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Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias
30 Dec 2007

¡Viva Valencia!

Enough ink was spilled last year gushing over Valencia’s new Calatrava-designed opera house and Arts and Science park that I had been chomping at the bit for the opportunity to take in a performance there as soon as my availability and, more important, the availability of a still-very-hard-to-find ticket coincided.

Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia


Now into its second season, and with a diminished “flavor-of-the-month” status, I lucked into a prime seat for “Don Carlo,” seen on 21 December 2007.

It’s hard not to gush about the architecture. The Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia is a stunning modern design, visually arresting, innovative, spacious, and from my experience, appropriately functional. The deep blue seats have padded, frosted plexi-glass armrests that are illuminated in tandem with the bright house lights, adding even more glow and dazzle to the white tiers which are backed with deep blue ceramic mosaic patterns.

Acoustically, it is quite “live” to my taste, meaning the orchestra and singers all sound quite “bright,” and on occasion, quite loud. If you are the sort who cranks up the speaker knobs at home to feel like you are sitting in the brass section, this place is definitely for you. As I heard the voices consistently pinging lightly off the back wall of the 1500-seat house, I thought that some mellowing of the mix would not be amiss. Except for the bodies in the seats, there seems to be nothing but reflective surfaces including a (beautiful) hard wood floor.

And Tobias Hoheisel’s rather indifferent boxy set design provided plenty more reflective surfaces. A black show curtain was illustrated with a single, slightly-skewed white cruciform, and the unrelentingly square-ish setting it revealed had cut-out openings that were variations, or rather de-constructions of it. Two scenes, and a couple of L-shaped scrim flats later (plus a couple of raised and lowered platforms, and a lame projection or two), and we had pretty much seen the entire unremarkable scenic arsenal, a text book case of “too little too soon.”

Still, while neither Mr. Hoheisel’s setting nor his mostly effective costumes added anything definitive, nor did they unduly distract. Ditto the atmospheric lighting of Matthew Richardson, re-created by Rui de Matos. I cannot say the same of Graham Vick’s puzzling staging, re-mounted by Lorraine Reda, as there were many instances where the text was just disregarded. Rodrigo tells Carlo he sees the tears in his eyes, although our tenor is downstage of him with his back turned. Elisabetta asks Eboli why she is on her knees, and Eboli is standing. Carlo, having been “saved” and helped to escape from prison by Eboli, inexplicably stays put on stage hovering over the dead Rodrigo. Duh, he would be recaptured and there would be no final act! Helloooooo! (You know, that sort of thing?)

The Grand Inquisitor and the King were seated so far apart during their "conversation” (conducted straight front) they could have been in different operas. Indeed, many times the blocking seemed to resort to indifferent stand-and-sing compositions which might look more acceptable on the concert stage than in a piece filled with so many red-blooded dramatic opportunities. Conversely, when there was movement, it was often perfunctory. The rag tag noblemen extras in the Auto-da-fe appeared to march in hastily, bow clumsily, and quickly scurry to their appointed spot on the stage lest they forget what the stage manager had just told them to do!

A notable exception was the love duet, which was breathtakingly simple and highly effective. Carlo, having appeared up right, travels oh-so-slowly on a straight purposeful diagonal to Elisabetta positioned down left, and a tremendous tension was created. The ensuing scene was full of imaginative interplay, and was the best (almost only) example of meaningful character relationships during the long evening. It is hard to know how much of the venerable Mr. Vick’s original intentions remained, but I am not sure how much dramatic license would have been given over to an assistant to re-imagine his concept. Let’s chalk it up to opportunities missed.

For their were opportunities galore to have crafted a deluxe, maybe even definitive staging with the first rate cast that was assembled. Only Carlos Alvarez was familiar to me, and his Rodrigo certainly delivered all the goods. Having “discovered” him (and been bowled over) in this role some years ago, he has not only matured his dramatic interpretation, but has refined his vocal characterization so that it is not only still thrilling at full throttle, but also has become more deeply nuanced and varied. Arguably the star turn of the night.

Although Marcello Giordani had previously been scheduled, the posters now advertised the Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee in the title role, implying he had ample rehearsal for the assignment. He could be a major find since he has a polished instrument, stentorian high notes, sound technique, good diction, effective and idiomatic phrasing, and youthful slim good looks. A committed actor, what he lacks at the moment is the “heart” in his vocalizing. i.e. there was not yet an emotional investment or spontaneity in his singing. But I would place money on him. With more experience he should grow from a very fine singer to a very fine artist.

Our Eboli was not so lucky with stage time as the indisposed Nadia Krasteva was replaced by Anna Smirnova. There was something to admire in each of the mezzo’s three registers but she usually had the volume button turned up, witness a paint-peeling chest voice in the Veil Song. (Yes, the Veil Song!) She aspired to more subtlety than her technique seemed to be able to deliver on this occasion, although she sings with intelligence, craft, dramatic presence, firmly controlled tone, and often pleasing sound. Perhaps it was lack of rehearsal, but she seemed to be left to her own devices with “O Don Fatale,” pacing un-meaningfully. And she was not assisted in “cursing her beauty” by being put on display in a costume and wig that did not flatter her physique.

Soprano Angela Marambio (Elisabetta) seems destined for wider international success. Hers is a substantial, focused voice throughout the range and she managed the difficult low and lower-middle passages of this role with considerable success. Mme. Marambio could also ride the orchestra with full warm tone in the more rhapsodic and heated moments, and could float high pianissimo phrases with skill (though maybe not as easily as La Scotto once did). She has a lovely demeanor and presence, and while beautifully costumed in white for her later appearances, I found her well-intended, silver-spangled, blue velvet dress of Act One did give her the somewhat unfortunate silhouette of a (handsome) pin cushion. (Tone down those puffy sleeves for the diva, please?) Her vocal and dramatic rendition of “Tu che le vanita” not only had everything going for it, it was among the finest readings I have encountered.

I quite liked Orlin Anastassov as Filippo II, his suave, well-produced voice reminding me somewhat of Ghiaurov in his heyday. While he sang the role extremely well, I have come to want a little more imperious gravitas in the voice, and that, young-ish Mr. Anastassov does not yet possess, or cannot affect. His heartfelt “Ella giammai m’amo” had everything else going for it, and natural maturity will likely supply the requisite world weariness. The cello solo leading up to the aria was exquisitely played to a completely hushed and appreciative audience.

Stalwart Eric Halfvarson brought his veteran (if “new” to me) presence and fiery declamation to the Grand Inquisitor. Stanislav Shvets was a fine Monk, Carmen Romeu contributed all that was required as Tebaldo, and Olga Peretiatko was competent as the Heavenly Voice.

Presiding in the pit, Music Director Lorin Maazel led a brilliant reading, full of detail and dramatic fire. Sitting in the front row as I was, the massed forces were sometimes exciting to the point of being overwhelming. But never have I experienced the variety of orchestral colors as vividly as here. The Maestro favors a brisk reading of the four act Italian version. The opening horn statements, the bridge in the famous Carlo-Rodrigo duet, the introduction and exit of the Grand Inquisitor, did not have the usual expansiveness, although curiously the Tebaldo-Eboli duet in the Veil Song was a bit slower than is the norm.

Still, Mr. Maazel put his decades of experience to good purpose here, and drew committed, idiomatic singing and playing from his top-notch soloists and a very fine band. The well prepared chorus also sang well, especially in the opening’s offstage moments which have rarely been heard to such good effect. In short order, in this exciting new house, Valencia has delivered some world class offerings of international interest, and this “Don Carlo” certainly holds its own with any of the major houses.

As for some extra-musical considerations, there are still some challenges that need to be worked out. Thankfully, I went early in the day to pick up my telephone-sale ticket, and it was lucky I did, since they could not find it even with my name, address, credit card, booking number, and exact seat location (which happily, I had recorded). Twenty-five minutes later I did get the ticket, all amidst great pleasantry and many apologies from a friendly staff. Too, the box office is rather ill-marked and you have to talk your way past a security guard to gain access to it.

The biggest drawback is that this exquisite complex is not only located about a 40-minute walk from downtown, but also after the performance there is no public transport running. The promised availability of taxis did not come to pass. Having to stand in a cool misting rain, in a traffic circle, at one o’clock in the morning, with a theatre darkening behind you does momentarily take the joy out of the otherwise joyous experience. So, be advised if you go (and you should) that you would do well to have your hotel arrange a taxi for you under your name for pick-up after the show.

James Sohre

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