What a day for an auto-da-fé (Don Carlo in Vienna)

Don Carlo is a notoriously difficult opera to cast, but this new Wiener Staatsoper production looked promising on paper, including René Pape, Krassimira Stoyanova, and Simon Keenlyside. I’m rather baffled at how the result turned out to be so aggressively, mind-numblingly boring on nearly every level. Intendant Dominique Meyer’s Regieprobleme aren’t getting any better.

Verdi, Don Carlo. Wiener Staatsoper, 6/22/2012. New production directed by Daniele Abbado, “Bühnenkonzeption” by Graziano Gregori, sets by Angelo Linzalata, costumes by Carla Teti, lights by Alessandro Carletti. Conducted by Franz Welser-Most with René Pape (Philipp II), Ramón Vargas (Don Carlo), Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo), Krassimira Stoyanova) Elisabeth von Valois, Luciana D`Intino (Prinzessin Eboli), Eric Halfvarson (Il Grande Inquisitore), Valentina Nafornita (Stimme von oben)

The Staats is using the four-act Italian version, which
starts awkwardly with the Monk calling out to Carlo and then the duet with
Posa. Reminiscences appear without their antecedents, the Italian text is far
inferior to the French, and it’s a lot of development of something for which we
never had exposition.

Franz Welser-Möst
got the actual Philharmoniker to conduct (Rattle has been touring with the
second string), and you could tell from the showiness of the playing.
But while it was something, it wasn’t like any Verdi I’d ever heard before. Welser-Möst may have been proud of getting this
bunch at the Staatsoper, but he never seemed to notice the singers or the
drama. Crashing effects alternated with gratuitously picky dissection of
the orchestral fabric. The singers struggled against the volume and
inflexibility emanating from the pit, and ensembles showed a wide variety of tempo
choices simultaneously. (The choruses were generally better.) It really didn’t
“Why this awful lighting? WHY????”
None of the singers succeeded in developing any kind of
characters, which is rather remarkable considering their amount of talent. The
first problem was that Daniele Abbado’s production (yes he’s Claudio’s son) lights them almost entirely
from behind, and even then only sparsely. They could have been the best film-style actors in the world and I
wouldn’t have been able to tell, because their faces were almost never illuminated.
The rest of the production doesn’t do anything else either. A series of sliding walls (Bartlett Sher
writ large) slightly alter an empty, barn-like unit set. The setting is, for no
particular reason, the early nineteenth century, with simple costumes that for
the women resemble the ball dresses still so loved in these parts. While Abbado
has nothing to say about this piece and what it’s about, with good
Personenregie it still could have been effective drama of a sort. Alas,
everyone basically stands still. Even would-be exciting bits, like Carlo being
sucked up by the Monk at the end, were botched (moving far too slowly and well
before the gesture is indicated in the score and libretto). The gesture of
choice seemed to be, tellingly, a shrug. The only good things I’ve heard from anyone about this production is that it will be very easy to revive. Who knows, if they fix the lights maybe some later singer can bring something inspired to it. But it won’t ever be a complete drama. I would give more details but honestly most of it has flown out of my head already.
The most distinguished performance of the evening came from
René Pape as Filippo II, whose honeyed bass-baritone was at full force despite Welser-Möst’s unhelpful tempos. Still, he was much
better in the role back at the Met in 2006, which was a tired revival of an old
production but still gave him something to work with. Simon Keenlyside is a
singer I like a lot but he made very little impression here, adequate
and nothing more. He appeared to have drawn the hotness card among this cast
but I really think one should button up one’s shirt in the presence of the
King. Krassimira Stoyanova was announced as indisposed, which was a shame
because I think she could sing a fine Elisabetta. This one had some fine
moments but was short on volume at the top and only sometimes came into focus.
Her best quality onstage is a sweet simplicity, which for a queen is a little
“Flanders? Nah, I’m sending you back to the new Probebühne.”
Luciana D’Intino’s Eboli was a showcase for her fearsome
deployment of chest voice.While the lone representative of Italy among the
cast, she doesn’t do much with the language, and her presence is more queen
mother than king’s mistress (her costume was not doing her any favors). Somehow
I have left Carlo for last, which is not entirely unusual. This role is a
graveyard for lyric tenors (from what I heard Piotr Beczala was originally cast
in this production but wisely decided not to attempt it and is here singing in Lucia instead–maybe he chatted with Villazon or Filianoti). Ramón Vargas is too
smart to be done in by its demands but doesn’t exactly conquer it either. He
lacks the spinto heft at the top and his tone tends to turn pale and weak above
the passaggio. Some middle-range phrases had full tone and phrasing but like
Keenlyside he seemed to mostly struggling to be heard and stay with the
orchestra. Valentina Nafornita was a bright spot as the Voice from Above. She won Cardiff
a few years ago and certainly deserves better casting than this.
I love this opera and generally find something to enjoy
in it even in flawed performances, but this one was uniquely boring, possibly
one of the most confounding evenings I’ve had at the opera in a while. The argument seems to be we’re
the Wiener Staatsoper and hence we put on opera at a world class level. But drama needs some impetus, some reason why we’re here
seeing this thing, and most of the time last night I wished I were somewhere
else. It might be a bad way of putting it, but someone needed to provide a
photos copyright APA, because the Staatsoper site is less than forthcoming.

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  1. This sounds grim, but the 4-act revision is still vastly preferable to the nonsensical 5-act 'complete' one that seems to be becoming standard. It becomes clearly an opera that's principally about Carlos and Posa, about political compromise (rather than thwarted love). And it also means that the first part doesn't last an interminable 90 minutes. Love the blog btw.

  2. 5 Act version preferable for many reasons in addition to the ones cited by Zerb.

    Most unfortunate, this. Munich was better, perhaps even

  3. Thanks for the great review, this is exactly how I felt about this production. I attended the Premiere and was very disappointed about the staging – at least Meyer is keeping the fantastic Konwitschny-Production in the repertoire (the 5 acts french version).

  4. I can't believe that Simon Keenlyside was merely ADEQUATE in this production!!! That is not what the reviews said. Come on…he puts his heart and soul and considerable emotional intelligence into everything he does. How very harsh (and rather pompous) of you!

  5. I agree fully with your review, just yesterday have seen the last performance of the September run. Staging was amateurish as hell – I generally don´t like "classic" stagings, but even there you have to KNOW how to do it. No scene changes, still the empty black room… funny costumes (can the Queen have the cheapest-looking dress among her whole company?!), no Personenführung at all… and even Welser-Möst, whom I usually like, was mostly passionless and way too loud. A big waste of great singers that are fine actors as well, unfortunately not under Abbado´s direction…