Grand Voices in Grand Grand Don Carlos

FinlandFinland  Verdi Don Carlos:  Soloists, Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Pietro Rizzo, conductor. Finnish National Opera, Helsinki 19.10.2012. Premiere. GF

Direction: Manfred Schweigkofler
Sets: Walter Schütze
Costumes: Heidi Wikar
Lighting design: Olli-Pekka Koivunen
Choreography: Lotta Kuusisto
Co-production with Czech National Opera

Philip II, KIng of Spain:  Mika Kares
Don Carlos, his son:  Mika Pohjonen
Rodrigue, Marquis of Posa:  Tommi Hakala
The Grand Inquisitor:  Gregory Frank
An old Monk:  Rolf Broman
Elisabeth de Valois, Philip’s queen:  Judith Howarth
Princess Eboli:  Lilli Paasikivi
Tebaldo:  Dilbèr
The Count of Lerma:  Aki Alamikkotervo
A Royal Herald:  Kai Pitkänen
A Voice from Heaven:  Hanna Rantala

Mika Kares and Gregory Frank; Photo © Heikki Tuuli

The grandest of Verdi’s operas – well, Aïda is on a similar scale – is treated to a really grand production, maybe too grand with an auto-da-fé scene as the culmination, overloaded with symbols, smoke, fire. The setting could very well be regarded as 16th century but there are anachronisms: the messengers from Flanders for instance, are a gang of punks and Don Carlos appears in camouflage trousers and jacket with zippers. Basically the stage is filled with stairs that function for outdoor purposes as well as indoor scenes, but the size bereaves the more intimate scenes of the privacy that should contrast against the public scenes and Philip’s great monologue becomes more of a public address than the inward brooding it should be. In spite of the large forces of choristers and – I suppose – extras there is also a sense of lifelessness in the mass scenes – impressive but rather static. There is however a continuous progression, or rather regression, insofar as the splendour and magnificence gradually withers away and in the final scene only ruins remain. The power and glory of Philip’s reign is gone.

I was surprised to find that Schweigkofler has opted for the four-act version, which means that the Fontainebleau act, where the background is delineated, is gone. Of course the five act version makes a very long evening and at the premiere in Paris Verdi was forced to make substantial cuts to allow patrons to catch the last trains to the suburbs. Even the four act version with only one interval lasts three and a half hour. In spite of the lack of life in some of the mass scenes this is a production that engages, thanks to the work of the soloists. The FNO have gathered a cast of top-notch singing actors, where not least Mika Pohjonen in the title role stands out for his dramatic, brilliant singing. As an actor he is a bit stiff but he is more convincing here than in some of the earlier roles where I have seen him. His father, Philip II, is impressively sung by the young Mika Kares, black-voiced and expressive, and the only drawback is that he looks too young. Dormiro sol is movingly sung, after a night with a scarlet woman, and here the beautiful cello solo by Tomas Nuñez-Garcés should also be mentioned. In the following duet – or rather duel – with the Grand Inquisitor, Gregory Frank matched Kares in blackness and intensity. It is always a pleasure to hear this duet with two first-class singers. Tommi Hakala, a one-time Singer-of-the-World winner, was a strong Rodrigo, though his tone has become rather gritty. Rolf Broman’s old Monk was suitably sonorous and through efficient lighting he appeared as truly demonic. Judith Howarth, whom I first heard some twenty years ago, then as a light lyric soprano, nowadays emerges as a lirico-spinto to reckon with and after a somewhat hesitant start she soon filled out the role admirably and Tu che la vanità in the last act was glorious. On top of all this excellence Lilli Paasikivi once again proved that there are few better mezzo-sopranos around and O don fatale sent shivers down this listener’s spine.

In spite of a few reservations this is a valuable production that should be seen by all true Verdians. It will run until 4 December and other singers will appear in the leading roles as well.


Göran Forsling