The first time I tried to watch Willy Decker’s 2004 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo at De Nederlandse Opera I failed to get past Rolando Villazón in doublet and hose. To anyone familiar with British TV comedy of a certain era the resemblance is just too close and I couldn’t get beyond the idea of Stephen Fry as Felipe II and Miranda Richardson as Elisabetta. This time around I watched the highly illuminating video introduction and read Wily Decker’s useful essay on his production concept before tackling the piece proper. I’m glad I did that and I’m glad I came back to this recording because it is very fine and it was very useful to have Decker and Chailly’s perspectives on the dramaturgy and the music.
The first thing to get straight, this being Don Carlo, is what version are we looking at. This is the 1884 Italian edition with four acts so no Fontainebleau act and a less ambiguous ending. Thus the action is confined to the Escorial and Decker chooses to further confine it by setting the whole production in a stylised representation of the Pantheon de los Reyes; the bizarre mausoleum built by Philip II to house the remains of his ancestors. This is represented by a semi circular wall with tomb markers for the various ancestors. The set thus provides a claustrophobic and appropriately death and mortality obsessed stage for the drama. Paraphrasing the interview with Decker “everyone is imprisoned by his/her situation and emotions”. Comparisons with Decker’s famous Salzburg Traviata are unavoidable. The starkness is reinforced by a virtually monochromatic palette for costumes and set. Colour intrudes in only three ways. The set is lit blue for the garden scene and there are red roses in Act 2 Scene 2. More importantly, the Grand Inquisitor is very red indeed. The palette, in totality, is again strikingly similar to La Traviata. To cap it all, the bottom part of a giant crucifix makes an appearance at many of the key moments. I think it’s a strong concept, entirely consistent with the music and the libretto and it works extremely well.
There were a few aspects of the production I wasn’t entirely convinced about. There’s a heavy focus on the father/son relationship and the obvious relationship of that to the cross and the crucifixion. The element of the near fusion of church and state is there but the auto da fe scene is curiously underplayed. Perhaps the weakest element is that the emphasis on the personal relationships rather glosses over the different conceptions of state power embodied by Posa and Felipe. It’s clear enough that felipe represents “peace and order”, of the grave if necessary, but what Posa’s “freedom” is is most unclear and as a result Posa is somewhat diminished. Still, I can’t see any production of this piece bringing out all the possible elements of the drama and Decker’s emphasis is deliberate and works well enough.
Conductor Riccardo Chailly takes a very traditional, literally, view of the music. He describes himself as rooted in a performing tradition that goes back to Serafin and which privileges the music, and the drama of the music, over the text. What’s perhaps surprising is this works so well with Decker’s staging and direction. For all the non-traditionl aspects it still sets the musical/emotional climaxes up in a way that is entirely consistent with quite old fashioned Verdian music making so the big moments come off to great emotional effect. Chailly clearly has a great grasp of both the overall structure and the details of the score.
IIt’s hard to fault the performances. The Concertgebouw is in the pit which really suits Chailly’s almost symphonic approach. The soloists all sing really well and the acting is generally rather good though both Villazón in the title role and Bob Lloyd as the king have a somewhat mannered acting style. Amanda Roocroft is an effective Elisabetta. She’s a very good actor and if the voice is more dramatic than lovely most of the time, and occasionally seems to be under strain, it serves well enough. Dwayne Croft is an excellent Posa. He’s especially good in the duets with Villazón which are splendid. Violeta Urmana’s Eboli starts off as a bit of a puzzle. She comes off initially as a bored trouble maker but as the drama heats up so does she. Her O don fatale is searingly intense and probably the best I’ve heard in or out of context. I did find Jaako Ryhänen’s Inquisitor a bit bland. This guy should be terrifying and Ryhänen isn’t. All in all though, this a top notch performance of one of Verdi’s most musically satisfying operas.
Video direction is by Misjel Vermeiren. It’s pretty good He doesn’t go crazy on silly angles and super closeups but he does stay closer to the singers than I would like much of the time. It may be a paradox but when he pulls out to show more of the stage it intensifies the essential sense of claustrophobia so by staying in close too much he undermines that element of the production. Still it’s not a bad job. Technically the disk hails from just before Opus Arte started recording in HD with true surround sound so neither the 16:9 picture nor the DTS 5.1 sound (LPCM stereo also an option) are quite up to the standard of their latest efforts. They are much better than most DVD releases though. The sound recording is especially good at handling deep bass which features so prominently in this score. The beginning of Act 3 is positively tectonic. There are are English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Dutch subtitles. Besides the intro documentary the disk also contains an illustrated synopsis and cast gallery.