I have reread everything I’ve written about Don Carlos here in order to avoid repeating myself, but the fact is: I cannot. So I’ll sum it up: it is an opera that does not work by itself; it requires, therefore, a dream team (including stage director, orchestra and conductor) to develop its uniquely dark and oppressing atmosphere; this dream team never exists, even in legendary recordings, but opera houses should not accept this as inevitable and understand that it is something special (as in “if you see it as routine, better give up”). Now let’s speak of this evening’s performance.
Although I am very much surprised by Asher Fisch’s pulse, alertness and tension-building – he should try all of that in Wagner and R. Strauss – tiny miscalculations undermined too many key moments. First he seemed partial to a big orchestral sound, but then he seemed to believe that clarity and rich strings were incompatible until he finally seemed to have decided that his cast would prefer lower dynamics. Act V – we had the Italian 5-act versions – was basically a misfire in terms of conducting. When you have the Bavarian State Orchestra, you have everything you need to transport the audience to the overwhelming massiveness of San Jerónimo de Yuste in time for Elisabetta’s aria. Today, the strings had the ideal roundness of sound, but that basically did not build up in intensity. Then the poor soprano had to tackle the famously dangerous intervals of the aria without the “orchestral cushion” that would envelope her sound to form the ideal blend of a single musical statement. Her pleas to have her tears reported in heaven received a sprightly accompaniment that made one think of Amelia Boccanegra enjoying patrician life in the shores of Genova. Nothing compares to the closing of the opera – the ghost of Charles V appears, Amelia is terrified and then… then when I realized, it was over. One could barely notice that! If a conductor does not find it cataclysmic that the ghost of a dead emperor raise from the tomb to rescue his grandson from the hands of one of the most powerful monarchs of the earth and a gruesome fanatical religious leader, then what again is he doing there? If I cannot put across my meaning, just grab any of Karajan’s recordings to hear what I am talking about.
When it comes to staging, I have already accepted that all contemporary productions of Don Carlos look exactly the same: simplified historical costumes, minimalistic and monochromatic sets turning around the idea of a cross and no Personenregie to speak of. I find it all so petty and cheap and banal that my very soul craves to see Agnes Baltsa looking and moving racée as hell in her impossibly wrought dress in the gigantesque sets of the Grosses Festspielhaus. Of course, I would like to move on, but directors have not helped me so far. In any case, I would like to give Jürgen Rose the benefit of the doubt. This production was premiered in 2000 and this is the first time I see it. I once had a conversation with a stage director specialized in opera who was candid enough to say that he often had to deal with famous singers not willing to learn the concept and basically wanting to know where they enter from and exit through. This seems to be an accurate description of this performance: the body language of practically every soloist was wrong (nobody bowed to the king and queen, he often had to pick objects on the ground himself, Rodrigo demanded Carlo a sword he already had taken from him, Rodrigo does not kneel to be knighted, touching ladies during conversation seem to be standard practice etc), blocking was nonsensical and chaotic and there were many embarrassing moments where singers just stopped and looked around in a “what now?”-attitude. This would have not worked in a performance of Carmen or La Bohème for tourists, let alone in a difficult Schiller-adaptation of a story involving historical, philosophical, political and religious issues.
Anja Harteros is the exception to the stage awkwardness – she has an innate ability to portray aristocratic characters, moving with great dignity, doing beautiful, meaningful gestures and responding to the dramatic situations of the plot. Of course, real direction would have made her even more compelling, but in terms of theatre, she was this evening a beacon in the darkness. To make things better, she sang famously too. This is a role that poses her no difficulties and, if she is still not the most Italianate of sopranos, she has clearly made a serious effort in that direction. If you think that nobody else sings this so beautifully and interestingly as she does these days, that’s a win-win situation. The other German singer in the cast, René Pape, has also made a serious exercising in Italianizing himself. I find this performance a complete improvement in terms of style since I last saw him in this role in the Schiller-Theater in Berlin. He was in superb and commanding voice – and I cannot think of someone better equipped for this part today – and yet he still sounds a bit calculating and not truly trusting the power of Verdi’s melodic imagination in his big aria. In this sense, the only Italian in the cast, young baritone Simone Piazzola, offered a lesson of how you infuse emotion in this repertoire essentially by the quality of vocal production. In his death scene, his control of vibrato to increase expression shows that he knows Piero Cappuccilli’s performances (as heard in many recordings with Karajan, for instance). This is a voice of the right color and range for this repertoire, but I am afraid that volume is still a bit on the light side, especially in his lower register.
Anna Smirnova is a singer I saw before she became a household name. Although her all-out approach was reckless, it was also exciting in a very raw way. Since then, she has become more self-controlled, but also less powerful, less tonally rich in her middle range – and her diction is becoming indistinct. She could nonetheless pull out an O don fatale very easy in high notes and surprisingly close to what is written in the score. Tenor Alfred Kim’s dependability and cleanliness of phrasing made for a not truly engaging tonal quality – grainy and slightly nasal – and lack of squillo to pierce through in his high notes. Although Don Carlos is not considered one of Verdi’s most difficult roles, it is curious how rarely one listens to a truly convincing performance from a tenor in it. Last time I saw Rafal Siwek in this opera, he was Filippo – here he is back to the usual casting as the Inquisitor, where the sheer size of his voice is an undeniable asset, even if he is not truly vehement or frightening in it.