Mixed Results for Pappano’s Don Carlo (Rebroadcast)

AustriaAustria Verdi, Don Carlo: Soloists, Members of the Young Singers Project, Vienna State Opera Chorus Antonio Pappano (conductor), Agnes Méth (film director), Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria. 16.8.2013 (RDA)

We go to Don Carlo to hear Verdi’s music sung with an Italianate sound. In this performance (available on www.medici.tv) we encounter a cast made up of Russians, Germans, Americans, Brits and Finns directed by a German. Save for the wonderful Rodrigo of Thomas Hampson, who sounds more Italian than most and convincingly portrays a noble Spanish nobleman, the members of this Salzburg cast would probably not be warmly embraced by an audience accustomed to the world-class singers usually associated with this opera.

Jonas Kaufmann looks splendid as the young prince and acts convincingly the part of a complex young man riddled with guilt and filled with political ambition. But the sound he produces these days—as he quickly moves into the Wagnerian repertoire—is beefy, dark and lacking the ever-necessary “squillo” on top to make memorable the notoriously high-lying role of Don Carlo.

Anja Harteros’ voice is a tad heavier than needed for Elisabetta’s essentially-lyric music. That said, she matches Kaufmann’s stentorian sound in their two duets and survives the rigors of the part with flying colors. But her style is more Wagnerian than Verdian, her sound darker than what’s needed for the role of the young queen forced by political circumstance into a loveless marriage, her bearing less queenly than matronly.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Eboli is apt dramatically but vocally only fair in the role of the fairest of all ladies in the court of Phillip II of Spain, eye-patch notwithstanding. She is tentative with the fioritura in “Canzone del Velo” in Act II, better in “O don fatale,” potent in her ensemble work (especially the trio with Carlo and Rodrigo), but ultimately might be a better Marfa or Marina than an Eboli.

Before this performance, I wondered if Thomas Hampson’s lyric baritone would measure up to the task at hand—he more than succeeds, with some of the best singing and acting I have heard and seen from this artist in recent times. His first scene with Carlo, capped by the “Dio che nell’ alma infondere” duet, shows him at his formidable best, sounding and looking terrific, assured and in command of the stage. His Rodrigo is much more of a mentor than a close friend to the young Prince tragically infatuated with his stepmother—a brilliant bit of casting given the difference in ages between Kaufmann and Hampson. And in his confrontation with Filippo he pulls all the vocal stops as I have never heard him before.

The Finnish basso Matti Salminen is a subtle actor—memorable in his prime as Hagen, King Marke, Daland, and Pogner—but here he is miscast. He has the gravitas, the “crin bianco” head of hair he speaks of in his aria and the authority. Missing are the long-breathed line so much of this music demands, the lyricism that “Ella giammai m’amo” cries for, the fulminating sound demanded by the Auto-da-Fe scene. Salminen portrays an odd old king—sullen, impenetrable, long-in-the-tooth and ultimately cold-hearted. Sadly, he sounds it too, being obviously taxed by his big scene with the Grand Inquisitor.

The formidable veteran English basso Robert Lloyd makes something quite memorable out of the secondary role of the Monk who turns out to be Charles V himself. Eric Halfvarson is the powerfully-sung and impeccably-acted Grand Inquisitor. Maria Celeng (Tebaldo), Sen Guo (a celestial voice), and Benjamin Bernheim (Count Lerma) fill their supporting assignments with commitment.

Peter Stein directs the production with none of his usual Regietheater missteps. He creates some wonderful stage pictures and elicits honest performances from his cast, largely devoid of any of the posturing that usually passes for acting on our operatic stages.

The look of the production is monochromatic, darkly-lit—a Spain out of a somber El Greco canvas rather than a sunny Goya. The sets mostly fare well save for a puzzling choice of what looks for all the world like a bullfighting arena for the Garden Scene in Act III. The costumes are suitably Spanish and consonant with the overall look, save for the unfortunate choice of a white sackcloth schmatte for Filippo’s cabinet scene that makes Salminen look like an insomniac grandfather rather than a king.

Antonio Pappano leads the Salzburg musicians, singers and chorus in a splendid performance, infusing it with Verdian style and passion, all-the-while paying close attention to the singers’ needs. If only the Salzburg management had given him the kind of dream cast that he regularly assembles in his London home turf.

Rafael de Acha