Michael Tanner

Powerful Verdi

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Welsh National Opera’s Don Carlos is a magnificent achievement, despite a fair number of more or less serious shortcomings. It establishes, at any rate, that this is by far the most probing and powerful of Verdi’s operas, while being, whichever rich selection of scenes is chosen, far from perfect. Despite its Wagnerian length, almost four hours of music at Cardiff, there is a bewildering number of loose ends and implausibilities, as well as a failure to bring the figure of Carlos himself into focus. He has some wonderful music (especially in this five-act French version), he is passionate, impulsive, idealistic, yet, with far less to sing, his comrade Rodrigue is more intelligible and more moving. Jon Vickers, by sheer force of personality, made Carlo(s) live, but no one else in my experience has. The fact that, as usual, the Welsh production doesn’t contain a single singer whose native language is French is no help. If you don’t speak a language confidently it’s hard to give the impression that you mean what you are saying, or singing — and Italian is clearly far easier for foreigners to learn. There’s the further question, as Chris Ball puts it in his article about Verdi’s singers in the programme book, of ‘whether Verdi wrote a French opera in Italian or an Italian opera in French’. I would unhesitatingly go for the latter option, on the basis of the performances of Don Carlos by which I’ve been most moved. I think that Verdi naturally felt his music in Italian, and that his operas in French show the strain — especially Les Vèpres siciliennes.

The director John Caird has, with the collaboration of set designer Johan Engels, made sure that the action moves as swiftly as possible. The main feature, from the opening scene onwards, is a forest of huge crosses, used first to convey the forest of Fontainebleau. That is a mistake, I feel, since despite the lamenting French woodmen and their womenfolk this is the Edenic scene for Carlos and Elisabeth, the only time in the whole opera when two people are happy together, a necessary point from which everything else departs. But later on the menace of organised religion is bodied forth with shattering effect in those crosses, which dwarf the figures on stage, making a king as insignificant as a burning heretic. The temporal universality of the subject is emphasised by having costumes from widely spaced periods of Spanish history, the main impression being of fascist thugs lurking behind every religious prop. The oppressiveness of the drama is well-caught by these simple means.

The large cast — is any opera more difficult to get an all-round high standard of singers for than this one? — has Paul Charles Clarke and Nuccia Focile as the doomed lovers. Verdi is able to have his cake and eat it by making Elisabeth Carlos’s step-mother. Clarke has the right kind of voice, but hasn’t decided what Carlos is like, and no one has offered him guidance, it seems. Focile is always a lovely artist, but Elisabeth is a role that needs a big voice, above all for the sublime last act, and she doesn’t have that. But in the amazing duet, ecstatic and anguished, that precedes the perfunctory ending, both singers transcended themselves, helped by the inspired conducting (it wasn’t all the time) of Carlo Rizzi.

The Philippe, Andrea Silvestrelli, retired before the last act on the night I went, and his role was sung by someone at the side of the stage. If only it had all been! Silvestrelli played and sang Philippe as a vicious brute, and ruined his monologue, and whatever the state of his voice his French is ludicrous. Among the principals Scott Hendricks as Rodrigue and Guang Yang as Eboli were far and away the best, the most convincing singers and actors, though Eboli’s role has a built-in incoherence. The rarely heard duet between Eboli and Elisabeth, after Philippe has accused Alisaeth of being an adulteress, is well worth inserting into all future performances. The minor roles were all effectively taken (except for the Grand Inquisitor), the chorus and above all the orchestra in great shape. If only Silvestrelli, who destroys the emotional economy of the work, could be replaced, one could be much more enthusiastic.

The Royal Opera has revived Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, advertised by a poster vulgar even by their contemporary standards. Here the sets by Kenneth Adam guarantee vast intervals, letting any drama that has accumulated evaporate. But none had, primarily thanks to the inert conducting of Antonio Pappano. As usual in Puccini, Pappano fondled the textures and induced terminal lethargy by eliminating any sense of momentum. The lead singers were nothing to celebrate, but, if they had been forcefully conducted, they could have brought the piece to life, and the evening would not have seemed so dismally drawn out.