Latvian National Opera 2023-24 Review: Don Carlo

Guth’s Fascinating Staging Lives In The Memory

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Kristaps Kains, Latvian National Opera)

Latvia National Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” was musically and visually excellent, but the director Claus Guth’s underlying concept was not, at least initially, easy to grasp, despite his clearly written program notes. His underlying idea is that it is Carlo’s energy, values and behavior set against a despotic society, in which faceless power resides within the traditional structures of the society, is what drives the narrative forward.

However, his reading was clouded by the inclusion of an almost ever-present character in the shape of an impish sprite who involved himself in almost everything of importance.

A Masterful Interpretation

From the outset, he was seen taunting Carlo and, thereafter, was rarely far from his side. Posing as Cupid, he encouraged his relationship with Elisabetta, he mocked the King on his first entrance, slit the throats of the heretics at the Auto da fé, and wherever possible, tried to influence Carlo’s behavior. He was a bundle of raw energy who was always on the go, running this way and that across the stage and trying to insert himself into the drama. It was only after a period of serious reflection that his significance became clear.

He was a manifestation of the trickster, the Jungian archetype, who is found on the borders of society, who crosses the line, who mocks authority, ignores taboos and disrupts daily life. He is amusing and alluring, dishonest and untrustworthy, yet it is his behavior in creating chaos that allows society to move forward. We can find the trickster in various incarnations, ranging from mythical characters such as Loki in Norse mythology, the court jester, stand-up comedians and even animal spirits. When society suppresses the trickster, it is a clear sign of society’s despotic nature, and by failing to recognize the trickster, it places itself at his mercy.

Guth identified Philip II’s 16th century Spain as such a time. It was a period of oppression when any infraction of society’s norms was dealt with with brutal savagery; heretics were burned at the stake in public. There is no place in this society for the trickster, but he does not disappear. Rather, he lingers in the collective unconscious, and Carlo’s behavior is represented as a response to the archetype, which Guth gave physical form to in the figure of the sprite-type character who pushed, cajoled and tempted Carlo into crossing the boundaries. Seen in this light, the dynamic driving Carlo becomes clear, and his love for Elisabetta di Valois also takes on a symbolic significance; falling in love with your father’s wife is a strictly enforced taboo as it undermines the family, religious tenets and hierarchical stability, not to mention the authority of the King.

Guth was aided in his reading by scenographer Etienne Pluss, costume designer Petra Reinhardt, lighting designer Olaf Freese and video designer Roland Horvath, who together created a suitably dark, heavy and unrelentingly oppressive staging. The set, which changed very little throughout the evening, consisted mainly of dark pews for the monks arranged around three sides of the stage. The walls above were dark white, upon which were projected shadows of the monks and other sinister-looking figures. Costumes were comprised of an odd combination of styles and periods, which only occasionally reflected the time period, but nevertheless successfully captured the gloomy, rigid atmosphere. There were one or two anomalies in which Tebaldo’s pinkish, modern trouser suit looked completely out of place, and its significance, if there was one, was completely lost. Reinhardt’s lighting ensured that the stage was enveloped in darkness, with even darker shadows stretching across the set.

It all came together convincingly to support the dramatic thrust. Oppression, darkness, rigidity and despotism were brought all powerfully to life and then brilliantly undermined by the trickster’s disruptive behavior through the unconscious actions of Carlo.

Guth, however, then went on to add further layers to the fundamental premise of his presentation. Some were successfully built into the drama, such as the underlying childhood relationship between Carlo and Rodrigo, which was played out through occasional black-and-white videos of them as children playing together, which was reflected in and developed by their onstage relationship. Some were less successful. Why, for example, did he choose Goya’s painting of “Charles IV and his family” to illustrate the central importance of the family? Given its specific historical relationship to Philip II, this added an unnecessary degree of confusion to the presentation. Surely, a contemporary painting of the family, or at least one not so specifically tied to the era, would have been more successful. And some of his ideas were simply opaque, such as with Tebaldo’s costume.

Strong Music Production

The musical side of the production was in the hands of the conductor, Frédéric Chaslin, who elicited strong performances from everyone involved. His expert management of the Latvian National Opera Orchestra ensured that the dramatic quality of Verdi’s score was brought thrillingly alive. Through his highlighting of the dynamic contrasts, textural balance and rhythmic pace, he provided the necessary changes in tension that allowed the drama to breathe; holding it in check before allowing it to surge forward at the appropriate moment in the narrative. Moreover, this was achieved without compromising the overall musical shape and sweep or disrupting the intimate connection between the stage and the pit.

Tenor Arnold Rutkowski portrayed Don Carlo as a fairly unstable character who is tormented by the waves of emotions that overwhelmed him, to the extent that at one point he was lying on the floor shaking. His conflicted feelings made him easy prey for the machinations of the trickster, who was forever goading and encouraging him into actions he had not rationally thought through. He was at the mercy of his unconscious urges, and as the opera progressed, his behavior moved further away from and, therefore, in opposition to the established power structures. His uneasy state of mind was neatly reflected in his loose-fitting, slightly untidy dress.

However, there was nothing untidy about his singing. He possesses a lyrically strong, warm, passionate voice that suited Carlo’s nature perfectly and was illustrated delightfully in his opening Act one romance “Io la vidi e al suo sorriso” and in the famous duet with Rodrigo “Dio, che nell’alma infondere.” It is also a resonant voice that he can push upwards powerfully without losing quality, which he displayed with some fabulous ensemble singing.

Soprano Jūlija Vasiljeva expertly captured Elisabetta di Valois’ conflict, which lies at the heart of her character, namely her love for Carlo and her duty to her country, to her husband and to her values. While trying desperately to maintain a stoical face, she convincingly succumbs and gives voice to her passions in a series of splendidly sung scenes, most notably in the final duet with Don Carlo, “È dessa!” in which she displayed the ease with which she is able to move the voice securely and imbue it with emotional depth. It was her reflective aria, “Tu che le vanità conoscenti del mondo,” however, that really grabbed the attention as she embellished the line with pleasing chiaroscuro effects underpinned by a light vibrato and carried the melody beautifully in the voice whilst also revealing the intensity of her emotions.

Rodrigo arrived on stage dressed as if he were a man who had just arrived from the wild frontier. Played by baritone Jānis Apeinis, he was a strong, serious-minded character who, even if he had semi-revolutionary objectives, had no time for the trickster and his games, at one point pushing him contemptuously aside. He still supported the traditional hierarchies, if not their aims. Apeinis possesses a secure, colorful, resonant voice, which he used with a high degree of expressivity to define his character, which he displayed wonderfully in his aria, “O Carlo, ascolta… la madre t’aspetta,” in which his beautifully crafted long lines, tainted with his failing health, brilliantly caught the poignancy of the moment.

Bass Günther Groissböck produced a detailed and multi-layered portrait of the conflicted king, Philip II. He was, by turn, bullying, jealous and underhand. He demanded obedience but was prepared to plead with Rodrigo for his help. He used his power to get what he wanted but also capitulated with little resistance to the demands of the Grand Inquisitor. He felt betrayed by his wife and by Carlo, yet he was prepared to break his marriage vows with Eboli. He was a tortured soul. Groissböck captured it all through his wonderfully crafted phrasing, tonal shifts and emotional emphases. He turned the scena “Ella giamma m’amò,” in which he reflects on Elisabetta’s feelings for him, into a compelling piece of theatre that perfectly captured Philip’s troubled state of mind.

Princess Eboli was given an effective presentation by mezzo-soprano Ester Pavlu. She possesses a wonderfully controlled, secure and versatile voice, which she used with great sensitivity to bring her character to life. Every line was skillfully woven to convey its verbal meaning and used to highlight her emotional state. It is also a lyrically appealing voice that is able to spin out delicately crafted lines, engage confidently with passages of coloratura and hold the attention of the audience. While her rendition of “The Veil Song” beautifully displayed her innate lyricism, it was her poignant interpretation of Eboli’s final aria, “Ah! più non vedrò la Regina,” that most convincingly showed off the range of her talents with an expressively strong and satisfying presentation.

Bass Tadas Girininks as the Grand Inquisitor was suitably authoritative and menacing. He was surrounded at all times by four shadowy figures. Dressed in black stockings that covered their entire bodies, including their faces, they not only magnified his presence, but also added to the impression of his attachment to darker forces. His singing was clearly defined and possessed an unconcealed, vicious curl that reflected his unbending will.

Mezzo-soprano Laura Grecka gave a lively and bright performance in the role of Tebaldo. However, her characterization was not aided at all by her awful, inappropriate costume, which had no apparent relevance to the rest of the staging.

The non-speaking, non-singing role of the trickster was played by Fabians Augusto Gomess-Boorkess, who showed real skill in communicating through mime. He also exhibited a strong stage presence, which, along with his imaginative interpretation, added significantly to Guth’s staging.

All the minor roles, along with the Latvian National Opera Chorus, gave strong performances.

Overall, Latvian National Opera’s “Don Carlo” was a musically strong production, but Guth’s inspired and cleverly thought-through reading moved it onto a higher level, which was all the more fascinating by the fact it required serious reflection to build up a satisfying understanding. Of course, it was also possible to engage with the production on a more immediate level; the overlying narrative was never difficult to follow.

The five-act version was performed in Italian.


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