The Dark Times: Le Duc d’Albe at the Opera Vlaanderen

Donizetti/Battistelli – Le Duc d’Albe

Le Duc d’Albe – Kartal Karagedik
Hélène d’Egmont – Ania Jeruc
Henri de Bruges – Enea Scala
Sandoval – David Shipley
Carlos/Balbuena – Denzil Delaere
Daniel – Markus Suihkonen
Un Tavernier – Stephan Adriaens

Koor Opera Vlaanderen, Symfonisch Orkest Opera Vlaanderen / Andriy Yurkevych.
Stage director – Carlos Wagner.

Opera Vlaanderen, Ghent, Flanders, Belgium.  Saturday, November 25th, 2017.

Left unfinished at his death, Donizetti’s Le Duc d’Albe had to wait until 2012 for its first performance in the original French.  To complete the work, the Opera Vlaanderen asked Giorgio Battistelli, one of the pre-eminent Italian living composers, to provide a scene for the opening of Act 4 and to complete the finale.  The first run was, in turn, recorded commercially for an audio release.  This is a piece that has great significance for this part of the world.  The regime of Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, third Duke of Alba, was a time of great repression in Flanders and the opera deals with themes of military oppression and the desire for vengeance from Hélène for the murder of her father.   Essentially, what we get is boy loves girl, but boy discovers he is the villain’s son and girl kills him by mistake.  Within this, we get a thrilling evening in the theatre.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Particularly so because, in its first revival, Carlos Wagner’s staging feels altogether far too timely.  In the opening scene we see Spanish soldiers in black uniforms toasting ‘vive l’Espagne, vive son roi’ while the people below tend to their injured.  The effect, at least for me, was shattering – especially with memories of the events of October 1st this year in Catalonia so fresh in the mind.  Wagner gives us images of an almost dystopian near future.  The staging is dark and pervaded with an air of fear, of the fact that danger lies around every corner, where being with the wrong people, or caught in the wrong place can result in instant death.  There is humanity here – the tender relationship between Hélène and Henri flourishes despite adversity.  Personenregie did however consist of a fair bit of standing and delivering, with characters often duetting with each other from opposite sides of the stage.  And yet, there was an undeniable impact to the staging, partly as a result of the current environment but also because the stage pictures are so striking. As Henri sings his beautiful ‘anges des cieux’ (the same melody as ‘ange si pur’ from La Favorite), we see him tending to the graves of those who went before.  In turn, the final scene sees the chorus mourning rather than celebrating.  The Duke may have left, but the effects of his actions will have real and tangible consequences for generations to come.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

The closing pages have immense impact due to Battistelli’s haunting harmonies, in contrast to the jubilation of the text.  The work as a whole I found fascinating.  The textures seem quite spare, the tinta of the score relatively grey for Donizetti, particularly when compared to the multicoloured textures that Battistelli draws from the same forces.  Interestingly Battistelli, while in places fills out the Donizettian line, also remains true to his own compositional style.  On paper, one would think the contrast between the two styles would jar somewhat; however, on the contrary, I felt it actually worked quite well.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

It was aided by some sensational conducting from Andriy Yurkevych.  Yurkevych completely understands how this music should go.  Tempi were swift with a rhythmic impulsiveness that was undeniable.  In his hands, the drama had no choice but to hurtle to its inevitable conclusion.  The band played well for him on the whole, although there were a few passing moments of rough string intonation towards the end.  The brass were on top form – not a split note all night.  The chorus was tremendous – making a massive noise, especially in this relatively small house, ensemble was spot on and blend impeccable.  They negotiated the tricky harmonies of the Battistelli completion with ease.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

As always in Flanders, the solo singing reflected the fact that the casting is done by someone who really understands voices.  The drama was also helped by the fact that diction was uniformly excellent throughout the cast.  Ania Jeruc is a new name to me and a very interesting one.  Her soprano rode the ensembles with ease.  The top is very exciting with a glinting, metallic edge to it.  Her legato is impeccable and she made several genuine trills.  The voice does lack a little weight towards the bottom but she is certainly an exciting talent.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Enea Scala dispatched his ‘anges des cieux’ with freedom and generosity, opening up wonderfully at the top.  The voice is nicely placed – bright and forward – and carries through the house with ease.  At first it felt somewhat shallow in tone but, as he warmed, up he gave us waves of ecstatic clarion sound.  His breath control was absolutely staggering – seemingly endless – and the voice was absolutely even from top to bottom.  Most impressive.  Kartal Karagedik was also an impressive Duc.  The voice lacks somewhat in tone colours and body, but it is absolutely reliable and the technique is solid.  He certainly appeared to defy gravity with the top emerging with as much ease as the middle.  Markus Suikhonen was a youthful Daniel.  His is a bass of wonderful resonance and warmth.  A member of the young artists ensemble of the house, this is a voice that will surely grow even more.  The remainder of the cast again demonstrated the excellent standard the house holds for itself.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

This was a gripping evening in the theatre.  We witnessed a work that has great resonance in this part of the world and also one that felt absolutely of our time.  Yes, there were issues with the personenregie and the reliance on delivering to the front, but visually it looked good and the impact of experiencing it in a relatively small house was undeniable.  The clarity of the diction meant that the drama lived with undeniable force.  With excellent singing throughout the cast and conducting that made the evening fly by in a heartbeat, this was very much worth the journey to see it.  The evening succeeds in doing what great art should do – to make us reflect on our present.

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