It’s not easy to assess Opera North’s revival of Verdi’s Don Carlos. On the positive side, the Grand Theatre is the place to savour a compelling central performance, strongly supported on all sides, with Richard Farnes’ dynamic conducting producing another inspired evening in the pit. The Chandos recording scheduled for next month will capture a performance in robust musical health.
However, this is a Don Carlos that fails to keep its grip consistently on the audience’s attention. A long enough opera even shorn of the Fontainebleau act (Opera North uses the four-act Italian version, not the five-acter for the Paris Opera), Don Carlos doesn’t need the frequent breaks that Hildegard Bechtler’s designs impose on this production. At the opening curtain Carlos skulks around a gloomily imposing set which reflects his melancholy at his fiancée marrying his father (Philip II of Spain) and also aids the air of secrecy surrounding his friend Rodrigo’s report on the sufferings of the people of Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands.
Carlos and Rodrigo join in the first great duet of the opera, the two main narrative threads (Carlos’ love for Queen Elisabeth and his devotion, prompted by Rodrigo, to the Flemish cause) are presented, drama is stirring, then the curtain comes down and the house lights come up. This happens twice more in the first half and twice in the second. Ironically Richard Farnes writes in the programme of Verdi’s “ability to invest an irresistible forward momentum in scenes that might, in less gifted hands, become static tableaux”. The momentum is there within the scenes, no question, but not between the scenes.
Sadly, the design choices force the creation of “static tableaux”. The visual collapse from austere elegance to a world of fractured conflict takes the form of holes and chasms to the stage floor. So the chorus and orchestra can give a hair-raising account of the auto da fe scene which ends the first half, but stage action is compromised: processions are a virtual impossibility and the Flemish deputies (a sextet cast from strength) are not allowed to move!
Fortunately Tim Albery’s direction of individuals is more successful than his deployment of crowds. Despite dealing with great events and having the mighty set piece of the auto da fe, Don Carlos is essentially an opera of duets focussed on love, friendship and loyalty. In the title role Julian Gavin’s splendidly heroic tenor and intense vocal characterisation is well complemented by the astute acting of William Dazeley’s smoothly resonant Rodrigo. Janice Watson (Elisabeth) moves from rather effortful early scenes to beautifully floated lines in the final duet with Carlos, though (uniquely, in this cast) she puts over too few of the words of Andrew Porter’s well trusted translation.
Similarly Jane Dutton (Eboli), after a Song of the Veil a little low on lightness and charm, finds all the drama in the conflicting love and loyalty of her scene with Carlos and Rodrigo. The cavernous bass of Brindley Sherratt makes much of Philip II’s music, with the depth of his cruelty emerging in the scene with Clive Bayley’s menacingly sung Grand Inquisitor, the distillation of malice.
The result is an evening that is finally uplifting, but after too many irritations along the way.