Music, Stage

Don Carlos review (Sydney Opera House)

| |

Verdi’s Don Carlos is not an easy opera to stage. It demands spectacle and endurance from its cast and orchestra, and it’s notoriously difficult to cast. It requires five principal singers, and several supporting players, with voices and stage personas big enough to soar above the epic scale of this production which, as Opera Australia has noted in all its advertisements, features 200 people on stage. And not only do they have to be superb voices, they have to be perfectly matched for its duets and small ensemble pieces.
In that respect, this remounting of Elijah Moshinsky’s celebrated 1999 production is a triumph.
Verdi’s opera was inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s play of the same name, which was very loosely based on real historical events in 16th century Spain. In Verdi’s version, Don Carlos, the crown prince of Spain, is betrothed to marry a French princess Elisabeth de Valois, and has fallen desperately in love with her. He soon learns that his father, Philip II, King of Spain, has claimed Elisabeth as his own wife. An unusual love triangle develops, in which Don Carlos does all he can to win back his mother-in-law (now the Queen) for his own. The result is a melodramatic soap opera set against the backdrop of the Spanish inquisition.
Opera Australia is presenting Verdi’s four-act version (rather than the original five acts), which begins when Elisabeth and King Philip are already married. It does kick off a little abruptly and establishes the relationships between its characters on the run, but it keeps the running time just under four hours (with one intermission).
In the title role, Diego Torre succeeds with ferocious energy and vocal clarity. There’s occasionally trepidation when he approaches the more challenging phrases, but once he makes his way to the top of his range, he reveals a secure and powerful, brittle tenor.
As his loyal friend Rodrigo, Jose Carbo continues to prove why he’s one of Opera Australia’s greatest assets as a regular principal. He’s a singer who finds truth in every character he portrays, and then plays that truth with a straight-forward simplicity. His voice seems to gain more warmth every time he performs, and his upper register is put to the test and passes with flying colours in this role.
Latonia Moore is in excellent form as Elisabeth — her voice is remarkably large, particularly at the top, but constantly sounds healthy, fleshy, perfectly-supported and completely rounded. Sydney audiences will remember her from her performances as Aida both on the harbour and in the opera house, and she brings the same charisma and presence to this role.
Milijana Nikolic, who played opposite Moore as Amneris in both productions of Aida, has one of the more thankless dramatic roles as Eboli, but still gets some glorious musical moments. It’s a role for a dramatic mezzo which requires an unusually light top in some moments, and Nikolic tackles that challenge with ease, proving her versatility as a singer.
But best of all is Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II, whose bass is a commanding, unstoppable, dark, but richly coloured instrument. Not only is it a vocal performance as sensitive and astute as you could hope for in the role, he absolutely inhabits the character and brings a physicality which moves from a self-assured public swagger to a private vulnerability.
Daniel Sumegi also provides a fine supporting performance as the Grand Inquisitor, and holds his own against Furlanetto’s bass.
Moshinsky’s production is strongly, faithfully constructed (if a little on the static side) and lives or dies on the strength of the performances. While revival director Roger Press has clearly worked with the singers to define their characters, much of the production requires them to just stand and deliver.
Designer Paul Brown’s costumes are almost absurd in their detail and size (Elisabeth’s gown for the auto-de-fe scene must be seen to be believed) and are offset by his rather simple but overbearing set of green marble. This is a production which delivers on the spectacle requirement, but never feels garish.
As a piece of drama, Don Carlos doesn’t have the same forward motion as Verdi’s other works, but there’s an underlying tension which, when it simmers as deliciously as it does in certain moments of Moshinsky’s production (particularly whenever Furlanetto is onstage), keeps you on the edge of your seat.
But if the music is what you’ve come for — and given this is a production billed “for the true opera lovers”, I imagine that’s what most come for — all the elements are first class. Conductor Andrea Licata keeps the pace up while drawing every moment of drama from the score (and this is a score which expresses its drama in the most obvious, shattering ways). There’s particularly gorgeous work from the strings, but this is a tight and well-balanced performance from the entire orchestra which overcomes some of the acoustic limitations of the theatre.
And when the full Opera Australia chorus is firing on all cylinders, as they do in the first act finale, it’s opera at its best — a musical experience so moving it could almost bypass your ears and go straight to the heart.
[box]Don Carlos is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until August 15. Featured image by Jamie Williams[/box]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *