Last December the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Don Carlos made quite a splash in Sweden when it was broadcast to cinemas around the country. Though it was hardly the first Met production to be seen in Swedish cinemas it was covered on the TV news afterwards as a major development. While the coverage was generally very positive, concerns were aired about whether it might be difficult for Swedish operahouses to compete with the Met.
As luck would have it, the Gothenburg Opera was in the middle of a run of its own production of Don Carlos. Based on the quality of this production I am happy to say that the Gothenburg Opera can indeed succeed in competition with the Met broadcasts.
Director Staffan Valdemar Holm and his wife and scenographer Bente Lykke Møller chose a very bleak setting, with all the main characters wearing black Spanish court dress and the chorus wearing trousers and T-shirts with transfers of portraits of the historical characters (no, really!).
With so little else to distract the audience’s attention they certainly succeeded in putting the focus on the soloists and their characters’ many vulnerabilities. Don Carlos himself (Tomas Lind) wore his heart on his sleeve – precisely as Schiller would have intended. With Mr Lind’s modest stature and strong but emotional voice he gave an excellent impression of a teenager torn with the frustration of his forbidden love for his stepmother Elisabeth (Annalena Persson).
Ms Persson looked less a vulnerable teenager than the dignified but emotionally wounded daughter of a king. Her acting was superb and her voice well suited to the role. Her performance of the final aria “Tu che le vanità” was heartrending, but her voice also had the strength to thrillingly rise above the chorus in the climax of the auto da fé scene.
Philip II (Anders Lorentzson) made his mark with his first entrance: he banishes Elisabeth’s favourite lady-in-waiting for breaking his rule that the Queen should never be left unattended. The King is convinced that only his firm hand can ensure peace and harmony in the kingdom, even though he is unable to bring any peace to his troubled soul, as was vividly demonstrated in his superbly performed aria (“Ella giammai m’amò”) at the beginning of Act 3.
These key roles were all taken not by visiting stars but by regular singers at the Gothenburg Opera. All three have been performing at a reliably high level for this operahouse for several years. The same sadly cannot be said for Peter Loguin, who played the Monk (actually the former King Charles V in disguise). His voice is simply too weak for this short but crucial part. A short part that was much better sung was the Voice from Heaven (a radiant Mia Karlsson).
The Grand Inquisitor (Mats Almgren, another prominent company member) sang well and had a suitably baleful air about him, but here the minimalist concept for the opera proved counterproductive: he was dressed virtually identically to Philip II. Given that Mr Almgren and Mr Lorentzson look very similar, the barenuckle confrontation of Church and state in Act 3 is reduced to two bald men in black getting angry with each other. A more clerical garb, ideally in red or white to emphasise the Inquisitor’s loyalty to the Church rather than King, would have been advisable.
Eboli (played by Ildikó Komlósi, standing in for Susanne Resmark) was also well sung, though she only reached her best in Act 2 and a wonderfully vivid rendition of her final aria “O don fatale”.
Last but far from least among the soloists was Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa (Fredrik Zetterström). Posa is Carlos’ only true friend and a sort of surrogate elder brother; their friendship survives many tests and ends with Posa giving his life to save Carlos from execution. Musically the pairing of Mr Lind and Mr Zetterström was indeed a beautiful friendship: Mr Zetterström’s phrasing and the contemplative tone revealed in Act 3 when he visits Carlos in prison complemented Mr Lind’s more openly emotional singing very well. Posa’s death at the end of Act 3 symbolises the human victims of Philip II’s power politics every bit as much as the broken hearts of his son and his wife – who were engaged until Philip’s diplomats tweaked his peace treaty with France so that he would marry her instead.
The scruffy chorus and plain set (in this scene dominated by a huge bell) boded ill for the set-piece auto da fé, where the people gather to hail Philip as their God-given King and watch the burning of heretics. At the premiere the scene lacked something in impact, but between then and this performance some of the stage directions were changed to increase the tension between the soloists. The offstage brass behind the audience gave also a real sense of involvement. This combined with a very strong performance from the Opera Chorus (expanded for the occasion) brought out the awful majesty of the scene brilliantly.
Along with the chorus a special mention must go to the orchestra, who were on top form and in no way inferior to the Met’s orchestra. Christian Badea’s conducting was inspired, keeping some of the most beautiful music in the opera understated (a particularly good example was Posa and Carlos’ wonderful duet “Dio, che nell’alma infondere” in Act 1) so that it was up the the singers to lay on the emotions. Equally, he could work up the orchestra to the terrifying frenzy of the auto da fé and get them to emit the explosive chords backing the rage of Philip II when he accuses Elisabeth of adultery. The horn section opened the opera with haunting playing and the solo cellist provided excellent support to the singers in the quieter scenes.
Despite taking its minimalist concept a little too far the production was a great demonstration of the quality of the Gothenburg Opera. The soloists rose to the challenge of a production that gave them nowhere to hide. The audience were rightly generous with their applause.
Conductor: Christian Badea
Director: Staffan Valdemar Holm
Scenographer and costume designer: Bente Lykke Møller
Lighting designer: Torben Lendorph
Philip II, King of Spain: Anders Lorentzson
Don Carlos, his son: Tomas Lind
Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa: Fredrik Zetterström
The Grand Inquisitor: Mats Almgren
A monk: Peter Loguin
Elisabeth of Valois, wife of Philip II: Annalena Persson
Princess Eboli: Ildikó Komlósi
Tebaldo/Voice from Heaven: Mia Karlsson
Countess Aremberg: Isabel Fortes
Count Lerma: Ingemar Anderson
A herold: Joachim Ottosson
Chorus and Extra Chorus of the Gothenburg Opera
The Gothenburg Opera Orchestra
Leader: David Bergström
If you liked this post, why not Flattr it?