Arts: Along for the ride
Roberto Alagna may have been inconspicuous by his presence but there's more to Don Carlos than its tenor lead. By Edward Seckerson
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Thursday 13 June 1996
Verdi's Don Carlos was born big to grow bigger. Paris wanted it biggest. And what Paris wanted, Paris got. Verdi did so long for a great success there. And it was as if, in Don Carlos, he could barely contain his ambitions. The threnody of horns that rolls out in the Prelude to Act 2 - sometimes the first music we hear - seems to symbolise the brooding magnificence, the epic reach of this timeless score. We may never hear every last note of it. There is no "definitive" version to be culled from the mind-boggling complexities of its various revisions. Those who have familiarised themselves with the integral edition might well have been puzzled, for instance, by Covent Garden's decision to omit the encounters (in the Fontainebleau act) between Elisabeth and the wood-cutters and their women. It would seem to strengthen the narrative thrust of that act by establishing there and then her closeness to the people. Remember, it is on the strength of that closeness that Elisabeth makes her momentous decision at the close of Act 1. But we must make ours. Don Carlos is an opera for all seasons. It moves with the times. And to hear it in all its glory with so much added and so little taken away is, in itself, hugely satisfying.
Musically (and, consequently, dramatically), this eagerly awaited new staging from the Swiss producer Luc Bondy took a while to get into its stride. It wasn't just Alagna. Bernard Haitink, too, was having problems finding his length and breadth. The flow was halting, rubatos awkwardly turned, co-ordination between pit and stage decidedly shaky. Up to, and including, the auto-da-fe scene (and that's a lot of the opera), this Don Carlos was a sound, safe, but hardly sweeping proposition. Even Bondy, that most physical and liberating of directors, seemed inhibited by the sheer weight of his responsibility. The sunny skies, the scrubbed pine, the jolly bright colours of the auto-da-fe ("what a day, what a day, for an...") were nicely at odds with the awfulness of the scene, it's true, but still, notwithstanding flames sprouting about the heretics as if on "gas mark 5", this was pretty routine stuff.
And then Verdi hit us with Act 4 - the "Grand Inquisitor scene", one of the finest in all his output - and it was as if the half-cooked (if you'll forgive the choice of metaphor) had in an instant been done to a turn. King Philippe is discovered, a black, lonely, bowed figure "entombed" amidst so much grey stone - an austere image memorably repeated for Carlos's prison in Act 5. As he reflects on the burdens of his kingship and marriage, the thought crosses our minds that the woman asleep in the bed beyond may or may not be Elisabeth. In a chilling moment, she gets up and leaves like an overnight whore (or even Eboli) without so much as a second glance. And then the Inquisitor enters like the proverbial bottled spider, hooded and bent double over two walking-sticks with fire literally sprouting (albeit a little half-heartedly) in his path. Kurt Rydl's hacking black basso threatens judgement with menaces in every cavernous phrase.
The evening turned on this scene. Elisabeth's explosive return, knocking aside the departing Inquisitor as if he were no more than an intrusive insect, created startling new tensions; the restoration of the Quartet, beautifully blocked, raised the musical temperature. Only Martine Dupuy's unruly account of Eboli's "O don fatal" (too many histrionics, not enough singing) proved anti-climactic. And when did you last hear a Don Carlos where that aria was the low point?
Unusually enough, Dupuy fared rather better in the throw-away (if rather too thrown-away) coloratura of her first scene. Everyone else grew in stature. Well, I say everyone else, but while Alagna settled down, he hardly made capital of his most persuasive and (at best) exciting voice. He was, in a word, impersonal. By contrast, Jose Van Dam's Philippe, with half the vocal possibilities (his once famed legato sostenuto has dried out somewhat), sang from a full, noble heart. Hampson was a splendid, ardent, involving Rodrigue, taking time to find his finesse, his honeyed way with the bel canto ingratiations of the role, but once he did - and his fond farewell to Carlos will be one of the evening's enduring memories - it was a happy release indeed.
So, too, the glorious sound of Karita Mattila's Elisabeth de Valois. This ample voice may take a while to warm, to speak effortlessly in those floated pianissimi so beloved of the lyrico spinto soprano, but, once it does, there's literally no holding it. Mattila's final scene was thrilling, the arching phrases of "Toi qui sus le neant" filling both house, hearts and minds. Elisabeth travels a long way in Don Carlos. For Mattila, the real journey may just be beginning.
n Further perfs 17, 22, 25, 28 June, 1, 4 July, ROH, Covent Gdn (booking: 0171-304 4000). The Royal Opera also presents the 1886 five-act Italian version at the Proms (and live on Radio 3) on 20 July (booking: 0171-589 8212)
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 2 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 3 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens trailer: The most extreme fan reactions on Twitter
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
Madonna might be a stand-up comedy virgin - but she wasn't terrible
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a white stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
Russian warships in English Channel 'to conduct anti-aircraft and anti-submarine military drills'