Munich, Bavarian State Opera: “Don Carlo”

Munich, Bavarian State Opera, 2011/2012 operatic season
Five-act opera, libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, Italian version by Achille de Lauzières and Angelo Zanardini.
Music by Giuseppe Verdi 
Philip II 
Rodrigo of Posa BOAZ DANIEL
Grand Inquisitor ERIC HALFVARSON
Elizabeth of Valois  ANJA HARTEROS
Princess Eboli ANNA SMIRNOVA
Count Lerma, Royal herald FRANCESCO PETROZZI
A voice from the sky EVGENIYA SOTNIKOVA
Bayersiche Staatsoper Choir and Orchestra
Conductor Asher Fisch
Choir director Sören Eckhoff
Direction, set design, costumes and lights design Jürgen Rose
Lights Michael Bauer
Munich, 19 january 2012
The Bavarian State Opera‘s five-act presentation of Verdi’s French grand opéra, Don Carlo, sung in Italian, proved to be well worth the trip from San Francisco to Munich.  Even without the ballet and the prelude chorus of woodcutters, this production still clocks in at a whooping four and a half hours with only one intermission. Fortunately, the strong cast and compelling stage direction made every moment a cathartic and riveting experience, so much so that I’m attending three performances in eight days.
Costume and set designer turned stage director, Jürgen Rose, who took on the Olympian feat of tackling all three functions in this production, did a fine job across the board, producing an atmosphere of verisimilitude that requires minimal suspension of disbelief from the audience. While the set design was dark and stark, it was appropriate and cleverly done to allow for fluid scene transitions. Costumes were, for the most part, historically accurate, referencing paintings by Goya, El Grecco, Coello, and most prevalently, Zurbarán’s Saint Francis of Assisi cradling a skull in his hands – a very fitting complement to the thematic Hamlet-esque contemplation of death throughout the opera. Interestingly enough, in lieu of the typical cardinal red, Rose dressed the Grand Inquisitor and his capirote-cladded minions in the same striking purple from Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. The deliberate and impactful use of this color added to the terror of the red and black auto-da-fé with its impressive procession of tableaux vivants depicting various scenes from the Passion of Christ (flagellation of Christ, Christ bearing the cross, crucifixion of Jesus, etc) along with the actual burning of heretics at the stake, fire and all.
Jonas Kaufmann, as always, delighted the audience with his bright, powerful italianate sound and trumpet-like squillo. He nailed his opening aria, “Io la vidi,” and remained consistently in good form all evening. His portrayal of the Infante was spot on and true to character – impulsive, ruled by his passions with mercurial outbursts and an unstable mental state. In their duet during the Fontainebleau scene, “Di quale amor, di quanto ardor,” both Kaufmann and Anja Harteros, who sings Elizabeth of Valois, exuded a childlike youthfulness appropriate to their teenage roles. They looked genuinely in love, carefree and playful, which provided a great contrast to their ensuing state of melancholy and misery. Harteros was a divine, statuesque Elizabeth with striking beauty and a flawless voice with the weight and dramaticism of a true Verdi soprano. Her top notes, even in mezza voce, were effortless and never shrill.  Her final aria, “Tu che le vanità,” full of conviction and nostalgia, rivaled those of the great legends of a bygone era, and was received with thunderous applause, shouts of “brava!” and enthusiastic foot stomping.
Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa was performed by Boaz Daniel, a last minute replacement for Mariusz Kwiecien. Daniel gave a valiant effort and got the job done, displaying just a hint of homosexuality in his extreme devotion to Carlo. Though at times overwhelmed by the orchestra, he did manage to hold his own in the duet with Kaufmann, “Dio, che nell’alma infondere,” where the two voices blended together nicely and evenly as they gave their pledge of eternal friendship. Eboli, sung by Russian soprano Anna Smirnova, was sans eyepatch in this production much to my dismay. Smirnova’s voice was large, dark and full, but lacked agility. She failed to seduce her audience with a labored and somewhat dull Veil Song, “Nel giardin del bello.” As an actress, her rendition was devoid of charm, charisma, and a light-hearted mischief which are elements essential to this scene. While the trills in her lower register were clean, accurate and evenly spaced, her higher coloratura passage with alternating Fs and As were sloppy and flat on both accounts. She did, however, redeem herself in her final aria, “O don fatale,” where she unleashed a powerful outpour of remorse and her high B was brilliantly executed. Eric Halfvarson as the blind Grand Inquisitor sang with authority and an unapologetic, nonchalant ruthlessness. The occasional wobble in his voice at climactic moments, whether deliberate or not, only added to the effectiveness and believability of his embodiment of the infirm ninety-year-old. The Monk (and apparition of the believed-to-be-deceased Emperor Carlo Quinto) was robustly sung by Steve Humes.
René Pape‘s aria, “Ella giamma m’amo,” was awe-inspiring and brought tears to my eyes. For this reviewer, it was the pinnacle highlight of the evening, both dramatically and musically. Sung with the sonority of a lion’s roar interwoven with pianissimi sighs and sobs, his interpretation encompassed the broad spectrum of emotions that consumed the troubled king, from rage to remorse, frustration to despair, exuding both power and a helpless resignation. Through his poignant use of vocal dynamics, the preeminent German bass brought out the humanness and multi-faceted dimensions of this king bound by the chains of duty and the ever-watchful eye of the Inquisition. The burden upon his shoulders was palpable to the audience. There, in his private chambers, we’re able to see an entirely different Phillip, otherwise hidden beneath his stern, steadfast and at times cruel public persona. Prior to this aria, Pape’s Phillip was sung with formidable thunder.  But here, vulnerable and tormented, his nuanced portrayal of the king evoked sympathy and pity from the audience.  Even within the aria itself, Philip migrated through various contrasting states of mind and Pape gave each one of them a unique and distinct coloring.  His “Ove son?” channeled that of a disoriented insomniac and he trembled with terror and dread while singing “Se dorme il prence, veglia il traditore.” Especially moving were his use of messa di voce on the second “Amor per me non ha” and his final risk taking “Ella giamma m’amo,” a heart-wrenching choked whisper. This is true artistry at its very best. Also deserving of praise is the cello soloist who played with haunting beauty.
Under the baton of Asher Fisch, the orchestra did not leave a remarkable impression, but was even-keeled in tempi and supported the singers well. The chorus sounded lush with only a few of instances where they got slightly ahead of the orchestra.  The Lacrimosa following Posa’s death, which was cut before the 1867 Paris première then later recycled by Verdi for his Requiem, was reinstated in this production. This sublime music of mourning sung by Kaufmann, Pape, and the all-male chorus of courtiers made the evening all the more memorable.


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