Friday, October 5, 2012

Don Carlo in Amsterdam: Talented Mr. Decker and Amazing Mr. Maltman

Don Carlo, De Nederlandse Opera (DNO) in Amsterdam, May 13 2012

Director ..... Willy Decker
Conductor ..... Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Filippo II ..... Mikhail Petrenko
Don Carlo ..... Massimo Giordano
Rodrigo ..... Christopher Maltman
Il grande inquisitore ..... Sir John Tomlinson
Elisabetta di Valois ..... Camilla Nylund
La principessa d'Eboli ..... Ekaterina Gubanova
Un frate ..... Andrea Mastroni
Tebaldo, paggio d’Elisabetta ..... Eugénie Warnier
La contessa d'Aremberg ..... Mariëtte Oelderik
Il conte di Lerma/Un araldo reale ..... Rudi de Vries
Una voce dal cielo ..... Lisette Bolle

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
Koor van De Nederlandse Opera

Don Carlo is a good Verdi but it is really hard to make it dramatically vibrant on stage and capture the darkness of the era it describes. My favorite production of this opera is the one by Peter Konwitschny -- which (i) is a good example of how the regie theater brings the intellectual stimulant to the opera, and (ii) a hard proof of Konwitschny's genius [available on DVD]. Another good production of this opera is the one by Luc Bondy also available on DVD, which is also better sung than the one by Konwitschny. In addition to these two there is DVD of the Willy Decker production of Don Carlo, which I did not see so that this first production revival was a good opportunity for me to see the show - live.

Critics regularly make snide remarks about the historical inaccuracies of the libretto of Don Carlo, which I never really understood: opera is not supposed to be a substitute for the factual historical analysis; rather, opera is inspired by the remarkable personalities related to the specific historical context and is a fiction.

Don Carlo in Amsterdam was a must see production for several reasons. The singers line up looked outstanding on the paper, and I thought Christopher Maltman would be extraordinary in his role debut as Rodrigo. Adding to the excitement, Andrew Richards was programmed to sing the title role. Unfortunately he had to pull out a little before the premiere, but the brave people from the artistic management of DNO managed to secure Mr. Italienità in person,  and so Massimo Giordano stepped in. His superb interpretation of Don Carlo in Berlin 2011 was remembered as one of great operatic moments in 2011. His voice is maybe not huge, but it is so wonderfully fitting Don Carlo because of that well-toned lyric line in his expressive singing that never crosses the line of good taste (no unnecessary sobbing). His peculiar way to end each verse brings more italienità to the role, which most of the operagoers actually like.

To be honest, before the show, I thought Camilla Nylund could be a weakish link in the cast, and that Krassimira Stoyanova [whom we love so dearly] would be very much missed. After the show I had to say I was very wrong. Camilla was smashing as Elisabetta di Valois. The role sounded like tailored for her voice, and she gave her all. Her voice is strong, solid, yet there was something vulnerable in her otherwise emotionally tamed singing. I've listened to Camilla singing several times before, but --to me!-- this was the best I've listened her singing so far. Brava!

The luxurious cast included the two most versatile singers today [and arguably the two most reliable ones] Ekaterina Gubanova and Mikhail Petrenko. Katya of course rocked in Amsterdam and offered an amazing interpretation of Princess Eboli: she was expressive (again, never leaning to verismo!) and while she had to dig deep-deep to make perfectly audible the low notes, the upper register of her voice remained as bright as ever. Having said that, I still believe she should save her voice for the roles (Berlioz!, Brangäne...) that no other singer can sing as good as her.
Misha Petrenko sang his first King Filippo, and if you came with too many references in your head and to listen to him sobbing on the stage, you would not get what you came for. But even in that case you would not be able to resist his interpretation. Like in the role of Hagen (Aix en Provence 2009), his King Filippo sounds differently from what you are used to but is as poignant as any other great singer in the past (René Pape included!)  I thought he truly created something new in Amsterdam, and I loved it. Bravo!
Sir John Tomlinson was the only senior-singer but was perfectly fitting the relatively young cast. A great gentleman, and an amazing singer! Still the winner of the show remains Chris Maltman. We of course loved his Don Giovanni in Salzburg, and admired his Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro last year at Opéra Bastille (I did not blog about that show because it was so bad for Bastille, despite a terrific cast), his recitals are always a treat... but Verdi was just a new degree of risk taking for him. And so he came and killed the role. Better than this is impossible.  Besides his big & superbly rich colored voice, he is blessed to be a natural born actor and you get the impression that his singing and his acting are in perfect symbiosis, and that one without another would not make the same impact on you. I do not believe there is anyone able to better incarnate Marquis de Posa in business today (vocally, maybe Thomas Hampson --at his best-- could do as good, but not scenically).  He received the loudest round of cheers from the crowd in the end, and he deserved every bit of it.

To make the whole thing very special, De Nederlandse Opera invited The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, lead by their chief conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who --like the cast-- is young and audacious in his own way too.He definitely explored the score and went for the lyricism, which I thought was special. A friend found that accurate but mellow, and I was surprised and loved it. If there were no Petrenko, Nylund and Giordano, I too would have probably thought it was too emotional, but the combination of these singers with the YNS interpretation of the score, made it all sound wonderful.

Willy Decker has a very special talent for directing operas. On one hand, each of his production is challenging traditionalism in opera producing business, but on the other he's not overdoing it but simply showing that opera deserves more care, and that stupidity can be replaced by good penetrating ideas that would elevate opera to a theatrical and musical experience.
His shows are not bursting with many ideas, but a few that he uses to set the frame for the action are always very pertinent for the given opera. His style is somewhat minimalistic, the aesthetic recognizable, and the most impressive is his way to direct singers that help exploring the ground idea for his productions. His Traviata and his Clemenza di Tito are one of the very best in business, his Lulu is outstanding, Boris Godunov astounding.
So what about his Don Carlo? His basic idea was to make us visit the mausoleum of Kings in El Escorial. On the sets --that look like a 'moving' copy of the Pantheon of Kings-- the story is recounted by the ghosts. In that way the story is [artificially] focused on King Philip and the whole opera is actually an episode from his life. In the beginning of Act 4 the tomb of King Philip is opened and we see the King sitting on his coffin -- which I thought was a cool way to depict the inconsolable spirit of the King whose tragedy was a realization that he was never loved by the woman of his heart.
Willy Decker always skillfully  includes the chorus in his stagings. In this production their presence is ominous as if suggesting "You are never safe! You are never alone! Even the walls have ears!" -- in phase with the oppressive era of inquisition, and further defines the atmosphere of this opera. His production team know how to bring the visual side to his ideas, and the overall effect is excellent.

I don't know how it all looks recorded in video, but even if the cast is not the same, I think the DVD of this production should be a good alternative to the ones mentioned in the beginning of this blog entry.

Production Photos ©Marco Borggreve 

My photos:

Superb cast [L2R]:  Tomlinson, Gubanova, Petrenko, Giordano, Nylund, and Maltman 

Sir John Tomlinson, next to our fave Ekaterina Gubanova

Absolutely unrecognizable physically but the familiar voice of the 21st century: Chris Maltman

Best of what I've seen from Camilla Nylund so far

Wonderful Misha Petrenko and the example of what can be described as ``italienità" -- Massimo Giordano

And here comes maestro Nézet-Séguin, who brought more lyricism to the score



  1. Stoyanova was a wonderful Elisabetta in Vienna recently. The finest Rodrigo is undoubtedly Simon Keenlyside who sings the role in all major houses these days. His portrayal of the role in Vienna was a revelation. Vocally so rich, with so many wonderul colours. Additionally he is a fantastic actor. He easily could succeed in Schiller's play as well. The death-scene was incredibly moving.
    If you ever get the chance to see him in that role don't hesitate! Simon is The Best!!!

  2. You're right. On his good day Simon is as good as Tom Hampson at his best. His Posa is recorded on DVD

    Now, Chris is as good vocally (if not even better), but scenically he's simply unbeatable -- so watching Chris as Posa in a decent production of this opera and actually being in auditorium is a whole different level.

    But yes, I agree that Simon is absolutely amazing in this role. BTW, if you get to listen to Stefano Secco singing DC, that's something special too.

    I envy you on Krassimira Stoyanova. Love listening to that woman sing!

    I should make the Best of 2011 list where Stoyanova is on the top, with Anna Larson ;) Cheers

  3. This production - in January 2013 at Polish National Opera: