Don Carlo

Reviewer's rating

Verdi’s Don Carlo is the longest and arguably the greatest Verdi opera, based on Schiller’s play set in Phillip II’s Spain. This version is the shortest, condensed for Milan to four acts in Italian, cutting the Fontainebleau scene, ballets and an hour of music.

Davide Livermore’s dazzling array of spectacular cinematic effects combined with D-Wok’s extraordinary 3D videos, Giò Forma’s sets, gorgeous costumes, lighting and décor, create a stunning world of powerful imagery, depth, fantasy and illusion/delusion. The production, well suited to the huge Grimaldi Forum stage, opens and closes with a vast milky way sky in front of Carlo V’s tomb. Large picture frames into which different projections evoke places, memories and artwork.  Fontainebleau castle projections appear with the Fontainebleau ‘theme’. Falling rose petals for Eboli’s veil song scene represent the only carefree moments before tragedy sets in, accompanied by lovely sweeps of well-choreographed movement for the chorus (despite annoying ‘olé’s’ shouted between verses). A storm rages throughout the stormy trio when Carlo fatefully mistakes Eboli for Elisabetta. The white backdrop spatters with blood when Posa confronts Phillip with the fate of Flanders – ‘orrenda pace dei sepolcri’.

A portrait of young Elisabeth frequently appears, increasing and decreasing in size, which morphs into the ‘ritratto (portrait) di Carlo’ Phillip finds in Elisabeth’s jewellery box.

The 3D visual effects sensationally recreate one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, in El Escorial palace, where the trompe d’oeil set projects far into the distance.

A revolving floor is used to great, though occasionally tedious, effect. Mirrors reflect the heat of the fires for burning heretics.

The Voice of Heaven (usually offstage), appears onstage. It distracts from the action hurtling to its conclusion as the fates of Carlo and Elisabetta are decided.

This casting is uneven.

Armenian mezzo, Varduhi Abrahamyan, impresses as Eboli (without the customary eyepatch). Recently heard in Handel’s Alcina (ROH and Monaco) and Rossini’s Adelaide di Borgogna (Pesaro), she possesses the lighter coloratura for Handel and Rossini as well as the dramatic voice needed for Eboli, unusual for a mezzo.  The Veil Song was sung with delicacy and attractive ornamentation.  ‘O don fatale’ reveals a rich vocal palette ranging from jealousy to horror at the consequence of her actions.

Polish baritone Artur Ruciński as Posa gives a refined performance. Although I prefer a darker voice for Posa, ‘Per me giunta’ displays good breath control and a lovely legato line.

Bass Ildar Abdrazakov, a big star in Russia, has his own festival every year in St. Petersburg. Cancelled by many opera houses, Monaco remains one of the few places to hear him. He has a powerful voice, and is an imposing Phillip. The cello introduction before ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ movingly depicts Philip’s internal feeling and pain, conflicting with the weight of the throne.  Abdrazakov conveys that with his vocal range, beauty of tone and vocal shading.

Russian bass Alexay Tikhomorov as the Grand Inquisitor, has booming bass notes, albeit weaker on the top register. His confrontation with Philip is well balanced.

Russian tenor Serghey Skorokhodov replaced Vittorio Grigolo as Carlo at short notice. Skorokhodov’s voice is inflexible, sometimes forced, with over-covered vowels, unintelligible Italian, and negligible acting. There is no chemistry between him and Posa; they barely look at each other. There is no reaction when Posa reveals he is dying for him. He focuses instead on conductor Massimo Zanetti to keep it together. Skorokhodov displayed none of Carlo’s complex emotional extremes.

Lebanese/Canadian light soprano Joyce El-Khoury is miscast as Elisabetta and the worst I have heard. The role is too dramatic, requiring a richness she does not possess.  ‘Non piangere’ shows a thin voice with harsh top notes, no beauty of tone, and non-existent legato phrases. She is inaudible throughout the big ensembles. Elisabetta’s final act showpiece ‘Tu che la vanita’ reveals flat notes pushed from below, no expansive weight for the dramatic phrases, pianissimo notes disassociated from the rest of the voice, forced fortissimos, poor low notes, and little vocal palette. The scene falls flat instead of intensifying the drama.

I prefer the full version with Fontainebleau and longer final scene duets. However, that music depends on Elisabetta and Carlo; with these singers, the cuts are merciful.

Abrahamyan, Ruciński and Abdrazakov all had ovations.

I love this sumptuous hi-tech production and would see it again. There is too much to appreciate on just one viewing.