Verdi’s Don Carlo is something of a tough cookie, and problems start before one note has been played – what edition to pick? And things are far more difficult than saying 4 or 5 acts, French or Italian, for there are minor editorial choices after those big decisions have been made. Then there is the problem of finding a truly world-class cast, for even the small roles require top-notch singing. As often in Verdi, banal conducting can reduce the whole thing to mere politeness, and the libretto demands a dark atmosphere that can only be produced by a very good orchestra. And then there is the matter of production – the philosophical, political and psychological issues raised by Schiller and recreated by the composer and his librettists invite a “new reading”, but it remains to be solved how “revisionist” directors are going to deal with a plot involving court etiquette, religious police and people being sent to convents. Of course, things like that still happen in the XXIst century, but not among European rulers as German directors like to believe. If that were true, a grimacing five year-old girl would hardly be the most interesting thing in Kate Middleton and Prince William’s wedding.
For instance, Philipp Himmelmann’s 2004 staging for the Deutsche Staatsoper has Philipp II in black tie, Eboli is a combo of Oksana Balinskaya and amazon bodyguard and the auto-da-fé is a dinner party where naked victims of torture hanging from ropes are very much part of the catering. Considering that the concept’s focal point is a table and its double function as a altar and as the piece of furniture on which food is served, one can imagine the level of depth in this production: on hearing Carlo say he loves her, Elisabetta grabs a nonstick steam iron and indulges in an ironing spree to the rhythm of the music. I was going to write that Himmelmann’s main fault is that he failed to take hints from the MUSIC in order to understand the atmosphere of each scene, but he has actually done that in a very elementary way, by synching the actors to Verdi’s score, for childish effects sometimes, as in the Filippo/Inquisitore scene, where they play hide-and-seek around… the table, while the king uses chairs as obstacles to gain advantage from the blind priest.
Conductor Massimo Zanetti has a good ear for textures and dramatic effects, taking advantage of the Staatskapelle Berlin’s Wagnerian “background” to create some surprising moments. However, I am not able to tell if the absence of a galvanizing cast did not inspire him to something more gripping or if he was not able to extract from his singers more engagement – what is sure is that the performance had its moments, but unfortunately they did not build up to a coherent performance.
Amanda Echalaz’s mealy, metallic and fluttery soprano does not correspond to what one expects from a singer in the role of Elisabetta. The sound is not aristocratic or vulnerable, she cannot float a pianissimo to save her life and her Italian is indistinct. She does have a big voice and does not seem fazed with what she has to do (actually, she sometimes seems almost unconcerned), but after a while one wants more than that. Although Nadia Krasteva’s mezzo is typically Slavic, the stamina and the attitude are a reasonable Ersatz for Verdian style. The role takes her to her limits, but she is very naughty about what her limits are and, by the end, one forgives her more than one planned to do. For instance, her O don fatale proved to be far more effective than one could guess. The difficult stretta, for instance, was handled more accurately than one may hear in some famous recordings. In any case, in a cast like this, although Adriane Queiroz appears on stage as a soprano hired to sing in the “auto-da-fé” party, one could guess from her first note that she was the voice from heaven.
There are moments when one expects a bit more legato from Fabio Sartori, but he is nonetheless one of the best tenors in the Italian repertoire these days. The voice is free, spontaneous, slightly-dark toned but for the clarion top notes, of which he has an endless supply. And when you think that you have more or less “got” what he can do, he gave his Elisabetta a run for her money, producing admirable mezza voce in almost Mozartian cantabile in their final duet (shorn from its “fast” episode). He still has to deal with his unbecoming physique and a certain lack of charisma, but the vocal assets are hard to overlook. Alfredo Daza was a forceful, dramatically compelling Posa, but his baritone is too grainy for comfort and after a while one really wants a bit more beauty of tone. For many, the raison d’être of this Don Carlo is René Pape’s Filippo. His voice is, of course, noble and big enough for the role, but my ears find him too German for this role. It is not a matter of pronunciation – his Italian is very clear for that matter – but rather the voice lacks menace and impact in comparison to, say, Ferruccio Furlanetto’s (and many Golden-age-aficionados would say Furlanetto himself is far from exemplary) a couple of years ago. And he lacks abandon – the expression is a bit calculated and the acting-with-the-voice effects in his big aria only seem to prove that the voice alone was not doing the trick. Rafal Siwek’s Inquisitore had more immediate authority if less variety.