Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Don Carlos: Welsh National Opera @ North Wales Theatre, Llandudno

22 October 2005

In staging Verdi’s Don Carlos Welsh National Opera has done two very laudable things. Firstly, bringing Verdi’s grand opera to regional towns such as Llandudno (where I saw it) expands the cultural opportunities in areas where the lyric theatre is in short supply. Secondly, this is one of the most complete versions of Don Carlos ever to have been performed. There is a long way to go before we can hear the most complete text possible, including the ballet music for example, but WNO’s efforts are most welcome.

Verdi had always wanted to outdo Meyerbeer on his home ground of the Paris Opèra, but his previous attempts, Jérusalem and Les vêpres siciliennes, were both disappointing. In 1867, he tried again with a five-act setting of Schiller’s celebrated play Don Carlos and this time struck gold. Unfortunately, the work took so long to perform that Verdi cut the score after the dress rehearsal, though the public still missed the last train home at the premiere.

Don Carlos is Verdi’s greatest project, yet it was never completed in some respects, for he kept revising it – so much so that a ‘complete’ or ‘authentic’ version is impossible to define. One could go back to the 1867 version and perform it in its entirety, which would be a pleasure to hear if anyone dared to do it, but that would leave the question of whether it isn’t better to perform later versions of passages which were there from the start but changed in character and effect in the revisions.

WNO’s version is sung in French and lasts almost five hours. It was wonderful to hear some of the passages that are normally cut but were here reinstated with impressive results. Particularly striking cases were the opening chorus of Act I, which sets the scene strongly; the full Eboli/Elizabeth encounter in Act IV Scene I; and the complete Philippe/Carlos duet in the following scene.

Sadly, John Caird’s production lets this admirable enterprise down by a long way. It was ten years in the planning, but this Don Carlos is by far the most dismal interpretation I have seen, from the dramatic point of view. The set designs of Johan Engels and the costumes by Carl Friedrich Oberle could hardly have been worse. In the space of an evening the costumes manage to range from evocations of the Ku Klux Klan (loosely indicating the Inquisition) to General Franco (King Philippe) and his unmerry men, from modern Armani suits (Rodrigue) to an unintentionally hilarious Mikado-style rendition of Princess Eboli’s Song of the Veil.

In an ideal world (which this wasn’t), the story is meant to describe how Don Carlos, the son of the King of Spain, is to be forced to marry Elizabeth, daughter of the King of France. They meet and fall in love, but at the last minute the King of Spain decides to marry Elizabeth himself. Carlos’ best friend Rodrigue is ordered to carry out the King’s instructions and report on Carlos’ behaviour, but he implicates himself in treason in order to stay true to his friend, and is killed. Meanwhile, Princess Eboli, who loves Carlos, accuses Elizabeth of infidelity out of jealously, though in fact Eboli has seduced the King (a point which Caird is very keen to emphasise in this production). Elizabeth and Carlos remain blameless though blamed; and when Carlos is about to be prosecuted at the end, the mysterious ghost of the dead King Charles V comes to save his grandson by leading him into the monastery.

Not so for Caird, however, who has him killed off in the most theatrical manner possible. Of course, a figurative death is implied by the usual ending – we probably don’t expect to see Carlos again – but to have him stabbed in the back with pianissimo chords in the orchestra was anticlimactic rather than overwhelming. The music for this scene is deliberately short to overcome the unconventionality of the drama as it was written originally, and I don’t believe Verdi would have composed so predictable a death scene in this way.

One could only admire the cast for overcoming the many adversities of the production and still making this a worthwhile, if rarely exciting, enterprise. The brilliant American baritone Scott Hendricks (Rodrigue) was the most consistent performer of the evening, his golden voice combined with a natural dramatic instinct. A shame that Caird undercut his movingly sung death scene by having two of Franco/Philippe’s henchman dressed as prisoners suddenly turning round and stabbing Rodrigue; this was typical of the whole.

Given the enormity of the role, Liverpudlian tenor Paul Charles Clarke did a fine job as Don Carlos. He doesn’t have huge vocal reserves, but the Act V duet with Elizabeth was tenderly done, and in general he was sympathetic. Sofia Mitropoulos, a Greek singer quite new to me, has genuine abilities as a Verdian soprano and only occasionally showed strain as Elizabeth. Again, Caird was working against her, and I don’t feel that she felt comfortable with muting the noble aspects of the character; it was almost as if the director wanted to suggest she is guilty (when she isn’t).

Philippe was hammily played by Andrea Silvestrelli. It can’t have been easy to give authority to this character when dressed as Franco (or should I say Boris Godunov, based on his costume in Act III Scene II?) but the King shouldn’t come across as totally demented, nor should his music be sung by one with so hollow a voice. It should be said, however, that the Rodrigue/Philippe encounter in Act II was electric, each artist energising the other.

Princess Eboli, the supposed minx, was brilliantly sung but middlingly acted by former Cardiff Singer of the World, Guang Yang. After a Three Little Maids From School-style rendition of the Song of the Veil, Yang achieved great heights in Act III Scene I, both vocally and dramatically posing a threat to the guilt-ridden Carlos.

The Grand Inquisitor surprised me by being solid in every aspect, so well done to Daniel Sumegi; James Gower more than made up for the indisposition of Matthew Rose as the Monk (sad though that was); and Luis Rodriguez took advantage of the Comte de Lerme’s increased role in this longer version of the opera.

The musical standards were high indeed, thanks to Carlo Rizzi and his responsive orchestra. The tempi were mostly well-judged, finding unusual nuance in the familiar Carlos/Rodrigue duet, for instance. A shame the chorus was sometimes overwhelming, though Rizzi’s tempo for the big Act III Scene II concertato music was probably a shade ambitious.

This managed to become a memorable Don Carlos thanks to Rizzi and a mostly pleasing cast. Yet the production team has let them down and one hopes something will be done to modify it, should this staging ever be revived.

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Don Carlos: Welsh National Opera @ North Wales Theatre, Llandudno