★★★★☆ Trio of great performances help four hours of passion and politics fly by.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
July 14, 2015

“Many critics consider Don Carlos to be Verdi’s masterpiece,” writes Elijah Moshinsky at the top of his cogent director’s note in the programme for the reworked version of his 2000 staging. Cards on the table – I am one of them. Schiller’s play of policy and passion inspired the great composer to write his grandest exploration of the personal viewed through the prism of the political. A canvas of epic proportion on which he paints the musical portraits of the men and women at the Court of King Philip II of Spain, human beings struggling to come to terms with their emotional imperatives in the face of compelling matters of Church and State. Suffering a uniquely complicated genesis, there are many versions of Don Carlos. This, the most satisfactory, is the four act Italian version and weighs in at four hours.

Moshinsky is often charged with hyper-naturalism in his detailed, studied productions, but here he opts to elaborate on the oppressive formality to be seen in the paintings of Velásquez in order to create the heightened dynamic of an aristocracy on the verge of a nervous breakdown, stifled by decorum, trapped within the confines of their own clothing. That costuming (invariably gorgeous) means men in robes, doublets and armour, while the court ladies in their giant farthingales frequently resemble well-upholstered items of furniture. 

Paul Brown’s marmoreal sets capture the domineering opulence of the Spanish Baroque, taking their locational cue from the opening Monastery of St. Just into which the former Emperor Charles V has withdrawn to live out the end of his days contemplating his own misguided motivations. This is a world of memorial and marble, of blood and relics, where the kings are the dead and Religion holds sway. “He wanted to reign over the world, forgetting Him whose hand set the stars in their courses. His pride was great, his madness profound!” intones David Parkin’s beautifully sung monk. This mysterious figure is cannily revealed from the outset to be the former monarch, father to King Philip and grandfather to Don Carlos (rather than coming as an awkwardly rushed surprise at the opera’s dénouement). Stalking the vaults like an ashen-faced cadaver on crutches, Parkin is a potent symbol, his concluding confrontation with a terrified Philip, the son who in his hubris has just crossed the same forbidden line as his sire, is as good an ending as I’ve seen to this opera.

Opera Australia’s Don Carlos  © Jamie Williams

Isolating this key line early, Moshinsky shows a directorial astuteness that follows through into many of the subsequent scenes, revealing a motivation here, taking the curse off a stock opera cliché there (his setting of Carlos and Rodrigo’s oath of brotherhood as a prayer at the altar spares us the usual musketeering swashbuckle).

Like Wagner’s Ring, the sprawling demands of Verdi’s epic call for such a range of Herculean singing actors that fans and adherents seem fated never see the perfect Don Carlos. This reasonably cast iteration is led by a trio of excellent performances, headed by the great Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, a man whose first Don Carlos starred Boris Christoff, who has sung King Philip under Karajan, and who, at 66, is singing as well as ever. To watch this musical dramatist at work is an object lesson in judicious use of text, the importance of bel canto singing to support the vocal line – even in middle-period Verdi – and psychological nuance as revealed in the maxim ‘less is more’. With Furlanetto every moment is felt, weighed up and lived in. A King’s cruelty is revealed in how casually he dismisses his wife’s lady-in-waiting, not in how loud he shouts. The great monologue Ella giammai m’amò, set in a study dripping crimson, reveals the anguished, lonely, sleep-deprived monarch, huddled from the cold that must have permeated every stone of the Escorial Palace. His reflection on the sad face of his young bride as she gazed on his white hair the day she arrived from France, and his repeated groans of “amor per me non ha” (she does not love me) pierce the heart. The gamut he runs in his subsequent encounter with the implacable Grand Inquisitor is impressive and memorable, as is his equally significant earlier scene with the idealistic Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa.

That character receives the other Rolls Royce performance of the evening. Australian baritone José Carbó delivers a smoothly sung, dramatically detailed portrait of a role that can sometimes take a back seat to the more flamboyant Infante. Whether boldly accusing the King of offering “the peace of the graveyard” or proposing himself as sacrificial victim that his friend might go on to greatness, it’s a subtly observed portrayal rooted in a rich singing voice that doesn’t shy away from the demanding tessitura of one of Verdi’s most ‘heroic’ baritones. The twin arias of Per me giunto è il dì supremo and the dying Io morrò, ma lieto in core are superbly paced, shaped and delivered with conviction along with some ringing top notes. As it should be, his lovingly shaded oath duet with Carlos is an early highlight.

Latonia Moore and José Carbó © Jamie Williams

The third member of the stellar trio is American soprano Latonia Moore as the victimised Queen Elisabeth. A standout Aida earlier in the year, she reveals herself to be a Verdian lyric soprano of real stature, supporting the taxing lines in her two key arias with a combination of grace and power. A little disadvantaged by injudicious costuming in the Auto-da-fé, she nevertheless rises to the theatrical challenges from Act IV onwards. Her tonal strengths, evenly displayed from gleaming top to rounded bottom, climax in a magnificent rendition of Tu che le vanità – surely Verdi’s finest dramatic scena for soprano.

The two other principal singers were never less than adequate, though a little less successful all round. Mexican tenor Diego Torre sings with unflagging power in the title role, but his tendency to set the dial to fortissimo throughout becomes wearing. Carlos is a notorious voice-wrecker, and more experienced singers that Torre have fallen at its numerous hurdles. That he emerges stronger in Act V than he appears in Act I does him credit, but he should be watchful of mannerisms creeping in as he approaches top notes and could address the clarity of some of his vowel sounds on certain notes. As an actor, Torre isn’t quite in the league to capture that ineffable leadership quality in the otherwise unstable Carlos that Rodrigo recognises and surely so should we. His presumed epileptic fit in Act II fells merely like a man having an inexplicable lie down.

As Princess Eboli, mezzo Milijana Nikolic also falls short of the mark. She has the presence and theatrical skills to make much of the character’s passionate nature and aspirations to power and influence – and by Act IV she has built a credible dramatic portrait – but vocally she comes over as confronted by Verdi’s considerable musical demands. The voice is rather recessed, resulting in muddy diction and it’s not that she doesn’t have all the notes; it just feels like the challenging top of the role is a bridge too far. On the other hand, she generally impresses in ensemble, and the Act III trio is a musical highlight.

Milijana Nikolic and Latonia Moore © Jamie Williams

Smaller parts are generally well cast. Anna Dowsley is a perky, nicely-sung Tebaldo, Julie Lea Goodwin a well-supported Voice from Heaven, and the Flemish Deputies are uniformly excellent, singing their crucial music with a fine blend and sense of line. In the small but crucial role of the Grand Inquisitor, Daniel Sumegi is a stentorian presence, but he tends to shout from the start of his scene leaving his foil, Furlanetto’s King, to explore Verdi’s perfectly crafted dramatic arc on his own.

In the pit, Andrea Licata delivers a fine, workmanlike account of Verdi’s extraordinary score – is their any opera where quite so many memorable melodies are paraded before our ears one after the other? Occasionally it feels a little brisk; occasionally a singer and he part company, but it’s a well-crafted reading with some fine brass playing and nice solos from the likes of principal violin, cello and oboe. If there is a problem at times it’s the Joan Sutherland acoustic, which tends to bedevil these more generously orchestrated operas. Too often the composer’s sizeable forces sound overly recessed, percussion tucked far out of earshot. Though not a problem in the more intimate scenes, by the Auto-da-fé, with its ‘banda’ ringing out from the Gods, it’s clear what we are missing in terms of volume and timbral presence from the pit. The compensation, of course, is the opportunity for the Opera Australia chorus to blow our socks off, which the do, whether singing on stage or off.

Don Carlos is a undoubtedly a challenge. A keystone work for any company, it requires every resource that can be thrown at it, culminating in the spectacle of those wretched heretics being tolled off to face the flames of the Inquisition (and that scene looks very fine indeed). That Opera Australia now has an insightful production in their repertoire bodes well for the future, and with at least three revelatory performances on offer, despite the odd vocal caveat, I really would recommend it wholeheartedly as an opportunity to see Verdi’s very greatest work in full operatic Technicolor.

Opera Australia’s Don Carlos is at Sydney Opera House until August 15

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