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Thursday, February 7, 2008

DVD Review: Don Carlos at the Chatelet

Luc Bondy's 1996 production of Don Carlos was staged, recorded and filmed at the Chatelet in Paris. These seven performances were blessed with an all-star cast, loaded with important singers either starting their careers (Roberto Alagna) or at the height of their dramatic powers (Karita Mattila, Jose Van Dam.)

After a long delay, this critically important Carlos was finally released on Kultur DVD in 2003. It's not a first choice--the Met DVD from the early '80s with Domingo is better. However, this is the best French-language version of the opera available--and this opera is better in French, the language in which the libretto was originally written.

This recording was made early in Alagna's career, and shows him at his best. He always sounds better in French, and this Carlos is a dramatic highlight of his career. He sings with passion and verve, hopeful during "Je le vieux" and powerful in the character's three showdowns with the King.

Baritone Thomas Hampson branched out into dramatic roles with this complex turn as Posa. Here, clad all in black with stubble and hair extensions, he comes across as part freedom fighter, part rock star. (In the real Spanish court, he'd never last a minute.) His fourth death scene shows how smart a singer Hampson is, the command of emotion and power elevates this Spanish tragedy to the next level of emotional involvement.

As Philip, Jose Van Dam is more baritone than bass. He misses that last bit of bone-shaking gravitas that one expects from this character. He is at his best when vulnerable--the Act IV monologue and the confrontation with the Inquisitor (Erik Halfvarson). When Halfvarson limps onstage, hooded and stooped, accompanied by little bursts of hellfire, the effect makes one wonder: is the King is really having this conversation, or has Verdi's Grand Inquisitor become the demonic figure from The Brothers Karamazov?

Don Carlos only has two major female roles, but they are both in capable hands. Karita Mattila's performance as Elisabeth de Valois is even better on DVD. She is heartbreaking in the Fontainebleu scene with Carlos. But when she arrives in Spain, Elisabeth is a different, transformed woman. She is a Queen, and that is how Mattila plays it--she has become part of the opera's icy, aloof power structure. Waltraud Meier plays Eboli as the fiery opposite. The acclaimed Wagnerian mezzo chews the scenery, and she's vocally unreliable, picking her way slowly through the many pitfalls of "O Don Fatale". But she brings down the house, and importantly, looks the part as the most beautiful woman in Spain.

Thomas Hampson and Roberto Alagna sing the duet from Act II of Don Carlos
Mr. Bondy's production has its share of controversial moments. For once, Elisabeth is on present onstage--asleep for the first half of the King's Act IV monologue. She wakes up and walks out in disgust halfway through. When she re-enters, she nearly trips over the Inquisitor in her haste. The entrance of the Monk in Act II is also effective--the eye is drawn to no less than three different monks (including one who is assiduously scrubbing the monastery floor) before you realize which character on stage is actually singing. It's a great trick, and one that points toward the opera's ambivalent ending, when the forces of heaven and hell intervene to save Carlos from the Inquisition.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.