Exceptional Don Carlo at Grange Park Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Grange Park Opera 2019 – Verdi, Don Carlo: Soloists, Grange Park Opera Chorus, English National Opera Orchestra / Gianluca Marcianò (conductor). West Horsley Place, Surrey. 6.6.2019. (VV)

Marina Costa-Jackson (Elisabeth) and Leonardo Capalbo (Don Carlos)
(c) Robert Workman


Director – Jo Davies
Set designer – Leslie Travers
Costume designer – Gabrielle Dalton
Lighting design – Anna Watson
Movement director – Lynne Hockney

Cast included:

Don Carlo – Leonardo Capalbo
King Philip II – Clive Bayley
Princess Elisabetta – Marina Costa-Jackson
Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa – Brett Polegato
Princess Eboli – Ruxandra Donose
The Grand Inquisitor – Branislav Jatic
A Monk/Charles V – David Shipley
Tebaldo – Jessica Leary
Voice of Heaven – Rosanna Harris
Count of Lerma – Lawrence Thackeray
The Herald – Roberto Abate  

Grange Park Opera’s 2019 season has opened on a high with an outstanding Don Carlo. This is the production first performed to wide acclaim in 2016 at Grange Park Opera’s former home. A compelling cast at West Horsley Place makes this a truly unmissable reprise.  

Verdi revised Don Carlos repeatedly after its 1867 Paris premiere in French. The version chosen by Grange Park Opera is the 1884 Don Carlo, sung in Italian. Whilst tauter than its 1867 forerunner, it remains an indisputably ambitious work, combining elements of grand opéra with the complex psychological exploration characteristic of Verdi’s mature years. The demands it makes on the entire team – from the singers to the director, designers, conductor and orchestra – render it a daunting one for any opera house. High praise, therefore, to Wasfi Kani for bringing together creatives and performers who, all together, deliver a production of remarkable cohesion and focus.

In Don Carlo, Verdi explores the tensions deriving within and between the protagonists from the conflict between their human yearnings and the rigidity of institutions and roles. The sets by Leslie Travers reflect this. Unadorned concrete-like walls confine characters’ action, making visible the harsh framework which shaped and now tests them. With ingenious versatility, the sets transform to incorporate elements crucial to each scene: the flickering candles of a monastery, the water fountain in the palace gardens, the dreaded auto da fé… Anna Watson’s lighting underlines the strong sense of the individual engaged in a battle against harsh, impersonal structures. Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes suggest the severity of Counter-Reformist Spain’s mores and fashions. Jo Davies’s production thus keeps the directorial spotlight on the character development and on conflicts at the heart of this work, while making the external rigidity of Church and State, and the tug between them, ever-present.

The English National Opera Orchestra under the baton of Gianluca Marcianò keeps a taut, flowing pace. Its exemplary support of the singers means that voices are never overwhelmed. The nuanced playing makes it possible to relish Verdi’s orchestration all the more, both when it melds with the singing and in the magnificent instrumental sections.

The vocal demands made by Don Carlo on the principals are famous for good reason. A great virtue of this Grange Park Opera production is how strong and well-balanced the cast is. Some of its members are well known names, while others are rising stars it’s a privilege to hear at this stage in their careers.

Italian-American tenor Leonardo Capalbo plays the eponymous hero. This is his debut in a role in which he is supremely at ease, vocally and dramatically. Capalbo’s interpretation makes Don Carlo a believable character: a young man who, through errors and reflection, eventually matures. Full command of his voice is such that it rings with the exuberance of youth written into the role by Verdi and his librettists, while the contrast of colour in certain scenes – such as Posa’s death or the farewell from Elisabetta – is beautifully and movingly rendered.

Marina Costa-Jackson is Princess Elisabetta, wife of King Philip II – and Don Carlo’s impossible love. This is the Grange Park Opera debut of the young Italian-American soprano. Trained at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, she is the winner of numerous prizes – and an exciting discovery. She has a particularly warm timbre and is in control throughout the vocal range. Her tone changes with the widely diverse requirements of the plot: it shifts from the evenness of regal calm to intense desperation at unfounded accusations, as well as from the plangent to the heroic. Her ‘Tu che le vanità’ is breath-taking.

Clive Bayley brings out all the complexity of Verdi’s Philip II. He is intransigent and yet fragile; yearning to be loved but unable to love; admiring of Posa’s idealism but resigned to anguished acceptance of what he considers an unchangeable reality. The role embodies more than any other the question Verdi poses and leaves open: is it futile for the individual to rebel against an implacable institutional force, or does bowing to it represent a dreadful failure? Philip’s assertion that ‘the throne must bow to the altar’ sounds like murderous self-justification, when he is the one who called for the Grand Inquisitor. Posa and Carlo, who defy the latter, are heroes but their struggle ends all but well. Bayley’s rendition of the line ‘Beware the Grand Inquisitor’ is masterly, conveying the king’s ambivalence and the ambiguity built by Verdi into this work.

In this opera, the Church is the epitome of cruel, inflexible power, the ultimate obstacle to the freedom of individuals and groups. It is personified by the Grand Inquisitor, played with chilling rigour by Branislav Jatić, who stepped into the role at late notice. Though the power of his voice is not uniform throughout the range, he conveys the overwhelming determination and control of the role.

Canadian baritone Brett Polegato returns to Grange Park Opera, where he sang Onegin and Marcello (Bohème). His Marquis of Posa is a confident man, an idealist with a healthy dose of realism, a friend and soldier with a strong sense of honour. His warm and dark timbre is the perfect match for Capalbo’s ringing top notes in their duets in Acts I and III. His final aria is particularly moving.

Like Clive Bayley, the Romanian singer Ruxandra Donose starred in the 2016 production of the opera. Again she returns as Princess Eboli in a bravura performance. The ‘Veil Song’ is delivered with playful charm and, at the same time, with a cleverly unsettling foray into sombre colours. Her warm tone takes on different hues as the character develops: from seductive to vengeful, and from remorseful to decisive. Her control of phrasing is exquisite. She inhabits the character with total conviction.

David Shipley is the Monk/Charles V, whom he invests with authority. Jessica Leary makes a clear-voiced and believably young Tebaldo. The beauty of Rosanna Harris’s Voice of Heaven is in perfect contrast with the horror of the auto da fé scene, underscored by the fate of the ‘heretic children’. Lawrence Thackeray and Roberto Abate sing and act confidently the parts of the Count of Lerma and the Herald, respectively, as do the six Flemish Deputies.

The chorus and movement director Lynne Hockney deserve high praise: the chorus conveys the impression of vast numbers of people at court, in the monastery and by the auto da fé. Without them, a production which explores the protagonists’ inner lives against the backdrop of history would not be as powerful.

This is undoubtedly one of the most memorable productions I have seen of one of Verdi’s finest operas. Highly recommended.

Valeria Vescina

For more about Grange Park Opera click here.

(For more about Valeria Vescina and her work  click here.)

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