As the third offering of tried and true operatic masterpieces for its Melbourne season, Opera Australia has moved from Puccini’s Japan and Mozart’s Italy to a compelling rendering of Verdi’s Spanish court. All three operas have personal dramas of sexual interplay at their core within a context of social structures that frame power struggles and moral choices. Of the three, Verdi’s Don Carlos is the most firmly grounded in political history, but is no less a celebration of the power of the human voice.
In fact, with Schiller’s play as a basis, in Don Carlos historical accuracy is very much the servant of musical dynamism and dramatic truth. Melbourne audiences have recently enjoyed performances of Beethoven’s Complete Incidental music for Egmont by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Goethe’s depiction of the Dutch Revolt against an oppressive Spanish rule showed almost as little regard for the facts as Schiller’s representation of Don Carlos as a champion of the Flemish people. Poets and composers alike were willing to set up their heroes as rallying cries against tyrannical forces. For both Beethoven and Verdi the memory of foreign occupation lent personal impetus to their creations.
Alongside thwarted passion, loyalty and the quest for control are equally central issues in Verdi’s complex work. Of the many powerful scenes on the opening night of Don Carlos perhaps the one with the greatest impact was between the Grand Inquisitor and Philip II. Although Verdi stipulated that the implacable Cardinal should be old as well as blind, implying physical fragility, Daniel Sumegi’s Grand Inquisitor was frightening in his imposing corporeal presence in addition to his formidable vocal power. His distinctive, menacing vocal quality (shades of actor Alan Rickman there) emphasized the fact that, with the weight of the Pope behind him, the Grand Inquisitor was more than a match for the King of Spain. This was made all the more potent by Giacomo Prestia’s fine portrayal of Philip. With a splendid, resonant voice from first note to last, he presented a complex figure torn by internal and external forces. His famous aria that opens Act III was sung with emotional intensity, the pathos of his situation accentuated by equally rich and sonorous playing by the solo cello. He sounded the part and he looked the part.
Another singer who definitely looked the part was Milijana Nikolic as Princess Eboli, Philip’s mistress and the rival of his wife Elisabeth de Valois for Carlos’s love. When she lamented her fatal gift of beauty in her big Act III aria, “O don fatale” she was completely credible. Although her voice was sometimes veiled and lacked ease at the top of the range, it was dramatically engaging and powerful at key moments. An accomplished actress, Nikolic added substantially to the emotional tension.
As the eponymous hero, Diego Torre made a robust Don Carlos. Vocally secure and investing more musical subtlety in the role as the opera progressed, he sang with a burnished tenor that accentuated his passion as a lover, friend and champion of a just cause. A highlight of the opera is the duet between Carlos and Rodrigo, Marchese di Posa, in which they swear eternal friendship. With the admirable Verdi baritone Jose Carbo as Posa, and Orchestra Victoria in emphatic support, this operatic climax was given its due. Their final prison scene was slightly hampered by the curved slab upon which Torre was obliged to rest melodramatically and Carbo to teeter, but, again, vocal prowess was to the fore.
Carbo was also a persuasive vocal and dramatic presence in the duet between Posa and Philip. Although Prestia’s powerful voice tended to overshadow all but Sumegi’s, that could be viewed as in keeping with the narrative.
Russian soprano, Victoria Yastrebova, made a most attractive young Elisabeth de Valois. Her voice gained substance and lyric weight in the upper register and she produced some ravishing soft singing, particularly in the final scene as she contemplates her life and bids farewell to Carlos.
There were some strong performances from other members of the cast too, most notably from David Parkin as Monk/Charles V, Anna Dowsley as an animated Tebaldo and Julie Lea Goodwin, whose Voice from Heaven came from the back of the theatre. The Opera Australia Chorus was in terrific form with wonderful moments of dynamic contrast and some beautifully blended singing. This was also thanks to Elijah Moshinsky’s direction of the auto-da-fe scene, which was impressive in many respects. The off-stage brass combined with the pit orchestra to telling effect, giving a sense of space to what was generally a limited acting area.
It was difficult to know whether the positioning of the action was due to the limitations of the Sydney Opera House stage or a means of suggesting the claustrophobic nature of the Spanish court. The notion of staging events largely within the confines of a mausoleum certainly suggested the latter. Nigel Levings’ lighting gave a sense of menacing dark spaces behind Paul Brown’s over-powering dark marble sets. Even the huge golden doors of the cathedral made a statement of opulent authority – the booty of colonial plundering. With the huge smoking censer hanging above the action, the auto-da-fe scene had tremendous impact. The restrained dress of the doomed Flemish Deputies was all the more telling as a further critique of the Church.
Opting for the tighter 1882 version meant that the Fontainebleau Act was excluded along with certain details of the relationships between the main protagonists, but it did enable the creative team to delineate other important aspects of the opera more strongly. The opening of the chosen version allowed the splendid OV brass and chorus of monks to set the sombre tone of the opera at the tomb of Charles V. Andrea Licati brought unflagging energy to the score, while ensuring that the more delicate moments of Elisabeth’s music were observed as carefully as the most passionate moments of the ensembles.
With Verdi’s inspired score, some outstanding singing and playing, and Moshinsky’s overarching unity of concept and attention to detail, this is another production that should not be missed.
Picture: Victoria Yastrebova performs the role of Elisabeth de Valois. The photo was by Jeff Busby.
Heather Leviston reviewed Opera Australia’s opening night performance of Don Carlos at the Arts Centre Melbourne on May 20.