Tonight has been a special night for me. I grew up with an adored selections record of Don Carlo featuring Christoff and Gobbi. Then, when I started singing, one of my first trophy-winning numbers was ‘Ella giammai m’amo’. What an opera. So many great tunes! Almost out-Trovatore-ed Il Trovatore. But, until tonight, I had never heard the full score. Never seen it performed on stage.
Well, I’ve got a stack of notes for people. Great bits do not an opera make. I know this piece has been hacked around, in several versions, over the years, and the one that it ended up in tonight needs both librettists (especially) and composer to have a major relook. I was right to love my excerpts record, and after tonight, I love it more than ever, but the padding … a wholly unnecessary last ‘act’ and stupid melodramatic ending included … this is an opera with plenty of powerparts, but which needs serious fixing and cutting.
So, to tonight. Splendid setting. The sign of the cross looming viciously over us, as the Catholic religion reigned viciously over the characters and plot. The direction was unfussy, if a little 19th-century (lifting two arms does not equate passion, banging one’s head on the wall becomes boring) and the costumes (with one exception) atmospheric if not always explicable.
So we come to the performance. Which I may say, right away, was ‘pretty bloody beaut’!
Amongst a wholly A1 cast, I must focus on two young singers who simply blew me away. First, Miss Kristin Lewis from Little Rock, Arkansas. What a dazzling, beautifully controlled voice. Elizabeth has a ghastly victimish role, and really has just ‘Tu che la vanita’ and a share in the great quartet, which is the highlight of the night, in which to show her stuff, and in those, Miss Lewis showed that she is a serious star prima donna of the future. What lovely sounds, what thoughtful singing. I note she is to sing Aida next. That should be a world-class treat.
But the star of the night, for me, was the young Canadian baritone, Etienne Dupuis as Posa. Yes, Posa has a large amount of the show’s best music with which to make an effect, but it has to be sung. And tonight it was sung to within an inch of its life. Dupuis has a glorious, warm silky-creamy voice which glid seemingly effortlessly through the swathes of varying Verdi. He was slicingly dramatic in his scena with the King, wonderfully pathetic in the best ‘Per me giunta’ I’ve heard … I really wouldn’t have minded if he’d taken an extra half-hour to die, just to hear him sing. Tonight, that stick of a Don Carlo didn’t have a chance. The opera was clearly Don Rodrigo.
That isn’t to say that that the tenor Leonardo Calmi demerited in any way. He sang his part staunchly. But apart from in the scene of martyrdom, the character comes over as such a tenorious wimp that it is difficult to make anything of him. Giacomo Prestia looked and sounded a perfect King Philipp, playing his scenes with Posa and the Inquisitor with a flair that made him wholly convincing as the Monarch with a Dilemma, until that wretched last five minutes when all coherent character-building is shattered in one gunshot. His ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ was suitably sonorous, but a little spoiled by superfluous pacing and gesture. Albert Pesendorfer was unbendingly impressive as the Inquisitor, fencing murderously for the status quo, and that leaves the Princess Eboli.
Anna Smirnova is a splendid singer and a huge favourite with an enthusiastic portion of the audience. But someone in the costume department has got it in for her. Last time I saw her she was dressed to ridicule in Nabucco: tonight was nearly as bad. A turquoise tent (why, when everyone else was in black?) and the most frightful carrotty wig. And she has to sing about her ‘don fatale’. Anyway, she sang the pop of the opera superbly, but I just couldn’t believe that this penitent lassie was the same dame that had been prowling about like a camp tigress in Act 1. Méry and du Locle really have a lot to answer for in their libretto, but Miss Smirnova should first sue the costumier.
Everyone seemed very happy with Donald Runnicles’ orchestra, which was applauded loudly, the Deutsche Oper chorus did the little they had to do with the skill and effect I’ve come to expect from them, and at the end of the evening I felt that the opera could hardly have been given a better performance. For which, much thanks. But, before I go to see it again, MM Méry and du Locle have got to do wholesale rewrites. And in the meanwhile, I’ll stick to my selections -- that wonderful quartet, the Posa bits, Philipp’s scenas, ‘Tu che la vanita’, ‘O don fatale’ &c – and forget the other intervening bits, and especially the most ridiculous ending to an opera since Il Trovatore.
Next stop, Mons Dupuis in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Long live Beaumarchais!