him to be his king” – why? this is a good question). Then, Philip comes in and they sing the same lines to him… At least in Regietheater, even if things do not always make sense with the text, they make sense in the concept.
OK, one can always close his eyes, one could say. Not here – the sets and costumes were not ugly, sometimes beautiful and the musical performance was hardly inspiring. Donald Runnicles and Italian opera: I have seen his Otello in the Deutsche Oper, beautiful Straussian sonorities but very little drama. This evening, Verdi’s little theatrical tricks were basically left to imagination. The light-voiced cast probably had something to do with that – and the conductor was always extremely helpful to his singers on producing breath-pauses in rich supply – but the basic sound was quite tame, sudden crescendo effects very restricted, full strings sonorities rarely used, suspense rarely produced with shift of tempo… Let’s use as example, the introduction to Elisabetta’s big aria in the last act – if there is an opportunity for the orchestra to fill the hall and get you on your throat, this is it. An orchestra used to play Wagner would have no problem with that – but it did.
The main reason of interest for me in this Don Carlo was Anja Harteros’s Elisabetta. Yes, I know I always write that I prefer to hear her in German roles, but she is such a special singer that I always want to hear her. Unfortunately, she had family problems and was replaced by Venezuelan soprano Lucrezia Garcia, whose break-through apparently was an Odabella at La Scala. It is very difficult to explain Ms. Garcia’s performance – but don’t believe for a minute that it was not an important one. In the last…ten years?… a performance of a Verdi opera invariably elicited the comment “ah, pity that a legitimate Verdian soprano lirico spinto couldn’t be found for the role of ________”. Not this evening – Lucrezia Garcia has it. Full stop. It is a very rich, full, creamy sound – with a touch of Leontyne Price’s sexiness and a touch of Aprile Millo’s focus and strong low register – with well-blended registers, easy top notes and truly exciting high mezza voce. She is not a dramatic soprano, but it is a big voice for a lyric soprano, which – most importantly – has slancio in its extreme top notes, when it can sound thrice bigger. At many moments, she was really Golden Age-thrilling. But only intermittently. To start with, although the voice is always exciting, the singer is quite helplessly unexciting. She does not seem to have a special connection with the text or dramatic situations and, if she never shows any lapse of taste, many turns of phrase are prosaic. I am not sure if one can acquire those qualities, but, if I were a conductor specialized in Italian repertoire, I would certainly try to Karajan-ize her. Anna Smirnova, on the other hand, has no problem with eventfulness – in terms of character building, her Eboli was quite insightfully developed. Instead of letting it rip from bar one, she first showed her Eboli light-hearted and light-voice and only after Carlo’s rejection started to Souliotisize her singing. I have always heard Smirnova at 100% (as Amneris and Principessa di Bouillon) and was surprised by her control – but from a certain point on, I’ve started to have the impression that she was just not in a good-voice day. Her usually percussive low register failed to pierce-through, she fought pitch in the veil song and her dramatic top notes elsewhere were often unfocused and, even if quite forceful, a bit harsh.
Last time I wrote about this evening’s tenor, I’ve started to receive hate-mails in Italianate English threatening to sue me for not liking him. As I am busy and have other things to do other than dealing with postal blackmailing, I will just write what I found positive: he has beautiful tonal quality. Boaz Daniel too is light-voiced for the role of Rodrigo and was sometimes at the limit of his possibilities, but he is a singer with natural feeling for phrasing, good diction and sense of style, not to mention that his baritone is pleasant on the ear. Roberto Scandiuzzi has seen better days and took a long time to warm up – until his big aria, the sound was a bit woolly and greyish, but from Ella giammai m’amò, it gained its full colors, but not the generosity of some years ago. Ante Jerkunica caused at first a more striking impression, but he seems to find the part too high sometimes. Finally, Kathryn Lewek’s heavenly soprano was really properly cast as the “voice from above”.