Wiener Staatsoper 2019-20 Review: Don Carlo
Anja Harteros, René Pape & Simon Keenlyside Bring Star Power To This Verdi MasterworkBy Francisco Salazar
(Credits: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)
Verdi’s “Don Carlo” is one of the staples of the repertoire, best-known for its lush ensembles, vocal writing, and impactful drama. It requires six of the greatest voices in the opera world and also requires a conductor who knows how to pace the evening; both are essential to fulfill the work’s masterful potential.
On this evening the Wiener Staatsoper was reviving Daniele Abbado’s dull production with three of the greatest singers in the world delivering stellar and raw performances.
A Black Set
Before highlighting the incredible work of the performers, I must highlight two elements that should have never brought so much attention to themselves during the evening.
The first was Abbado’s dull production. The set is a black box that has boards going up and down without any rhyme, reason, or cohesion. It’s more distracting to see the walls open and close and choristers enter and leave the sets without any specific direction. There are props thrown about at moments like chandeliers that grace the stage during the third act and a large chair for Phillip.
Otherwise, the stage remains bare with singers entering in and out. With no real stage changes, I wondered why the curtain had to go down every single time an act ended. It would have been more logical to connect one scene into the other and less draining on the eye; it also would have helped the pacing of the evening on the whole. The idea of a curtain dropping immediately triggers a sense of anticipation in the audience. We start asking questions about what will change backstage, etc. However, each time the curtain opened it was another wall opening and closing and the same black stage.
What was more difficult and baffling to understand was the stage direction in this revival. Singers stood downstage and sang without moving. The depth of the stage was only used during the auto-da-fe and sommosa scenes. Otherwise, the singers parked and barked or moved about the stage with no direction or intention. It would have been preferable to see this “Don Carlos” in a concert version as we wouldn’t have been submitted to watching singers attempt to act with stock gestures in front of an unwatchable set.
A Languid Conductor
But if Abaddo’s tiresome production was hard on the eye, Jonathan Darlington’s conducting was hard on the ear and brought the wrong kind of attention to the orchestra.
In the hands of Darlington, Verdi was not identifiable. For one, it sounded like a marching band trying to fill a football stadium, not an opera house. The approach was full of bombast, especially at major codas with the brass section always covered singers and the string sections. This created an imbalance in the music. This interpretation was most audible in the auto de fe scene’s introduction and chorus as the only audible musical texture was that of the brass section; it didn’t help that at one point a number of trumpets cracked on their notes. This lack of balance in the orchestra took away from the Italianate brightness often associated with Verdi. This is one of Verdi’s more developed scores with the orchestra providing dramatic insight; that nuance was nowhere to be found.
The violin sections also seemed to have a rough night. Whenever you could hear them over the overbearing brass, their playing was sloppy and lacking in cohesion, particularly during expanded legato lines or fast runs. In the aria ‘Tu che la Vanita,” the violins are given a melancholic line that evokes a lament, building and crescendoing to something truly cathartic at the introduction’s climax. However, under the baton of Darlington, the instrumentalists were not always together, creating questionable pitch and correspondingly shrill sounds and dissonance.
Darlington’s biggest issue however was with tempi. The slow passages dragged and faster ones lacked energy or drive. The faster sections were often dragged by the heavy brass, often limiting the singers. For example, in Elsabetta’s first aria Darlington held out passages as Harteros was already moving ahead. Darlington could not get in time with the singers in the Act two trio; he was either behind or ahead of them. He then dragged behind Elena Zhidkova in the climactic section of “O Don Fatale,” making her run out of air during her high notes. At the beginning of the aria, after she finished the “parola scenica” that leads into the the aria, Darlington forgot to cue the winds, leaving a void in the music that was awkward. During the second repeat of “Tu che la vanita,” Anja Harteros attempted to expand a passage, holding out a note longer than the first time. However, Darlington moved ahead, leaving his soprano behind. He also missed Harteros’ entrance in the Act three quartet and did not wait for her as she floated a high note.
One can only wonder how such an interpretation came about. Perhaps it was a lack of rehearsals or just a proverbial bad day for the maestro. But, in any case, it was what the audience received and it was undeniably a performance and interpretation one hopes to never hear again in this Verdi masterpiece.
A True Shining Star
Despite the questionable conducting and bland production, the Wiener Staatsoper lined up two important stars who stole every moment they were on stage.
The first was Anja Harteros who is considered one of the greatest voices in the opera world and on this evening she demonstrated why. The soprano is gutsy and throws herself into the role with thrilling abandon. It’s all about the drama and how her voice and acting can help bring the performance to another level.
Hartero’s take on Elisabetta is that of a strong queen who does not submit to anybody, especially not her husband. She is driven by emotion but she is also an Elisabetta who can keep that in check. However, she is also a broken woman who is clearly in love with Don Carlo, a fact that was seen from her first entrance when she is handed a letter from the Infante. She looked at it in terror, hesitating to investigate further lest she betray herself. In the duet “Io Vengo a Domandar” she continuously moved away from Carlo, running off stage and constantly breaking eye contact to avoid encouraging him. While some of her blocking choices did seem a bit awkward due to a lack of chemistry with her Don Carlo, she made the best of what she could to enliven the scene. The final act with Don Carlo also showed that same emotional pull as she said goodbye to him.
Her interactions with Filippo were that of defiance. When the king arrived and denounced her lady-in-waiting, Harteros’ first impulse was to stare him down coldly. During their Act three duet, she was poised and gritty, her voice exhibiting a confrontational stance with a forte sound and an accented attack on the “Giustizia.” This scene with René Pape was the most compelling of the evening as both artists were not afraid to go to violent extremes to create tension. During “Io l’oso! sì! Ben lo sapete, un dì promessa,” a line often sung with gentle and elegant legato, Harteros chose a harder-edged sound that grew in volume throughout the passage; this was later matched by Pape in his ensuing “Ardita troppo voi favellate!”
Some might note a bit of stridency at times or even some questionable intonation in other moments, but Harteros was so viscerally committed that those blemishes only added to the power of the performances. That was most noticable in her first duet with Carlo. In the final portion of the duet, “Compi l’opra, a svenar corri il padre,” Harteros’ intonation could falter but it was about the text and the meaning as she blasted the full power of her voice into the auditorium and rose to the extremes of her upper register. The staccato line required before “va va” were accented with similar force and resolve.
She was also capable of creating something intimate and gorgeous like her ensuing aria “Non pianger, mia compagna.” Here she sang with a gorgeous and compassionate timbre that was reminiscent of a weeping tone. The lines flowed with tranquility as she spun a mezzo-piano sound on her final note before descending into her middle register.
Harteros’ brightest moment of the evening was undoubtedly her final aria “Tu che la Vanita.” While the aria is sometimes sung with subtlety, Harteros poured everything out from her first entrance. The lines ‘Tu che la vanita” were sung with a fortissimo sound that then decresendoed into a piano quality before once again crescendoing for “E godi nell’avel il riposo profondo.” Her tone then took a silvery and warm tone during the conclusion of the A section. During ” Carlo qui verrà! Sì! Che parta e scordi omai,” Harteros added a sense of hesitance to her interpretation, cutting her phrases shorter. But then as she sang the line “Francia,” Harteros spun a mezzoforte sound and extended the note as if she didn’t want to let go. At the recapitalization, Harteros sang with even more intensity and cresceonded into the same fortissimo sound from the beginning, only with less polish; however, that made this moment all the more heartbreaking and riveting.
Simon Keenlyside is one of the most esteemed baritones of his generation and his voice remains elegant and expressive. In this production, Keenlyside struggled to find a stage partner in his Don Carlo and at times seemed to find himself singing to the audience. But when he found chemistry with his other stage partners, there was a true immersion on stage that he is so well-known for.
This was most noticeable in his confrontation with Filippo, with Keenlyside using all of his vocal resources with heroic intensity. When he came to “Orrenda, orrenda pace! la pace e dei sepolcri!,” Keenlyside emoted with powerful diction, showcasing a grainy timbre that fit perfectly with the horrid meaning of the text. He and Pape created tense moments, allowing for the duet to become even more unpredictable. If Keenlyside crescendoed to a forte, Pape stayed poised and controlled with his suave bass sound.
While that scene might have been the most immersive from a dramatic perspective, Keenlyside also shone in his arias. In Act one, Keenlyside sang the first verse of his initial romance with elegance and restraint. However, seeing as the queen wouldn’t budge, Keenlyside used the repetition of the A section to emphasize his case through a more emphatic vocal approach.
In Act four, Keenlyside poured all the emotions into his double arias. “Per me giunto” expressed nostalgia and longing through his ardent sound. He held out the legato lines and gave each phrase a warmer color. Then as he sang the second aria “O Carlo Ascolta,” his high notes and long lines expressed a weeping sound. During the passage “Regnare tu dovevi, ed io morir per te,” Keenlyside emphasized each consonant in the text, portraying with his last breaths a desire to stay alive.
As Filippo II René Pape brought that same intensity to his performance. When he first came on stage and snag “Perchè sola è la Regina?,” his bass filled the auditorium with imposing authority. That same imposing quality was seen through his confrontation with Rodrigo (more on that later) and in the auto-de-fe, where he towered over Sartori’s Carlo and had no interest in listening or seeing his son.
But toward Elisabetta, Pape’s King had a weakness. There were glimpses during Elisabetta’s first aria where Pape’s King showed a true vulnerability toward his wife as she refused him. That same emotion was seen in the auto-da-fe as she also defied him and asked for Carlo’s forgiveness. Pape looked on at her in anger and by the end of the scene, he grabbed her forcibly as they walked toward the proceedings.
This was a good preface for Pape’s big aria “Ella giammai m’amò.” When he was first revealed on stage, the German bass was sitting on a throne all disheveled and without any formal wear. As he initiated the aria, his opening “Ella giammai” was sung almost parlando, suggesting an emotionally spent personage. When he moved into the more lyrical “amor per me non ha,” he sang it first with a piano sound that seemed hesitant and the second time with a louder if still restrained volume. It was as if this king was still scared to release what he was feeling. But during the B section “ove son?,” Pape’s king started to lose control of his emotions with short lines and airy phrasing that emphasized the king’s pain. By the second repeitition of “Ella giammai,” Pape gave a more lyrical approach and by the end in the climatic “amor per me non ha!” he let out his booming bass finally submitting to his emotions.
The duet with the Grand Inquisitor was a power struggle that saw two potent basses compete in volume and strength. However, unlike his first duet with Posa, here Pape’s king was no longer in control. The Grand Inquisitor stayed center stage, dominating over the entire set while Pape looked for moments to intervene. Here Pape’s voice took on a gritty sound particularly in the lines “No, giammai!” and “Frate! troppo soffrii il tuo parlar crudel!” seeing as he was being defeated by the Inquistor’s requests. By the end of the duet “Dunque il trono piegar dovrà sempre all’altare!,” Pape expressed pain and suffering as if he had lost everything.
Beauty Over Intensity
In the title role, Fabio Sartori was dependable. He has the Italianate voice, vocal weight and some powerful high notes that soar over the orchestra with ease.
However, on this evening he lacked real chemistry with any of his stage partners and his interactions with his colleagues amounted to hand movements. There were moments where it was clear the tenor was paying more attention to the conductor rather than his stage partners; this was most noticeable in the Act four duet with Elisabetta, where his eyeline was almost always directed downward into the pit.
And this caused a huge issue for the evening.
The opera centers around Don Carlo and his emotional turmoil. If audiences are unable to empathize with any of his conflicting emotions, the opera can turn into a long and insufferable evening. Sartori was already at a disadvantage as the Act four version takes away the important Fontainebleau scene so the tenor has to transmit his loss of Elisabetta in the brief aria “Io l’ho perduta!” Regardless of how much emotional intensity he might put into a five minute-aria, the tenor can not make up for the relationship building that Verdi does for over 25 minutes in the five-act version. It doesn’t help that this aria is the opening passage for the tenor in this version, giving him virtually no time to warm up. This was clearly the case for Sartori as his interpretation was marred by shaky intonation and his pushed high notes. There were some beautiful lines in the aria, but it was clear that the tenor was still finding his bearings vocally and dramatically.
He never quite found both with many of the major climactic outcries falling short. This was symptomatic of Sartori placing priority on vocal beauty instead of making the vocal choices that might add to the dramatic immersion the way his colleagues often were. In his first duet with Elisabetta, ‘”Io Vengo a domandar,” passages like “Insan! piansi, pregai nel mio delirio, Mi volsi a un gelido marmo d’avel” were subdued with a beautiful tone but lacked that intensity the music requires, offsetting any potential dramatic build. In the more lyrical moments, Sartori did phrase with irresistible warmth but that passionate feeling toward Elisabetta was never really present. It didn’t help that he paled alongside Harteros, whose voice soared with heartbreaking expression, particularly in the final lines “Ah! Iddio su noi veglia! Signor! Signor!” While the duet featured an emotional crescendo on her end, Sartori’s emotional range stayed the same throughout. Even in the phrase “Ah! maledetto io son!,” Sartori preferred clean and beauty over fierce and tumultuous emotion.
Don Carlo’s other great moment comes in the trio with Eboli and Posa and here Sartori was too passive to be present in the confrontation between Posa and Eboli. While Zhidkova and Keenlyside eyed each other violently in a tense standoff, Sartori remained still and uninvolved. His sole focus seemed to be on sustaining a beautiful line. During his big moment in the auto-da-fe scene when he confronts the King, Carlo is asked to pull off a high B-natural. Sartori’s high note resonated into the hall with gleaming colors, but lacked a sense of climax and force that Verdi wrote into the note.
It was in Act four where Sartori seemed to find his bearings. His pianissimo line in “Ma lassù ci vedremo in un mondo migliore,” was pure and gorgeous and really expressed a mix of emotions from nostalgia to pain. While he didn’t have chemistry with Harteros on an physical or dramatic level, their voices blended beautifully, creating a musically compelling moment full of longing.
O Don Fatale
In the role of Eboli, Elena Zhidkova sang a solid if somewhat predictable performance. The Russian mezzo has a solid voice that can hit all the notes and her coloratura passages are solid. However, she lacks the weight of a dramatic mezzo and can sound hollow in her lower register. Her acting is competent but it lacks depth as it can sometimes be filled with too many hand gestures that take away from her other dramatic stagework. In all, she did her utmost to develop Eboli as a flirtatious, but selfish princess who learns selflessness.
Vocally, Zhidkova is more suited for the lyrical portions of the work. Her opening aria “Nel giardin del bello” was sung with virtuosic pizazz as she spun the coloratura runs with ease and went from the highs to the lows of the aria brilliantly. Interestingly, rather than go for the staccati phrasing most mezzos opt for, she slurred through the coloratura cadenzas with each note cleanly in place, adding elegance and poise to her characterization.
But in “O Don fatale,” which Zhidkova dispatched solidly, the mezzo lacked the vocal power and dramatic weight to truly deliver on her initial promise. She was most comfortable with the aria during “O Mio regina,” her singing featuring a connected and rich middle voice. But as the line ascended her voice continuously faltered and in the climatic coda “sia benedetto il ciel! Lo salverò!,” she lacked the imposing and commanding force to soar over the orchestra. The main issue is that when Zhidkova ascends to her upper register, her mezzo thins out and lacks the heft to project potently. When she hit the high notes she would cut them short, never holding onto a single phrase and consequently minimizing the musical and dramatic impact. You sensed that these higher ascensions were strained and that she was running out of breath on most of them. It didn’t help that the maestro was not with her throughout the aria, likely creating confusion that undeniably affected the vocalization.
The evening not only had a mesmerizing lead bass but also two other solid basses. In the role of Carlo V and Frate, Jongmin Park brought a booming sound that was imposing in every way. His voice resonated in the auditorium even as he stood upstage throughout the whole evening.
In the role of the Grand Inquisitor, Dmitry Ulyanov, who was making a role debut in Vienna, was frightening. As he entered the stage, he showcased a dark forceful bass that accompanied the morbid music so well. He held onto the dark tones in the opening scene and gave each of his phrases grit. He didn’t move away from the mezzo forte sound creating in many ways scheming and demonic quality to his interpretation. It was not until the phrase “O Re, se non foss’io con te nel regio oste” that he brought an imposing and terrorizing sound that overwhelmed with its power. It was a tour de force performance that allowed us to see the cruelty this Inquisitor is capable of in such a short period. In his subsequent scene where he and Pape are asked to sing together, Ulyanov easily blended his deep dark bass with Pape’s more lyrical voice.
In the role of the Voce dal cielo, Diana Nurmukhametova showcased a bright lyrical sound that was unfortunately rushed by the conductor.
Overall this was a night that showed three stars at their very best in one of the great operas of all time.