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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

DVD Review: Come for the Opera, (Stay for the Pizza!)

Don Carlos from the Vienna State Opera
Don Carlos (Ramon Vargas) and Princess Eboli (Nadja Michael)
celebrate the imminent arrival of pizza in Peter Konwitschny's Don Carlos.
Photo © 2004 Vienna State Opera/Arthaus Musik
This two-DVD set, filmed in 2005 at the Vienna State Opera, is the first visual record of a performance of the complete original version of Verdi's Don Carlos. Sung in French by a mostly idiomatic cast and led by the talented French conductor Bertrand de Billy, this is fascinating to watch if you're an aficionado of the frequently performed 1883 revision of the opera, or a lover of Verdi in general. But the clever production is sometimes undercut by a middling cast.

Don Carlos is Verdi's third and final attempt to write a French grand opera. It premiered in 1867, in the wake of works by Halévy and Meyerbeer. But the excessive length of the original version (these discs run just over four hours) led the composer to trim the opening chorus with the woodcutters in the forest of Fontainebleau. Further cuts over the years included the beginning of Act III, the lengthy ballet, and a chorus of inquisitors in the last act. Verdi revised the opera heavily in 1884, cutting the first act entirely and using Italian translation of the original book. Today, many companies restore the first act, an idea Verdi approved in 1886.

This is a good (not great) cast. Ramón Vargas holds his own, singing lyrically through the title role. He sings "Je le vieux" when lying prone, (very Homer Simpson) but hits the notes. As Elisabeth, Iano Tamar lacks bloom at the very top of her range, but improves for her touching Act V showpiece. Bo Skovhus is yet another skilled lieder singer tackling Rodrigue. He overacts, but sounds good in his three duets with Mr. Vargas.

The best singing here comes from Nadja Michael as Princess Eboli. She has a powerful mezzo instrument and can maneuver through the coloratura in the Song of the Veil. She takes the most difficult passages pianissimo and produces a credible trill. Her "O don fatale" is pretty, but does not (quite) bring down the house. As the King, Alastair Miles is underwhelming. He acts with more emotion than other Philips. But in "Elle ne m'aime pas", he lacks that last edge of vocal majesty. Simon Yang looks evil as the Inquisitor, but doesn't scare anybody.

The director, Peter Konwitschny resorts to the common device of making the Spain of Philip II a modern environment with the Spanish court in evening wear. The Monk (Dan Paul Dumitrescu) interacts with both Carlos and Elisabeth in the Act II and Act V monastery scenes, saving them both at the end of Act V. He is clearly identified as an incognito (and environmentally friendly) Charles V. Incidentally, Mr. Dumitrescu is the best bass in this cast, and the moment when he bitch-slaps King Philip is reason alone for Verdi lovers to catch this performance.

Posa (Bo Skovhus) is a '60s radical who goes blind when he loses his horn-rimmed glasses. The Act III auto-da-fé is staged with the doors to the theater open and the audience allowed into the lobby as chained "dissidents" are marched through the opera house, News reporters comment on the action, and live camera feeds between the lobby and the theater give the whole a "you-are-there" feel. Mr. Konwitschny succeeds in making the audience culpable bystanders at the coronation of Philip and the empty rituals of the Inquisition. The presence of a few lusty "boos" from the audience only adds to the festivities.

All the original music is restored here, including the woodcutters' scene and the 15-minute ballet, re-imagined here as a comic pantomime: "Eboli's Dream". The Princess imagines a happy domestic life as a '50s sitcom housewife. Carlo is her hard-working white-collar hubby, King Philip and Queen Elisabeth are their dinner guests, and Posa as the pizza delivery guy who shows up after Eboli burns the roast. The sequence is amusing and full of details: an old-fashioned phonograph, a brick fireplace and an oil painting of the historical Don Carlos on the wall of their cozy home.

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