Monday, March 19, 2018

Guest reviewer Jamie Henderson and Don Carlos in Lyon


How much Verdi is too much Verdi? That was a thought that crossed my mind on occasion during this weekend in Lyon, when three of his operas were performed on consecutive nights by conductor Daniele Rustioni and the forces of the Opera de Lyon. Somewhat heretically, that thought even crossed my mind during Don Carlos, one of Verdi’s greatest operas (second only to Falstaff, in my opinion).

The auto-da-fé
Photo (c)  Jean-Louis Fernandez
But this was no run of the mill performance of Don Carlos; the five hour running time told us that. Firstly, in was performed in its original French version of 1866 rather than in the later Italian version (‘versions’ might be more accurate) which tends to be performed without the opening Fontainebleu act. Indeed, with the exception of a small cut in the ballet music, we were given all the music that Verdi composed for the Paris premiere (and some that was excised before the first night, for reasons of length). Some of the many things we heard which are not usually performed were a peasants’ chorus at the opening of the opera (which certainly gives added context to the weight on Elisabeth’s shoulders - she really can’t refuse to marry Philippe); a duet for Elisabeth and Eboli when the latter reveals herself to be the King’s mistress; and a duet for Philippe and Carlos after the death of Rodrigue (recognisable as the Lacrimosa theme from the Requiem). Notably, when Elisabeth discovers Eboli’s treachery, she leaves the stage and it is the Comte de Lerma, acting on the Queen’s behalf, who banishes Eboli.

Sergey Romanovsky as Don Carlos
Photo (c)  Jean-Louis Fernandez
Christoph Honoré was entrusted to bring the piece to theatrical life, and in that he partially succeeded. In some ways, the production appeared entirely traditional: this dark, sombre piece was given dark, sombre sets. Black, empty sets were the predominant theme, with a few moving curtains in the Garden scene and the ballet. Given that the set design was pretty minimal, it was surprising that there so many pauses between scenes; perhaps it was to give the orchestra and audience a rest, but it undercut the momentum. Stage lighting was sepulchral, making it hard to read facial expressions. Costumes were all over the place, more of a goth or steampunk take on traditonal dress; nothing wrong with that, but any ‘edginess’ this might suggest simply wasn’t developed or taken far enough, though there was more groping and bare flesh than we would normally see in Don Carlos (Philippe’s court seemed a rather naughty one). Thibault was played as a female, as so many modern directors seem to have a problem with breeches roles; again, I am open to the idea but it went nowhere).

Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Eboli) and Sally Matthews (Elisabeth)
Photo (c)  Jean-Louis Fernandez
There was little sign of the political machinations that form a huge part of this opera, and Honoré didn’t make much of the relationship between Carlos and Rodrigue. I found Honoré’s direction terribly inconsistent - in some scenes, bringing out intense performances (particularly from Sally Matthews as Elisabeth), in others leaving the cast and chorus to stand and deliver (the nadir being the Auto-da-Fé scene). The ballet was another low point, and mostly consisted of a group of scantily clad slaves stomping around in a fountain and licking each other. In the end, I felt that this production fell uncomfortably between a traditional ‘Don Carlos’ and an edgier, Regie take; it didn’t wholly succeed as either.

Fortunately, the performance was much stronger and more consistent on the musical side of things. With the exception of Michele Pertusi and Roberto Scandiuzzi, all the leads were making their role debuts; indeed, some had never sung any Verdi role before. The results were interesting, if not always entirely convincing.

It was perhaps not surprising that Pertusi was the most satisfying performer of the evening. A relatively experienced singer of Verdi (the Requiem, as well as some operatic roles), he is not the most galvanising or expressive of actors. However, his voice suits Philippe II perfectly, especially in French (he has not yet sung it in Italian), and his Act IV scene was an exemplary piece of singing, if not the most moving rendition I have heard. The tone has greyed a little over the years, but that is not inappropriate for this role.

Sergey Romanovsky took the lead role of Carlos, and revealed an attractive lyric tenor that is probably a size too small for the part. There was much attractive, lyrical singing, and he never forced the voice or made an ugly sound, but he lacked some power for the dramatic climaxes (such as his confrontation with Elisabeth in Act 2). Probably his finest singing came in their touching final duet, Romanovsky displaying a plangent mezza voce, free from any crooning. Romanovsky was also a good actor and a game performer, willing to bare some flesh throughout the evening; he is a handsome man, and Honoré made sure we were all aware of it.

The biggest revelation of the evening was Sally Matthews’ assumption of Elisabeth de Valois, her first ever Verdi role. Being a fellow Brit, I have heard her sing many times over the years, but nothing she has sung before had quite prepared me for this. Indeed, I’m not sure I have heard her dip into her chest register before, at least not so noticeably, or so impressively. Her top soars as thrillingly as ever, and in many ways she was the most uninhibited of performers, vocally and histrionically. Apart from audibly gulping for breath on occasion, there was no sense that she was at the limit of her capabilities. Do I think she is ideally suited to Verdi? No - at least, not yet. Her vibrato is on the fruity side, which makes the voice sound a little matronly; ideally, one wants the smooth tone of a Harteros (who currently reigns in this role). At present Matthews also lacks the ability to float a piano high note, though her technical proficiency is such that she can diminuendo a note, as she did to beautiful effect in ‘Oh ma chère compagne’. I’ve a feeling that this will not be Matthews’ last time singing Verdi.

Stéphane Degout was making a rare appearance in his home town and was also singing Verdi for the first time. Degout is one of the finest baritones around, so my expectations were high but were not quite fulfilled. There was certainly little to fault with the singing - Degout’s voice is rock solid and his music was expansively phrased, and stylishly sung. Of course, his sung French beautiful to listen to, but - and this is purely my view - the voice itself was not of the most beautiful quality in Verdi. Simply put, I think the voice needs a bit more ‘meat on the bone’ for Verdi - it’s a focussed, slender sound, lacking the velvet and richness of some other Posas I’ve heard recently. As with Romanovsky, there was a sense that his voice was a size too small for the part. Though there’s nothing much he can do about that, I think he will, with time, find his way more deeply into the role than he did on opening night.

Eve-Maude Hubeaux is a mezzo to watch, though I suspect that Eboli may not remain in her repertoire. She has a big, vibrant sound and is a confident performer with bags of stage presence. She managed to sell Honoré’s conceit of confining Eboli to a wheelchair throughout (this physical disability taking the place of Eboli’s partial blindness, though to little effect or dramatic pay-off). Like many Ebolis, she was not equally comfortable in both arias: she impressed in the arabesques of the Veil Song, but started to tire by the end of 'O don fatale', which was a smidge too high. A sympathetic Brangaene in Lyon last year, this is a mezzo I’d like to see as Carmen, Dulcinee, and Charlotte and perhaps Oktavian.

Roberto Scandiuzzi - in the past, an excellent Philippe himself - bellowed threateningly as Le Grand Inquisiteur. It’s an appealingly dark sound that contrasted well with Pertusi’s brighter timbre, and Scandiuzzi’s low notes rumbled impressively. However, his vibrato has loosened over the years, and the top notes were sometimes more shouted than sung.

The cast received strong, sympathetic support from conductor Daniele Rustioni, who brought out all the dark wonders of Verdi’s score without drowning out even the lightest-voiced of his singers. Tempi were deliberate, sometimes lacking the fire and impetus of performances of the Italian versions, but with so much additional material being performed that is perhaps to be expected. The chorus were on better form than the night before, surer in their entries and singing with concentrated tone, though they don’t ‘do’ acting; or at least, they don’t act especially well when under-directed.

Undoubtedly, Verdi’s revisions and cuts make for a better, more powerful Don Carlos (though I never want to be without the Fontainebleu act). Overall, though, this was a fascinating experience and a huge achievement for Rustioni and his orchestra and chorus. One felt he had bitten off a little more than he could chew (this Don Carlos was sandwiched between a distinctly average and under-rehearsed opening night performance of Macbeth and an ebullient matinee concert performance of Attila. I hope they are all having a well-deserved break; Rustioni certainly looked like he needed it.

Review: Jamie Henderson
Twitter: @jsdhenderson

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