Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo
Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
Marco Armiliato, Daniele Abbado, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Stefano Secco, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Maria Pia Piscitelli, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Eric Halfvarson, Ryan Speedo Green, Margaret Plummer, Jinxu Xiahou, Simina Ivan
Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 25 February 2015
There's not really any room for half-measures in Verdi's Don Carlo. You're already at a disadvantage when you produce the 4-Act Italian version, losing the whole of the First Act love story at Fontainebleau, which means you have to gain emotional involvement for Don Carlo's romantic inclinations for his step-mother via other means. Verdi's terrific writing and characterisation goes some way to making this work, but it needs very strong singers indeed for both Carlo and Elisabeth to get it fully across. Vienna's 2015 revival of Daniele Abbado's production has that, and even more besides on the singing front. Unfortunately, it's somewhat lacking on the set design and stage direction, and in a work of total opera like Don Carlo, a weakness in any area can undermine the whole.
The fact that this doesn't prove to be the case in Vienna is a testament to just how good the singing and musical performances are here. That's no mean feat in Don Carlo, which has any number of critical roles, each of them with complex personalities that show different sides of that personality depending on the person that they are with at any given time. It doesn't just place demands on individuals, it requires them to interact well in the various relationships and situations with the others around them. Being a father to Carlo, King Philip II shows a different side of his personality from the one that he shows to Elisabeth as a husband, and a different one again from how he interacts with the Grand Inquisitor. As you might expect. It's how those other people relate to the king in those situations depends in turn on their relationships with each other, and that creates a complex web of conflicts between public and private faces, between love and friendship, when those boundaries become blurred by situation and circumstance. This is where the real drama of Don Carlo lies, and Verdi's remarkable writing lays them bare.
In theory then, the decoration of the set should really be neither here nor there. If you can get across the multi-faceted nature of the situations and the characters, and have singers of sufficient skill and experience to do that, you would think that would be enough for Don Carlo. It isn't nearly enough. Usually. A simple stripped-back set might work well for Simon Boccanegra, as in Vienna's recent production (although, as here, it also had the secret weapon of Ferruccio Furlanetto alongside the incomparible Leo Nucci), but the stage direction there was a lot more subtle than it appeared. Don Carlo however is not a work that benefits from a less-is-more approach. Even in its lesser 4-Act version, it's still grand opera, and it should be grand on every level. That doesn't preclude subtlety, but bold flourishes are required in the characterisation as much as in the setting.
The first half of Daniele Abbado's production for Vienna fails to hit those big dramatic points, for all the fine efforts of the cast. The first two acts are very much about the public face, opening with religious rites and funeral, with the added flourish of the ghostly 'Friar' who turns out to be the spirit of Charles V. There are big royal ceremonies, proud displays of friendship and loyalty, stirrings of rebellion and even a showpiece auto-da-fé scene, all of which should give the impression of great political, regal and religious forces. If nothing else, the grandeur of the first half should at least provide a strong contrast to show the more human side in the second half, where personal weaknesses and conflicting interests and murmurs of rebellion cause huge fractures that threaten to expose the weaknesses of those institutions and bring down the whole delicately woven fabric of Philip's reign.
There's very little that impresses about the set in Act I and Act II. It is literally a box, with a bare wooden stage floor and unadorned walls, with no doors, just panels that open to let people in. Occasionally, we get a sense of location, with a skylight opening up, with a slight variation in colouration or lighting that suggests an exterior, but mostly it's a bare stage and basic lighting. Free movement is restricted somewhat by three cables that one presumes will lift to create a new scene at some point. They do so most effectively to create Carlo's prison in the second scene of Act III, but it's a bit much to have them impinge upon the rest of the set for such a short if nonetheless important scene. Most disappointing of all, the auto-da-fé scene falls well short of being impressive, a few figured dropped down onto the floor while a bale is lit behind them. Seen from a lower angle than the camera adopts, it might have been more effective, but probably not much more...
The singing, at the very least, rises superbly to the demands of Verdi's remarkable score, and in one or two cases is even great. I'm referring evidently to Ferrucio Furlanetto, who has performed as Philip in Don Carlo many times, and there are few who can compete with him. The tone and timbre is still wonderful, his control and delivery is impeccable, but more than just technically good or even just consummately professional, he brings real artistry and personality to the character. Eric Halfvarson's Grand Inquisitor is also excellent, and, following on from a great 'Ella giammai m'amo' where the king expresses his private griefs and fears, the duet/duel between these two great forces of Church and State at the start of Act III becomes a real tussle of wills that sets the tone for what is to follow.
If the first half felt weak and let down by the staging, this kind of opening really galvanises the second half, and it doesn't look back. Marco Armiliato manages to raise the orchestra up to a new level along with the dramatic developments, and one or two of the other performers seem to pick up their game as well. And, with Verdi's simply astonishing management of the developing situations, they really need to. Most impressive is Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who gives a typically earnest and intense performance that is exactly what is required for Rodrigo. The challenging role of Elisabeth is handled extremely well by Maria Pia Piscitelli, who gives it dramatic force as well as dealing with the tough singing requirements. Béatrice Uria-Monzon is also a charged Princess Eboli, again perfectly in line with the tone of the work and the strong presentation here.
Don Carlo has a tough time living up to the title role in the opera alongside such personalities, and if Stefano Secco isn't quite up to the same level, he still sings it with unfailing Verdian lyricism across the whole four acts. Carlo is pretty much a constant throughout the opera and, as such, his interaction with each of the other characters is vital to the success of the whole. With Marco Armiliato drawing all that together musically in the second half, and with each of the other characters at full drive, the nature of the interaction and its significance all falls into place to impressive effect. The balance of internal conflict and interaction with the external situation in the second half takes on a force of its own independent from the direction, or at least rendering its weaknesses less of an issue as the opera makes its way to its chilling conclusion.
The Vienna State Opera's Live in HD programme continues in March with live Internet broadcasts of Halévy's LA JUIVE, Bellini's I PURITANI, Massenet's WERTHER, Verdi's LA TRAVIATA and AIDA. Details on these productions and how to view them can be found in the links below:
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video