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In Review > International

Don Carlo

Opéra du Rhin

In Review Strasbourg Don Carlo hdl 916
Don Carlo in Strasbourg, with van den Heever and Zhidkova
© Klara Beck

IT IS ESPECIALLY DISAPPOINTING to see Verdi’s Don Carlo programmed in French theaters in its four-act Italian version rather than the complete five acts of the French original of 1867. However, the four-act “Milan version,” first seen in 1884, makes for a more compact drama, and it perfectly suited the new production by Robert Carsen at the Opéra du Rhin (seen June 17). Daniele Callegari conducted the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg.

Carsen sees the work in the darkest of tones—a monochrome tragedy played out on an austere black set that formed an effective acoustic shell. This was not a French “grand opera” in the Meyerbeer tradition but a detailed exploration of the somber motivations of the characters. The plot, which Verdi knew had little basis in historical reality, is clearer in its confrontations than its linear sense; the ghost of Philip II’s father Charles V appears in the manner of Don Giovanni’s Commendatore for the final fifteen seconds of the opera. 

In the absence of any visual extravagance, Carsen saw Carlo as a black-clad Hamlet figure, with Oedipal mother love and political isolation forcing him through a tunnel of despair. Andrea Carè played the role touchingly, with fluent movement. This fine Italian tenor has some exciting sounds at the top of his range, but the writing taxed his young voice, and a sense of strain was inevitably felt. The same could be said of the Rodrigo of Tassis Christoyannis. The character is one of Verdi’s most ambiguous creations, and the production intelligently explored his motivations for close friendship, betrayal and possible—but here, uncertain—sacrifice. Christoyannis is a fine singer, but the demands of the role stretched his soft-grained baritone beyond its comfort zone. That said, Christoyannis’s fine phrasing and true trill provided evening-long pleasure. 

Philip II was a man eaten with personal ambition and moral turpitude. Bass Stephen Milling, who is so fine in the German repertoire, sounded uncomfortable phrasing in Italian, even if his vocal means remain mightily impressive. The impact of his religious confrontation with the Grand Inquisitor was weakened by the inky-timbred Ante Jerkunica’s lack of climactic bass high notes. 

Elena Zhidkova did not overplay Princess Eboli, instead establishing a love for Carlo that was almost touching. Zhidkova’s lightweight mezzo fared better with the repentant “O don fatale” than in the awkward sounding vocalises of the veil song. The best performance of the evening came from Elza van den Heever as Elisabetta di Valois; the South African soprano contributed regal presence and a voice that encompassed all the demands of the composer, capped by a broadly phrased and memorable reading of “Tu che le vanità” before the finale, staged by Carsen as a bloodbath. 

The evening began badly for the orchestra on June 17. Despite some fine singing from bass Patrick Bolleire’s monk and the chorus, there was grim brass intonation and a hesitant orchestral texture. Things improved as the evening progressed, with a wonderful cello obbligato for Philip’s big aria. Callegari showed a complete grasp of the score and its rich dark hues. The mood of troubled romance was sustained by the Opéra du Rhin the following evening with an elegiac performance of Schubert’s Winterreise by baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber—troubled German Romanticism to complement the Italian lyricism of the previous evening.  —Stephen J. Mudge

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