Sunday, May 25, 2014

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Theater die Chemnitz, Germany
9th March 2014

After seeing a magnificent and memorable opera performance, over time details might be forgotten, but traces of that experience will attach themselves lovingly to your heart. This is exactly what Chemnitz Oper is likely to achieve for audiences who come to see this artistic accomplishment, Don Carlos. If Giuseppe Verdi had written just one opera and it was this one, his greatness as a 19th Century composer of opera would be just as valid. Don Carlos is exceptional grand opera, a glowing masterpiece in the opera repertoire and one that must be seen by anyone with even a slight interest in opera. This production honours Verdi suitably.

Don Carlos is a long opera in 4 acts, being Verdi's shortened Milan version of 1884, after originally being premiered in 1867 in 5 acts together with a ballet. You might think that the four act version at almost four hours still asks a great deal of attention from the audience but its story is wonderfully intriguing and the Chemnitz Oper production successfully paces it with clever stagecraft to exact a magnificently spellbinding experience.

Don Carlos is the heir to the Spanish throne, betrothed to and in love with Elizabeth of Valois, daughter of the King of France. His father, King Phillip II, however, decides to marry her himself as part of a peace treaty after the war with France. Alongside this heartbreaking arrangement bubbles a story infused with political tension, in regards to the treatment of the people of Flanders, which Spain is ruling, and the at times uncomfortable tug-of-war between Church and State.

Historically, the action takes place in the middle of the 16th Century but this bold production positions us somewhere in the middle of 20th Century Spain, thereby referencing the dictatorship under Francisco Franco. This loose reference alone is enough to dramatise on stage the multi-faceted tensions that are being played out. It even helps to make it apparent that the purpose here is not necessarily to relate an episode in history but use it to take us on a journey through both emotional and behavioural experiences and responses.

Producer, Helen Malkowsky and Set/Costume Designer Kathrin-Susann Brose, have created a work of real collaborative styling. The unfolding drama was beautifully intertwined over its numerous scenes utilising a revolving stage, which incorporated both simple, yet intricately intimate spaces, as well as formal rooms. The one anomaly appeared in the first scene of Act 2, which ineffectively introduced a projected slide backdrop of a verdant grove which distracted from the muted tones of the overall staging. The costuming exuded an elegant and sophisticated era of the mid 20th Century, of a decade not quite easily pinpointed but harmoniously blended in soft hues of ivory, sage and buttercup for the ladies of the court, cobalt and black for the noblemen and scarlet for the clerics. Against soft lilac-grey partitioned spaces adorned with black trim, together with evocative yet unfussy lighting, the overall result was a strikingly creative and appealing combination.

The orchestra under the baton of Conductor, Frank Beermann, brought out the wide-ranging emotional colours, which both the music and story demand. Evident was a consistent balance of power in the pit and even in the bombastic moments of musical showmanship the orchestra never drained or overwhelmed the action on stage. The musicians shone especially brilliantly in the absolute glory of the Act 2 "Spuntato Ecco Il Di D'Esultanza", a 10-minute feast of the majestic, funereal and melodramatic. Likewise, the members of the chorus, a staple of many a Verdi opera, sang with shining confidence throughout this second act.

It was the female principals that won the night on consistency, dramaturgy and vocal accuracy. Armenian soprano, Karine Babajanyan, as Elisabeth of Valois, sang with great clarity and finesse, her range ascending from the hollowness of a forest trunk to the sweetness of honey, especially evident in the Act 1 aria "Non Piangar, Mia Compagna". Russian mezzo-soprano, Anna Danik sang the role of Princess Eboli, a Spanish aristocrat, herself in love with Don Carlos. In her rendition of the noted arias "Nel Giardin Del Bello" of Act 1 and "O Don Fatale" of Act 3, Danik was in every way astounding, singing with both a vibrant and delicate elasticity.

The tender friendship between Don Carlos and the Marquis of Posa, who has returned from Flanders with news of the mistreatment of the people under the Spanish, did not always hit the mark in its portrayal but the voices, however, embraced their sentiments. The Finnish tenor, Christian Juslin, as Don Carlos was firm and commanding in voice, with Korean baritone, Adam Kim, as the Marquis of Posa, rendering an equally, solid warmth, though noticeably uneven and strained in his upper range. Their signature duet "Dio, Che Nell'Alma Infodere", of Act 1, incorporating a musical theme which visits the opera regularly, was wonderfully strident. The later Act 3 scene, in which Posa is comforted in death by his friend, appeared marginally uncomfortable and sadly unravelled the unifying effect of their vocal strengths. The bass of Kouta Rasanen in the role of The Grand Inquisitor was suitably full of power and chillingly expressive, while Tuomas Pursio, as King Phillip II, displayed both vocal prowess and strength in his character.

Incorporating two intervals to enjoy a drink, mingle and discuss the opera, the evening may be long but is by no means tiresome. This production is a magnificent achievement by the Chemnitz Oper and truly informs us of the immense quality a small German regional city can offer. Bravi Tutti!

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