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Recordings

Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo
19 May 2006

VERDI: Don Carlo

For a time this Don Carlo was a return to times people thought long gone. As always, Dutch papers covered beforehand this new Decker production in depth, as the theme of liberty is an important one.

Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo

Robert Lloyd (Filippo II), Rolando Villazón (Don Carlo), Dwayne Croft (Rodrigo), Jaakko Ryhänen (Il grande inquisitore), Giorgio Giuseppini (Un frate), Amanda Roocroft (Elisabetta di Valois), Violeta Urmana (Eboli). Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera conducted by Riccardo Chailly. Stage director Willy Decker. TV director Misjel Vermeiren.

Opus Arte OA 0933 D [DVD]

$41.38  Click to buy

Moreover, the opera still touches a nerve as the (Northern) Netherlands after their war with their legal count and duke (Philip was not an absolute king in the Netherlands) became a republic. The opera however is historically correct in having the revolt started by the Southern Netherlands (hence the Flemish and Brabantian deputies in the third act). A lot of space was devoted to Decker’s ideas and concepts and then everything was blown away, not by the wind, but by a voice. After the première critics, of course, dissected the production; but even they had to admit for once that some attention should be given to the singers. OK, make it one singer in particular.

The Amsterdam audiences are always keen to make everybody else believe that theatrical values score highest in their appreciation of opera. This time, they dropped their usual make believe and had mostly eyes (ears would be the more correct word) for Rolando Villazón. All at once these audiences, starved for a world class tenor, reduced opera to its main outstanding feature: good singing. People applauded hysterically and the frenzy became stronger with each performance. Villazón was almost mobbed when after some performances he agreed to sign his first solo album. The Amsterdam in-house-shop had to perform miracles to get the necessary copies, as more than 1500 people in all waited for hours to have their albums signed. Villazón himself was almost as surprised as everybody else as he had been engaged for the role when he was still a young promising tenor. Now it was probably the first time he realized how big a star he had become.

The inevitable question therefore is a simple one: is this Villazón performance the yard stick to measure all other interpretations with? And the answer can only be a no. On record Carlo Bergonzi (Decca) still reigns supreme with Placido Domingo (EMI) a good second; while in the live category, there are some stunning performances by Franco Corelli and Jussi Björling. But, it is surely a performance on the level of the unjustly forgotten Flaviano Labo (DG) whose voice has a striking resemblance with the Mexican tenor. Villazón sings with the by now well-known burnished sound and intensity, using a quivering voice now and then to show emotion. He phrases well, has a sense for the Verdian line and the voice remains fresh and lovely till the last measures with top notes ringing out clear and loudly. During the performance I attended, and on this DVD as well, there is proof too of a good control of dynamics; and it is good news indeed to hear from the tenor’s latest recitals that he has refined his singing still more so that nowadays pianissimi come easily to him. Moreover, Villazón is a most convincing actor, especially in a role asking for youth, agility and schizophrenics at the same time. One sometimes has the impression he crosses the line between acting and grand guignol; but the bonus documentary clearly shows he is encouraged to act that way by the director.

Not that Villazón is the only high class performance. Violeta Urmana, a stately Eboli (British critics would use “Junoesque” as they dare not utter the word ‘fat’) sang the role a few months before she definitely went soprano. The voice blazes with health and volume; the top notes are shattering and one can understand why Urmana was looking for roles in a higher tessitura. Soprano Amanda Roocroft as the queen has a more rounded and darker low register than mezzo Urmana, while in the middle register both voices are remarkably alike. But, alas, the moment Roocroft goes into higher gear everything sounds shrill and laboured. A pity as she acts a very vulnerable Elisabetta.

The men are a more mixed lot. Best of them all is baritone Dwayne Croft with smooth delivery, good phrasing and a fine thriller, maybe ultimately lacking a bit in richness and colour in the voice. Colour is surely lacking in Robert Lloyd’s Filippo. This is a solid, somewhat dry, voice though one without great power. Mr. Llloyd knows only two ways of singing: forte and sometimes (and more rarely) mezzo-forte. There is no real beauty in the voice and that magnificent monologue (being a historian I dare to say Verdi is probably nearer to the real king than all the biographers combined) goes almost for nothing at the same loud level all the time. Is it shortness of breath? or the conductors wish? But the bass chops up the line in those last magical phrases clearly breathing between each utterance. More is the pity as Lloyd plays one of the best kings I have ever seen: very near to the eternal doubter Philip was and not exaggerating his rage, his sorrow or his jealousy.

It is never a good thing when the king is oversung in big waves of sound by the great inquisitor. Not that Jaakko Ryhänen sails smoothly along; the sound is often too hollow or simply flat but after all he is supposed to be ninety.

Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (this world class orchestra performs one opera production each year) are magnificent in the playing and the drive of the singers without looking just for effect. Chailly knows where to hurry a little bit faster or to temporize more than the score tells so as to create a real uninterrupted flow of music that goes to the heart of the unfolding drama. He is asked in the bonus documentary if he has thought this out all himself and he honestly admits he did not. But, as a young student, he carefully listened and took notes during performances of Votto, Molinari-Pradelli and especially Tullio Serafin: conductors who studied themselves with teachers who had often performed for Verdi himself. Chailly is clearly proud to have a direct line to the composer’s intentions. As an opera lover I can only regret that he didn’t go for the five-act version in this DVD (as a spectator in the house I was happy enough with three hours of music).

The production by Willy Decker is….well…..rather harmless. Decker is more interested in the father-son conflict than in the quest for liberty. He puts it somewhat vaguely in the right time frame and then opts for a few German director’s clichés without making stooges of his singers or deconstructing the original story. The sets are almost all the time a few (sometimes moving) giant walls of plaques behind which lie the deceased kings and queens of Spain. It is based upon the far smaller real heart of El Escorial near Madrid where King Philip lived most of his life. I fail to see why apart from some real names on the plaques the director has some of them named Horatius, Lucius or Eulalie. And (though not to be seen clearly on the DVD) there are Patricia I and Patricia II as well; probably a silly inside joke. Carlo’s, Posa’s and Elisabetta’s costumes are made from the same grey material: probably a deep hint that these three are one of a kind. Everybody else wears black, even all court ladies, with the exception of the great inquisitor who cannot fail to have a blood-red dress—you got it?—though only a cardinal of the church wears red.

Respect for the libretto is clearly not the strongest point in this production. Decker is clearly impressed with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento movie and in the auto-da-fé-scene the chorus has to imitate exactly the marchers in the film. And the scene ends with the heavenly voice inviting the convicts into heaven while we see….a crucified Don Carlo. In the third act Philip’s grave is already open and the king sings his monologue on his own coffin. And of course the opera has to end on an original note: Carlo commits suicide. Maybe Robert Lloyd has the best reaction to it all as he tells that the singers are not handicapped by Decker asking them for difficult movements. Most of the time they can sing their hearts out lustily and therefore the performance, according to the bass, comes near to his ideal of Italian opera: singing first followed by a hearty applause.

The picture quality of the two DVD’s is fine though the sound suffers a bit from the movements of the singers on the scene. Not the ultimate Don Carlo but still a rewarding performance.

Jan Neckers

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