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.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

HGO: 1886 Don Carlos (plus 1867 extracts) performed in Houston for first time in French. Patrick Summers. John Caird.15.4.12.

In 1985 DGG released first ever commercial Don Carlos – French 1886 version conducted by Claudio Abbado, starring Placido Domingo among a mostly Italian cast. Appendix includes ballet plus five other Paris extracts (1866) Verdi soon removed and did not replace. Most popular option recently should any of this get inserted – even if only following 1866 - Carlos’s angry declamation and Carlos-Philippe duet together following death of Posa appears as only one among above-mentioned extracts.

At the time the Abbado got released, specialized press mentioned 1972 BBC concert rendition (now on four Opera Rara discs – 2006 release) of the complete 1866 version (erroneously labeled 1867 for year of Paris world premiere). In-between we’ve had Pappano’s Paris recording /dvd (very preferable not only for its being in French to recent Pappano at Convent Garden) – though this Don Carlos edition-wise a mishmash.

At least the Pappano did not claim near as much as has Houston Grand Opera for what they just put on at the Wortham. Neither did Welsh National Opera, when John Caird’s production first opened there. Rodney Milnes, in Opera (U.K.) credits it as having been the 1886 revision with restoration of Paris extracts implanted back in (excluding the ballet) including Carlos-Philippe duet ”cannibalized for the Requiem” (Milnes). This is curious; as of 1867 neither any requiem was in the works, involving Verdi, nor had impetus for one arisen yet. Recall of Milnes’s comment almost compelled me - Cai Mingbo, fine assistant at founding this blog, can testify - to input some error here; having Julian Budden on hand then fortuitously intervened.

As recently as 2005, Milnes esteemed both getting Don Carlos performed in French, and circumspectly how (implied) ‘Paris extracts’ got restored as each “a heroic act;” perhaps so. Houston Grand Opera has claimed to have taken things further. ‘Original’ as in ‘original version’ shows up eight times in Houston Chronicle preview of Don Carlos, then ‘authentic’ twice. Had this been twenty-plus years ago, a near fully synonymous claim could still be responsibly made for much of what transpired here. Restoring the 1866 or 1867 edition might then have been reckoned venture arcane or recondite, not to mention procuring corresponding orchestral parts, expense involved. It however this past decade is fait accompli, just not as of yet in Houston, Texas. What got played here instead was entirely 1886 - plus (almost) four interpolations from 1866-67,

‘Trims’ occurred outside of what “we knew Verdi wanted to take out” – Summers adding to how Verdi might “wield the knife”, despite much sanctimonious espousal of Verdi’s wishes. One can surmise the 1886 Don Carlo might only be based upon a ‘rushed’ Italian translation. Perhaps the Italian did get rushed, but what then have we had here? The music was clearly 1886, lest anybody one day become incredulous at true ‘original version’ that before chronologically John Matheson, Ingo Metzmacher, Bertrand de Billy, and Maurizio Benini have conducted - latter three at major European houses – and with it in French.. De Billy (Vienna) is available on both compact disc and dvd. Revisions from the ‘original’ French, the historical record asserts, became laborious between Verdi and surviving French librettists (a temporarily offended Camille du Locle, then as auxiliary, Charles Nuitter). Du Locle and Joseph Mery were the original librettists.

Heavy cuts got taken to banda scored music during the auto-da-fe, alongside staging-wise (as even Houston Press claims) selling short grandeur of both music and spectacle therein. No version, as occurred here, authorizes Act Three to begin with Carlos’s ‘”A Minuit” (“E mezzanotte” - recitative). 1884 haunting orchestral prelude makes sole alternative to exchange-of-veils duet for female leads to open Act Three.

Cut of ‘magical’ twenty-plus seconds with which to conclude “Des quels transports” (duet) remains inscrutable. Youtube snippet on HGO’s website early made me aware of this, thus it had me apprehend dastardly cut of “L’heure fatale est sonnee” (just past Thibault’s interjections at Fontainebleau about fateful shift in plans), then of ‘O prodige” from Act Two duet; fortunately my fears were unfounded. Quasi-Gounod high wind scoring at Fontainebleau ‘magical’ to Budden might inhibit Summers – music out of sync with lofty 1886 passages or anachronistic with Verdi’s ‘Wagnerian aspirations.’ Verdi, perhaps benightedly, always declined to cut any of this passage himself.

Verdi’s ‘Wagnerisms’ have become lofty considerations at one local corner of the blogosphere. Oddly enough, doing the 1866 or 1867 version straight (latter without Carlos-Philippe duet), with freedom to cut all the ballet, might most comfortably fit Summers’s more natural predilections. Not however with Verdi’s aspirations to Wagnerian ideals might then such a decision adequately take to Verdi’s loftier instincts, mind you, his desire to compose like Richard Wagner. Even in mind of many later improvements to have transpired, case now fully suffices for doing, even unabridged, the flexible, frequently stylistically consistent original version.

John Caird’s production, heavily set (Johan Engels) with pervasive Cross motif, is glibly noir, second tier melodramatic. Neon magenta lit crosses adorn bleachers on both sides on monotonous unit design for closing scenes. Some lassitude or malaise fills space where any physical action seems very unlikely. Previn’s “Brief Vacation” (2009 - Caird’s HGO debut) was much easier for him than has been Don Carlos.

Interaction between characters, their ability, inability to connect, looked stiff. Eye contact between lovers at Fontainebleau was weak. Situating Carlos and Elisabeth at opposite corners of outspread heavy sheet indecisively set stage for their Act Two duet Carlos outstretching his hands to compel Elisabeth near turned haunting portion of final rendezvous completely banal.. Lighting (Nigel Livings) was equally off, i.e. spectral night opening Act Two gardens (with web shadowing of obsessive Cross design).

With benign consequences certainly unlikely on one occasion, violence on stage was something, with no trace of irony to anything, to seemingly occur at random, i.e. how could Rodrigue in Act Two get away with starting to turn brief altercation with Philippe physical? Carlos being thrown to stage floor by guards to open the prison scene was gratuitous, all off in intonation with simple gravitas with which Verdi opens this scene. Intimations of torture, tight confinement of inmates towards stage rear began to resemble something lifted from Monty Python - as did quasi-KKK decked Inquisitor to enter all the way on stage to run Rodrigue through, then to very similarly dispatch Carlos at the very end – in case we missed how previous impaling got carried out.

Certainly risible was the major confrontation during the auto-da-fe scene Contemporarily decked out guards had their machine guns trained, for Carlos to then, not apprehended, armed with just one long sword, challenge the King. Even with Carlos having just turned over his weapon, these guards still then rush off, leaving madman free behind. (Spirit of) Charles V, open ugly sarcophagus thereof both blocking access to stage rear at the end contradicted more than Carlos being slain itself (from which some escape could still perhaps occur) final pronouncement by the mysterious friar. Quick procession of monks across the footlights to help start Act Two also looked awkward.

Rampant emotionalism further emphasized a pervasive lack of irony and lack of trust for one’s audience. Thoroughly diminished was tone to illuminate themes explored here - with any subtle sense of what complexity is involved. Anybody having attended Fidelio last fall could not have honestly received much of this Don Carlos well.

Brandon Jovanovich made his role debut as Don Carlos. Positive before here as Turiddu, in Austin as Sergei (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – Texas premiere), and as Boris in Kat’a Kabanova in Chicago, the awkwardness of Verdi’s writing and anonymous character of the staging especially affecting his part effaced him here. French diction sounded mildly coagulated, tone often curdled in negotiating everything. A handsome, affable presence on stage, even while matters improved vocally for him as the evening wore on, ultimately proved less than sufficiently decisive. This engagement resembled more (temporarily) a miscasting than it did any worrisome sign of vocal decline.

Tamara Wilson returned here for her second major Verdi role; her Ballo Amelia several seasons back proved very heavy sailing. Her sympathetic countenance was pleasant – if as though a wallflower perhaps. Up though until the last two acts, musical results proved tenuous. Farewell to Countess of Aremberg emerged all beneath pitch. Tremulous passsaggio, beneath freely floating top was evident, habits also to reach low notes from above and to swallow consonants. Wilson’s gift for lyric Verdi became clear during Act Four, then for securely spun out Act Five aria, with fine expressive legato.

Christine Goeke, to qualified success, made her role debut as Eboli. Veil Song sounded unnaturally heavy, dark, and sour with intonation. She then developed into an incisive tigress of an Eboli for trios in Act Three, and then blended well with Wilson for rarely sung “J’ai tout compris” in Act Four. With much savvy and ringing top Goeke robustly commanded the stage for “O don fatal.” Loading the stage with ladies-in-waiting of considerable girth for her opening scene did not favorably complement having both Wilson and Goeke on stage together moments later.

Two looking most committed to this production, partly from having sung this at Cardiff in 2005 were Scott Hendricks and Andrea Silvestrelli. They also proved the musically and arguably histrionically the most lacking. Hendricks offered mild hope early on he might tone down playing Rodrigue too proletariat. Act Two romance emerged unattractively dry, but tastefully. Much hectoring, forcing then held sway during long duologue with Philippe. Rude manhandling of Eboli made Hendricks, with his costuming, resemble having just walked on off set design for Il Tabarro. Prison scene, especially an overacted “O Carlos, ecoute” emerged graceless, hectored, non legato.

Silvestrelli made a bludgeoning, quite unmitigated ruffian of a Philippe, frequently out of tune. His voice carries very well, but proved inflexible handling sixteenths admonishing Flemish deputies during the auto-da-fe. Raising jewelry box to close “Elle ne m’aime pas”, then to shove it in Elisabeth’s face to begin their confrontation together looked sophomoric; climax out of inevitable insult got derailed. Motivation to deeply probe the king’s frustrations though remained clear.

Rhetorically overpowering Silvestrelli was the Grand Inquisitor of, at seventy, Samuel Ramey, uniquely revealing sterling command of the stage plus alacritous sense of where the king’s vulnerabilities, curiosities, close ties lie. Ramey can be seen from La Scala (1993), holding forth there very authoritatively as Philippe (as with here eight years later) – with Silvestrelli very responsibly cast as the Friar. Ramey’s voice and ever unflinching countenance here emerged steady, firmly implacable. Mark Diamond (Forester), Boris Dyakov (De Lerma), plus a vivacious Lauren Snouffer as Tebaldo stood up to very eloquently represent Houston Opera Studio, plus longstanding HOS alumnus in an ever sonorous Oren Gradus (Friar).

When Patrick Summers conducted Don Carlo here eleven years ago, his stick technique looked tentative, but he was more circumspect for task at hand then. Emilio Sagi’s production provided him wholesome perspectival depth, fine illusion of grandeur, if abstractly, to much better couch or envelope what emanated from the orchestra pit plus all around than, for instance, something halfway resembling Broadway could do so. Sense of continuity throughout was fine, but also tendency to rush through passages needing more shape or nuance - to avoid brash sounding brass during Veil Song ritornelli, then for soloists to expand out on their lines (during “Si l’on repand encore” refrain to Elisabeth’s last aria - very strictly calibrated its light barcarolle accompaniment through its reprise). Very cool streamlining of royal couple’s entrance at San Just significantly undercut grandeur obvious there. Calibration between pit and stage notably slipped during getting slightly rushed the Third Act Flemish deputies’ concertato.

Solo oboes, trumpets sounded unfocussed; Barrett Sills’ cello solo starting Act Four was eloquent. Summers showed some lyrical ear for color within the Act Two duet - partly missing subtle change in tinta for ‘O prodige’ over gilding so much - approach that also dragged “J’ai tout compris” (Act Four Elisabeth-Eboli duet). Tone overall elsewhere started to sound anemic; choral work was less than up to expected ensemble standards (from Richard Bado). Summers proved quite adept though in achieving proper scale through most of Act Four Some affinity for Don Carlos also became evident during ‘Fontainebleau’ – also toward building fine atmosphere with which to open next scene at San Just. Pervasive sense of grandeur still seemed lacking from equation overall.

In order to de-cannibalize portions of Don Carlos, we should next assign George Romero to stage this. The ‘smoked’ (not quite fully immolated) heretics could walk off the pyre, then later stalk their persecutors toward the end of Act Four. Plot outcome might change somewhat even as might tempt Peter Konwitschny, to frighten traditionalists more, but they lost faith in him a long time ago anyway. Some other blogger previewing our production got caught up with discussing self-immolations, their making a comeback - as inspired by many Tibetans protesting oppression abroad. Some of the socio-political message of Don Carlos has certainly remained timeless until now, just as has that of Beethoven’s Fidelio. For sole unabridged ‘original’ Don Carlos on dvd, the De Billy/Konwtischny from Vienna (2004 - Arthaus), starring Ramon Vargas (Don Carlo – HGO 2001), staging included, comes highly recommend.

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