Domestic Tragedy: Don Carlos at the Hamburgische Staatsoper

Verdi – Don Carlos

Philippe II – Gábor Bretz

Don Carlos – Pavel Černoch

Rodrigue – Alexey Bogdanchikov

Le Grand Inquisiteur – Kristinn Sigmundsson

Un moine – Bruno Vargas

Élisabeth de Valois – Barbara Haveman

La Princesse d’Eboli – Yelena Zhidkova

Thibault – Gabriele Rossmanith

Le Comte de Lerme / Un Héraut – Benjamin Popson

Une voix céleste – Maria Chabounia

Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg / Renato Palumbo.

Stage director – Peter Konwitschny

Staatsoper, Hamburg.  Sunday, October 18th, 2015

Two firsts tonight – my first visit to the Hamburg Staatsoper and my first live Don Carlos in French.  The Hamburg Staatsoper is a fine theatre.  Sightlines appear to be good throughout and the quality of the chorus and orchestra is absolutely phenomenal.  Unfortunately, I saw very little of the city itself but would certainly like to return – a house band and chorus of this quality needs to be heard again.

The Hamburgische Staatsoper. Photo: © Klaus Friese
The Hamburgische Staatsoper. Photo: © Klaus Friese

Peter Konwitschny’s production is already 14 years old and has been seen widely both in Hamburg and in Vienna.  It was received warmly by the audience tonight.  For me, Don Carlos is a work that reflects on the corrosive power of religion on the state and how that affects those with and in power, and those close to them.  Konwitschny’s staging on the other hand envisions the work as domestic tragedy, one that removes the context from the work and instead focuses on the love triangle.  In a way, it could be said that Konwitschny is universalizing the work and making it more immediate to the audience, yet I’m not convinced he achieves that.  The main issue I have with the staging is how he mounts the auto-da-fé.  As the audience exits for the interval following act 3 scene 1, the ushers hand out instructions for the next part.  These include an invitation to follow the King and Queen into the theatre as they make an entrance through the auditorium and to take the closest seat rather than the one allocated.  During the remainder of the opera the costumes worn are traditional 16th century garb, however during the auto-da-fé the entire cast changes into modern evening dress and then change back for the last two acts.  The end of interval chimes are replaced by an announcer talking about how big this experience is.  The house lights stay up for the whole of the scene and the audience wandered around and took photos, texted and various other normally verboten behaviours.  The result of this was that the magnificent music got completely lost under the sight of people walking in whenever they felt like it and a scene completely foreign to the rest of the staging.  In a way, it felt that Konwitschny’s point was that this grand scene does not fit with the rest of the opera being about the relationships between individuals.  The problem for this observer was that it denied the work context, removed the focus on the oppression of religion and meant that the conflict between the church, state and individual was barely explored.

The Hamburg Staatsoper production of Don Carlos as seen in 2008. © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
The Hamburg Staatsoper production of Don Carlos as seen in 2008. © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

It’s a shame because the other acts were actually quite successful.  The curtain opened on a large, dark stage with the opening chorus warming their hands over a fire.  As we move into Saint-Just, the oppressive environment of the monastery descends from the flies, encasing the characters.  By focusing on the individuals and placing them within a claustrophobic set, Konwitschny certainly set up the focus on the private.  What it missed was the emphasis on the public.  Interestingly, the ballet scene was staged as Eboli’s dream of being a suburban housewife married to Carlos.  She invites Élisabeth and Philippe to dinner, promptly burns the bird and Carlos calls out for pizza.  It works because it’s choreographed to the music and trusts the music to illustrate the action.  Nevertheless, relationships between individuals were sharply drawn and the cast threw themselves into the task with complete commitment.

The Hamburg Staatsoper production of Don Carlos as seen in 2008. © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
The Hamburg Staatsoper production of Don Carlos as seen in 2008. © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Pavel Černoch was a robust Carlos.  Everything he did was absolutely musical and he was tireless right to the very end of an extremely long evening.  It’s a massive sing but one never got any sense of him ever giving less than his very best.  His French was not particularly comprehensible, the nasal diphthongs were missing, but he has a good line and a bright youthful tone that’s ideal for the character.  I just wish that he had dared to sing slightly softer in the final duet.  Otherwise it was a very creditable reading and he is an engaging actor.  Barbara Haveman’s Élisabeth also suffered from foggy diction.  She does really have the measure of the role culminating in a ‘toi qui sus le néant’ of generosity, the tone even, the top blooming.  Earlier, it felt that the top was somewhat tight and the voice lacking in a range of tone colours.  Clearly she was pacing herself for her big number and she gave us some ravishing singing in the final duet.  She is also a fine actress ideally charting Élisabeth’s development from reluctant bride to strong queen.

The Hamburg Staatsoper production of Don Carlos as seen in 2008. © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
The Hamburg Staatsoper production of Don Carlos as seen in 2008. © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Gábor Bretz’ Philippe was somewhat more youthful and narrow of tone than we might be used to.  To me, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it provided an interesting new way to see the role.  His ‘elle ne m’aime pas’ was wonderfully sung, with a good legato and decent pointing of the words.  Indeed his French was the best in the cast.  I found it somewhat extrovert and didn’t quite draw the audience into Philippe’s loneliness but that is also a problem of the production in that it doesn’t create the dichotomy between the public and private figures fully enough.  Yelena Zhidkova was an exciting Eboli.  She ran out of steam towards the end of ‘don fatal’ but she never gave anything less than everything she had throughout the evening.  She nailed the veil song splendidly and her contributions to the act 3 trio were wonderfully abandoned.  The voice is in good shape, vibrations are even and she is a vital actress.  Kristinn Sigmundsson’s grainy bass contrasted nicely with Bretz in their duet.

The Hamburg Staatsoper production of Don Carlos as seen in 2008. © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
The Hamburg Staatsoper production of Don Carlos as seen in 2008. © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Alexey Bogdanchikov’s Posa was the highlight of the cast for me.  Only 30 years old, his baritone has a handsomeness of tone, an easy top and an impeccable legato.  His big set piece ‘c’est mon jour suprême’ was delivered with just the combination of warm tone and smooth line that it required.  The voice is a good size and carries well through the theatre.  He’s certainly an artist I’d like to see again.

As I mentioned earlier the chorus and orchestra were absolutely superb and a real credit to the house.  A shame that I couldn’t fully appreciate the chorus’ contribution to the auto-da-fé due to the issues with the staging but, prepared by Eberhard Friedrich, it was clear that they sang with excellent blend and unanimous ensemble.  The orchestra also gave us a fine depth of tone in the strings, excellent brass playing – not a single fluff all evening – and woodwind soloists with genuine personality.  I found Renato Palumbo’s reading took a little while to take off.  Interestingly it was only really in the ballet music that I found it acquired the vigour it ideally needed.  He was certainly a supportive partner for his singers, the tempi gave them space in which to operate, but I missed a sense of rhythmic incisiveness and an overarching view of the work’s structure.

Musically this was an admirable performance more than worthy of the quality that a house such as this should be offering.  Certainly, I would have liked the cast to have made much more of the words and the text was indistinct far too often.  Nevertheless it was decently sung by a good cast who really gave everything they had to the work over a very long evening.  Ultimately however it was let down by a staging that lacked context, that failed to engage with the issues inherent in the piece and one that transformed a story about the conflict between religion, power, the public and the private into a domestic soap opera.  I was tempted to compare tonight with the recent Flanders TannhäuserBoth are radical productions but the Tannhäuser enhances the musical performances while this Don Carlos fails to allow a significant part of the work the opportunity it needs to tell its story.  A shame because I thought there was a musically very good performance desperately trying to break through during the auto-da-fé.  Despite that, this run is definitely worth seeing for the highly admirable performances of the cast and the excellence of the house’s orchestra and chorus.



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