Sunday, 11 January 2015

Verdi - Don Carlo (Turin, 2013 - Blu-ray)

Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo

Teatro Regio di Torino, 2013

Gianandrea Noseda, Hugo de Ana, Ramón Vargas, Svetlana Kasyan, Ildar Abdrazakov, Ludovic Tézier, Daniela Barcellona, Marco Spotti, Sonia Ciani, Luca Casalin

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The familiar Verdi themes of love versus duty, loyalty and betrayal, the abuse of power versus individual liberty, fathers against sons, all spiced up with a good bit of melodrama are all there in Don Carlo, and taken to even greater heights than in any of composer's previous works or even his subsequent later masterpieces. It was undoubtedly the challenge of taking on all those themes from Friedrich Schiller's drama that attracted Verdi out of semi-retirement, and at this stage late in his career the composer's ability to present a more mature, nuanced account of entwined personal and political ambitions is astonishing. It's as if all the previous works have been pulled together into one great work that bears all the might and brilliance of Verdi at his best.

First presented in Paris in French as a five-act grand opera, the challenging length and nature of the work meant that it would undergo several further revisions, but in whichever version it's presented, Don Carlos or Don Carlo remains one of Verdi's greatest works and one of the most impressive spectacles in all of opera. Each version however also brings with it considerable challenges as far as staging and casting. The 2013 Teatro Regio di Torino production of the 1884 four-act version of the Italian Don Carlo is impressive enough on spectacle and in the manner in which it presents the themes of the work, but the music and singing are not quite up to task here.

The choice of the 1884 version obviously has an impact on the direction the production takes. Gone is the whole of the original Act I, where Carlo first meets and immediately falls in love with his promised bride Elisabeth of Valois in the gardens of Fontainebleau. It's not uncommon for significant prior events to be omitted in an opera (even if the jarring introduction successfully remains in Verdi's previous opera La Forza del Destino), but in this case, the whole tone of Don Carlo is coloured by the exigencies of state that no sooner introduce the happy young couple than tear them apart in order for Carlo's father Philip II to marry Elisabeth himself. Opening with Carlo and Rodrigo shifts the emphasis from love story to brotherhood, family and duty, but with Verdi's ability to tie it into Schiller's mix of politics and religion, this is still highly charged drama.

This tone comes through most successfully in the Turin production, particularly in this version, which opens with a funeral and an apparition rather than the romantic encounter of the five-act version of the work. The monumental size of the sets, the stone pillars, the religious backdrops, the formality and richness of the costume designs, all contribute to a sense of deeply serious intrigue and dark drama, which is how Don Carlo ought to appear. Everything about the production design here gives that impression of grandeur and intensity of purpose that matches Verdi's vision. The stage direction and choreography are good - a little theatrical, but not stagey, it plays to the dramatic nature of the work itself. As a spectacle it's marvellous, looking every inch the ultimate expression of complete opera, which in many ways Don Carlo is.

While the epic scope is all there on the stage, the level of nuance and psychological probing that needs to be expressed through the playing and the singing just doesn't live up to the exceptional demands of Verdi's score here in the Turin production. Don Carlo is a heavy work, it's dark and oppressive, but even so Gianandrea Noseda's management of the pace and tone of the work is quite leaden, never finding the light and shade that is there also. Even within the dark palette of the work, there are deeper undercurrents and themes, complex characterisation and different facets to each of the personalities in their public and private faces, that interplays with one another and impacts upon the outcome of the drama.

To cite just one example at a key point in the opera, the revelation of the nature of his marriage to Elisabeth followed by Philip II's meeting with the Grand Inquisitor contains a wealth of suggestion and implication. Verdi's score switches between the personal and royal, between political and religious in a way that deepens the sentiments and raises the stakes, but it also brings in and makes you aware of the off-stage characters, of the implications this scene will have in determining the fate of both Carlo and Rodrigo and for how it will impact on Elisabeth, not to mention the wider state of the world. There's a lot demanded of all the singers then, but despite the fact that the cast here is an exceptionally good one, it's hard to feel that any of them are right for the roles, or at least the roles as they are defined in this production.

Ildar Abdrazakov comes out best, his singing capable, controlled and authoritative as Philip II. Ramón Vargas' voice however has lost some of the former force and that's needed for Carlo. He's at his best alongside Ludovic Tézier's Rodgrigo, forming the close brotherhood that is at the heart of this version of the opera, but neither performer is able to bring any range or subtlety to the characterisation that is required elsewhere. Elisabeth is much too big a role for Svetlana Kasyan, and - other than her heart-wrenching cry that closes the work so dramatically - her wavering pitch rarely matches the force of the sentiments that are expressed. Even the wonderful Daniela Barcellona is pushed by the excessive demands of this work, but her Pincess Eboli at least hits all the points of the lovestruck woman's rejection turning to jealous fury and then regret, agony and self-loathing. Even if they are unable to get across the full measure of Verdi's brilliance, the Turin production is still impressive, and you are never in doubt that this is one of the greatest creations in all opera.

The production looks stunning in High Definition on the Blu-ray release, the image crystal clear, the sets looking impressive with bold colouration and strong contrasts. The singers are not wearing radio mics so it can be a little echoing, but there's a rich dark tone to the orchestration that is warm and enveloping, with good presence in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix. There's a deep low-frequency boom on the surround mix which has most impact during the Grand Inquisitor scene. The only extra feature on the disc is a Cast Gallery, but there's an essay on the creation of the work and a synopsis in the booklet. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.