A Winning Don Carlo at Opera på Skäret

03/08/2018

Giuseppe Verdi, Don Carlo: Soloists, Opera på Skäret Chorus and Orchestra / Michael Balke (conductor), Opera på Skäret, Kopparberg 28.7.2018. (GF)

Opera på Skäret’s Don Carlo

Cast:

Don Carlo – Alejandro Roy
Filippo II – Taras Konoshchenko
Elisabetta – Charlotta Larsson
The Grand Inquisitor – Pavel Balakin
The Monk – Engin Suna
Eboli – Siv Oda Hagerupsen
Rodrigo di Posa – Matteo Jin
Tebaldo – Rebecca Fjällsby
Conte di Lerma – Riccardo Gatto
Voce dal Cielo – Evelina Stenvall
Deputati Fiamminghi – Per Eriksson, Stefan Lindahl, Lars Monfeldt, Ola Heinpalu

Production:

Director – William Relton
Set design – Sven Östberg
Costume design – Sigyn Stenqvisr / Caroline Romare
Makeup & wigs – Robin Karlsson
Lighting design – Kevin Wyn-Jones

As readers who saw my previous review from Opera på Skäret (L’elisir d’amore two weeks ago) already know, the institution is celebrating fifteen years in the trade this year. After the light and entertaining Donizetti comedy as a prelude here comes, as a contrasting counterpart, Verdi’s dark and deeply probing masterpiece, Don Carlo, filled with passion, rivalry and full-blooded drama. As is well-known today, the acoustics of the old sawmill are marvellous. On one of my first visits to Skäret I happened to sit next to a well-travelled gentleman who stated that it is comparable to the Bayreuth Festival Theatre, a statement which I could confirm just a couple of days later when I visited Bayreuth. The high ceiling and the wooden walls produce a well-integrated sound that is transparent and detailed alike, the comparatively small orchestra sounds impressively large and the voices carry with great clarity. The stage is deep but rather narrow, but Sven Östberg’s sets – a castle-like building that can be transformed in size and shape – are masterly inventions that can be converted in a jiffy and allows changes of scenes without delay. Thus the drama unfolds with as little interruption as possible. There are two substantial intervals after Act I and Act II – it’s the four act version we are treated to – but they are necessary in such a long work.

The costumes, created by Sigyn Stenqvist and Caroline Romare, are important for the sense of being transported back to the court of Filippo II in Spain around 1560. Working on a tight budget and with a short preparation period, they have managed to convey the illusion of Renaissance splendour, and this adds a great deal to the feeling of historical relevance. Even with restricted means, the production teams at Skäret have always managed to produce visual delight, but this is possibly the most spectacular production so far. As far as I can remember, this is also the largest orchestra ever assembled in the pit – forty musicians, but they sound more like eighty. Under the direction of Michael Balke – who conducted Der fliegende Holländer idiomatically two years ago – they deliver true Verdi playing, big-boned and intense but also with Mediterranean sweetness and glow.

As usual at Skäret, the cast is truly international: a Spanish Don Carlo, a Swedish Elisabetta, a Norwegian Eboli, a South Korean Rodrigo, two basses from Ukraine as Filippo and the Grand Inquisitor, a third bass (from Turkey) as the Monk, an Italian tenor as Conte di Lerma and a Swedish mezzo-soprano as Tebaldo. The last two also sing in L’elisir d’amore. William Relton, who directed the successful Otello at Skäret four years ago, has once again welded together this motley company to a deeply satisfying unit. Every member of the cast is wonderfully alive and focussed and the tension is tangible. Alejandro Roy, who has sung major roles in Verona, is an ardent Don Carlo with brilliantly ringing heroic tones, as well as great sensitivity. Charlotta Larsson, who has been heard at Skäret as Aida as well as Desdemona, has retained her youthful timbre and added some further maturity. She impresses no end in Elisabetta’s major aria in the last act, and it is a magic moment when she and Roy – during the duet near the end – walk onto the narrow barrier separating the pit from the audience. At such close quarters one realises that neither of them is a teenager – as their historical characters were – but it makes no difference since their singing and acting are superb.

In last year’s Madama Butterfly, the role of Suzuki was taken by Siv Oda Hagerupsen, who impressed greatly in that relatively small role. I felt I would like to hear her in a meatier part and my wish was fulfilled this year when she sang Princess Eboli. Her dramatic presence is very palpable and her singing of ‘O don fatale generated the longest applause of the evening. I now hope to hear her as Azucena in a future Il trovatore. Baritone Matteo Jin has made himself a name, not least as a good Rigoletto in Italy and elsewhere. The noble Rodrigo is a quite different character, but he makes him very likeable, and his voice, with quick vibrato, is distantly reminiscent of Ingvar Wixell, who was a leading Verdian a generation or two ago. ‘Per me giunto’ in the prison scene is very sensitively sung.

One of the truly great bass roles in the opera repertoire is Filippo II – a fascinatingly multi-facetted character. Taras Konoshchenko makes him come alive in his well-considered reading, crowned with a touching ‘Dormirò sol’, where the important cello solo is excellently played. In the scene with the Grand Inquisitor Konoshchenko manages to illustrate Filippo’s helplessness in the face of this frightening figure of ecclesiastical power, an abominable character sung by Konoshchenko’s compatriot Pavlo Balakin, a singer I’ve heard several times at the Estonian National Opera, where he is a member of the company. More bass-baritone than true bass, he is a brighter Inquisitor than most, but no less dangerous. This scene is always the most frightening in this opera, a veritable duel of two giants. The third bass, the black and thunderous Turkish Engin Suna is a formidable monk in the first act and appears at the end of the opera as an equally formidable Carlo V. In the second team of soloists he is the Grand Inquisitor. I hope he will return one day – perhaps as Banquo in Macbeth.

It remains to be said that the pickup chorus is excellent and, thanks to the acoustics, seems to be a much larger ensemble than it actually is. This production is a winner in every respect and a worthy celebration of fifteen years of great opera performances at Opera på Skäret.

Göran Forsling

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