The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

ROH Don Carlo (revival - Nicholas Hytner): Escuriel in two dimensions - Semyon Bychkov. Jonas Kaufmann the Infante.

This marks second time to have covered airing of the Nick Hytner production of Verdi’s Don Carlo - in interest of hearing several singers and Marina Poplavskaya repeat Elisabetta. Previous comments date from June 30, 2008, weeks after this production first opened – and can still be found at BCCLS opera listserv.

Semyon Bychkov took over from Antonio Pappano this time. He invested more imagination into several passages, darker tinta overall, but moreover a verticalization of Verdi’s orchestral fabric to extent that structural cohesion of numerous passages sometimes would give way. Toward accommodating cast members, some other compromise factored in.

Remindful too soon of Radio Norway with Shostakovich last month was Lisa Simeone’s claim on NPR that what we would be hearing would in effect essentially be the 1884 Milan four-act version of the opera. It is indeed more compact than any of the five-act versions, including the 1886 Modena version. What we got instead was still the 1886 Modena – its last four acts - because if this really had been the Milan, Jonas Kaufmann then would have had the aria “Io la vidi” to sing – with altered recitative then newer version of the aria written a whole tone down.

Jonas Kaufmann took Rolando Villazon’s place as the Infante. One missed some Latin warmth and intensity from Villazon, but less so persistent intonation problems he has been having. Kaufmann had some of his share as well. Presuming youtube excerpts to be from same opening night as this broadcast, the evening for Kaufmann got to a somewhat rocky start. Word has it that both Kaufmann and Poplavskaya used ‘Fontainebleau’ as warm-up for the next act.

Break in legato off tied B-Flat for “Di qual amor” from Poplavskaya instantly became desecrating, plus later instances she’d break up the line to accommodate what vocal shortcomings she has. Kaufmann’s mezza voce high B in “Io lo vidi” practically scraped the throat. Intonation was sour and legato proved unfeasible while stuck in the throat. However, matters improved well for him for most of what followed - until final duet with Elisabetta.

Kaufmann succeeded best while onstage with Simon Keenlyside (Posa), but had success too with Act Two duet with the queen. The deeper, more phlegmatic, less explosive temperament of this Carlo next to Villazon’s meant also less specificity about the Infante than with Villazon. It is lovely, when not too self-conscious or phrasing from behind in doing so, to hear Kaufmann caress his lines and reveal as well, perhaps less keenly than his baritone colleague, a lieder like sensitivity for words, such as ideal in either Schubert or Schumann. And yet in early duet with Keenlyside, Kaufmann’s focused “Tristo me” leading into friendship cabaletta revealed such metal that momentarily it could have been a good second-tier Otello doing this. Kaufmann’s purposefully dull waking up from swoon into which Carlo has coalesced in front of Elisabeth carried both distinctive poetry and verisimilitude.

There is still more personality to draw out of Verdi’s Carlo than Kaufmann provided; safety net of mezza voce eventually became a cliché a good ways through this. From what we know now, portraying Carlo as person hard to get to (really) know could be insight one can draw from hearing either Kaufmann or Domingo. One could look to Carreras for Karajan (preferably 1970’s EMI) for a slightly more valid extrovert approach, or with less than perfect intonation, Villazon.

Marina Poplavskaya made a vocally fragile queen this time – more so than interpretively. She somewhat blasted through “No, pensate a Rodrigo” to Kaufmann moments after “Tu che le vanita” with wodge encircling the passaggio - recalling late-career Scotto. There were fine moments still, to recall Poplavskaya’s better lyricism in approaching this – cause for some optimism – such as her reply to Eboli near start of Act Two garden scene. Her “Non pianger” was still sensitive, though lacking secure reach over crest of its arching line. Bychkov then rushed her slightly through “Ben lo sapete” (during confrontation scene).

“Tu che le vanita” was just disastrous, though unlike with Cedolins so off key (with Gatti) it became hard to recognize what it was, here the aria was still fully recognizable. One sought in vain legato for both “s’ancor si piange” and its later reprise. Marcia altogether lacked vitality and in effect ‘farewell’ barcarolle with Kaufmann was both choppily phrased and accompanied, through final tastelessly bench pressed, punched out (by both singers) “e sempre Addio” right before Inquisitor and King enter, both hardly to mind their mowing both of them down. Perhaps neither should we for the effect on what Verdi wrote. Lovely stage appearance apparently was inadequate toward providing good vocal countenance - with legato as between worn and patchwork as Ricciarelli’s (DGG); this being so, it is hard to explain what interpretation remained, except for having heard her earlier with Pappano. Intonation was more intact and Pappano more supportive, conventionally so.

Marianne Cornetti was the light voiced Eboli, with lovely top, until pressing upon it hard. Several choked low notes hither and yond indicated verismo effect and/or perhaps just some lapse in technique. The veil song went reasonably well, though with some rushing, rhythmic distortion to accommodate rolling from break to top – given how soprano in timbre Cornetti is up high. She definitely proved the weak link with male colleagues in Act Three. Top notes for “O don fatale” were vaguely supported and penitent middle section was placed back to extent of making Eboli sound somewhat over the hill. Ganassi was last year’s Eboli, but with better established record in Rossini; such did not qualify her either for taking on this qualitatively dramatic soprano part.

Ferruccio Furlanetto most notably repeated Filippo II from last year. He resorted to excessive shouting and pouting in the part when this production opened, some of which he has internalized by now. For what wear and tear on the voice has ensued, he became more prudent here. He sang as movingly as I have ever heard him do so both “Oso lo squardo” at end of Act Two and opening lines to his fourth act aria; he and Bychkov agreed on maintaining more conventional line for “Dormiro sol”- out of which perhaps more could have been said. It was already obvious last year, clear by now that the Hytner/Furlanetto Filippo II is somewhat a diminution thereof. One felt pity for this Phillip, but less than full appreciation for the King’s dignity, with which Verdi fully invested him.

The best two dramatic events that occurred between both performances broadcast occurred with this revival, for two passages over which hard to favor any – even most anything in Aida - duologue for King with Posa and same with the Inquisitor. As somewhat Bychkov undercut the meeting with Posa, he fully rose the occasion for that with the Inquisitor (John Tomlinson, in place of Eric Halfvarson). Keenlyside last year had to drop out for indisposition for unstable Kostas Paskalis protégé Dimitri Tillakos to replace him. Keenlyside sounded a little darker this go-around than what little I have heard from him last year and slightly more compromised in legato. Interpretively he was ideal here, in standing up guilelessly beseechingly, to the King and in also revealing for Posa on last dying breath particular weakness for inciting Carlo.

Bychkov undercut Keenlyside by denying him full space to ideally encompass expanding lines in “Per me guinto” - by conducting phrase-ending a cappella lines from violins too strictly. Keenlyside evinced too considerable grace and charm as Rodrigo, such that the King might envy him at what chances toward winning Eboli exist, but also nobility with darker tone ideally enhancing some calming influence on Carlo Rodrigo has. “O Carlo, ascolta” may not have yet been the most moving account (accompanied by extra wide trumpets at its outset) of it I have ever heard. Apart from mariachis accompanying him, from the Royal Opera pit, he still transported it forward through a telling intimacy, free parlando, plus complete grace and poise.

The other triumph from this cast was as Posa’s nemesis – yet after the insinuating way Keenlyside referred to Carlo , i.e. “la vendetta del Re” – John Tomlinson indeed alone was the true epitome of a real nemesis; there could not have been possibly any worse since Martti Talvela, in almost very equal power struggles with a still young Nicolai Ghiaurov. I would rank both instances as among best handful of performances I have ever heard. Tomlinson essayed his lines with absolutely steady tone, a hint of the visionary though venomously misguided, his flexibility in being able to needle the King into getting the Inquisition’s way. I would have liked however for Furlanettto as King to have been able to stand up to the Inquisitor a little more. The despondency with which Furlanetto addressed Tomlinson – “Mio padre” – was heart-rending for what clearly is defeat for the King. It was perhaps here that Philip, in Hytner’s take on things, became again three-dimensional in full. This was not so much great music-making as theater, but still fine music-making indeed – with it hardly more Bychkov could do than step back.

Robert Lloyd, former Phillip himself, made Friar - one of both quite estimable (and also noticeable) age, experience - of considerable gravitas. Pumeza Matshikiza was the eager, but slightly quavery Tebaldo. Robert Anthony Gardner and Eri Nakamura made fine casting of Herald (and Lerma) and Celestial Voice, with resonant choral forces led very capably by Roberto Balsadonna.

Semyon Bychkov has indeed the heart for Verdi’s Don Carlo. There was though much compromise with his singers, leaving the structure of what Verdi himself penned down almost in the lurch. Granted, there was certainly much more semblance of an interpretation at work here than at La Scala’s opening night a year ago. One noticeable moment was for the duet in the last scene – bump intruding legato lower strings in obbligato to “Ma lassu ci vedremo” to go with the utter non legato of voices above. Passages of this score under Bychkov, instead of being varied components within a connecting line, would occur in blocks. Of note were several instances of accelerando or sudden change of pace to usually faster. Posa’s first solo during Act Two duologue started flat-line from Bychkov, then to infuse quasi-scherzo accenting halfway through to make agitation welling up in Rodrigo’s mind seem to have externally come about.
Opening of the prison scene was too fast - accents on lower middle line in the strings jabbed to extent of sounding positively Slavic. Other unmarked accelerandi, following convention, sounded applied from without. Bychkov does have some feeling for Verdi’s music and idiom, but his language for conveying it being conspicuously vertical at times though trips him up – such as with starting both monastery scenes (that bookend the 1884 Milan version). He certainly sounded most engaged during the two duologues, during much of Carlo and Elisabeth’s Second Act duet, and brought out more darkly than with Karajan, the diaphanous, insinuating textures of womens’ chorus just earlier starting garden scene and of Carlos awaiting audience with the queen, starting Act Three. One might surmise that Bychkov could have mistaken some of the latter for introducing scene out of Parsifal.

Entrance of royalty during the auto-da-fe had fine gravitas. Concertato started by Flemish deputies proceeded with fine, well limned solemnity. Mannerism abetted by influence of von Karajan was some alchemy between producer and maestro here calling for certain amount of mezza, sotto voce to convey intimacy between characters; more direct delivery of numerous lines would still leave us impression of dialogue occurring in private. Bychkov believed for obsequiousness to some of his cast in keeping so subdued the accompaniments that they then robbed cantabile vocal line above, of ebb and flow, except for singer who could enliven it all on his/her own, which Poplavskaya and Cornetti mostly failed at on their last two arias, respectively. Bychkov also confusingly made lumbering viola and cello triplets underneath Philip’s Ah si maledetto 1866 version (Maudit soit le soupcon infame) thirty-seconds (but on different pitches than 1866) in place of the 1886 sixteenths.

Supposed intimacy with characters for the audience broke down - with hardly any irony on Hytner’s part – subtle wall to remain up between the two parties, not to put us at ease, but for us to process information we receive from onstage for ourselves. Stage direction for actors to in essence do our work for us, provide us with our response to what goes on, is very irresponsible.

Addition of new assistant inquisitor (Teo Ghil) to the auto-da-fe is excessive - fortunately, as opposed to with Pappano, not shouting over music for banda for interrogating the condemned men he administers. He sounded this time placed further back. Watching 2008 youtube, I take issue with portraying the condemned heretics almost equally contemptibly as the Inquisition. Any self-respecting Catholic will look down upon both the horrific abuse that took place in 16th century Spain and abusive neglect by the Church since. Sorry to say, but Hytner victimizes the heretics, afresh perhaps, by also dehumanizing them. Fine skill is apparent, but such a narrow aesthetic grasp - hardly at all with Don Carlo alone. Sweeping contempt for organized religion is long familiar by now, but not some more effectively creative way of putting it across?

Don Carlo was never a good piece by which to lift the weight, cares of this world off one’s shoulders, yet Verdi seldom provided us with as complex thinking and empathy for all his characters involved so well as here. Long do we pine for escape to a better world - so remote also to those once inhabiting the Escuriel; we toil, wax and wane for seemingly long hours, yet especially while compared with the hereafter, our time is short.

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