Living Domestic Tragedy: Don Carlo at the Theater St Gallen

Verdi – Don Carlo

Don Carlo – Eduardo Aladrén
Tebaldo – Sheida Damghani
Elisabetta – Alex Penda
Conte di Lerma – Riccardo Botta
Rodrigo – Nikolay Borchev
Filippo II – Tareq Nazmi
Eboli – Alessandra Volpe
Carlo V – Martin Summer
Grande Inquisitore – Ernesto Morillo
Un araldo reale – Nik Kevin Koch
Voce del Cielo – Tatjana Schneider

Opernchor St Gallen, Chor des Theaters St Gallen, Sinfonieorchester St Gallen / Modestas Pitrenas.
Stage director – Nicola Berloffa.

Theater St Gallen, St Gallen, Switzerland.  Wednesday, November 21st, 2018. 

Tonight marked my first visit to the Theater St Gallen.  Located in the heart of this charming Swiss city, it’s certainly a most agreeable place to see a show.  With seating for only 750 spectators, and excellent sightlines, the house is also home to a very fine orchestra and demonstrates some judicious casting.  Indeed, it was something of a coup for the house to engage the great Alex Penda in her debut run of Elisabetta, as well as the extremely fine young Kuwaiti-Bavarian bass, Tareq Nazmi as Filippo.

Photo: © Iko Freese

The staging was entrusted to the Italian stage director, Nicola Berloffa.  This was similarly my first encounter with his work and there is some serious potential there.  Where I felt it fell down was a need to add extraneous action to scenes where singers were alone, guiding the action.  An opening door in the Carlo/Posa duet, or Elisabetta perambulating from the stage while Eboli sang her ‘don fatale’, for instance.  There was also, in places, an overreliance on stock operatic gestures – much falling to the floor, or hands outstretched into the middle distance.  That said, it was ultimately a very convincing reading of the work, because Berloffa genuinely focused the action on the principals, making this very much a story about clear, well-defined individuals.  In turn, for the most part, he – and we – were rewarded with performances of thrilling vividness from the cast.

Photo: © Iko Freese

The result, was that they succeeded in really bringing out the motivations of the individual characters.  Penda’s Elisabetta was a woman who desperately wanted to break out of the stifling role society had given to her.  The physical effort of containing herself was expressed by actually switching into French at times, as well as her volcanic eruption in standing up to Filippo in Act 4 (Act 3 in the Milan version we were given tonight).  Penda’s pearly soprano, with a steely glint, gave a great deal of pleasure – not least in an impassioned ‘tu che le vanità’, the voice opening up on top and descending to a full and generous chest register.  She also capped the ensembles wonderfully.  A compelling performance from a great singing-actor.

Photo: © Iko Freese

Alessandra Volpe’s Eboli was a livewire.  She’s the owner of a big and juicy chest register, which she used with thrilling abandon – not least in the trio with Carlo and Posa, where her electric stage presence lit up the room.  The registers were always absolutely integrated and her native diction meant that her performance was fully sung off the text.  She tired somewhat at the end of ‘don fatale’, not quite hitting the climactic final phrase à point, but with time she will surely learn to pace herself even better.

Photo: © Iko Freese

We had a psychologically complex Posa from Nikolay Borchev.  He gave us a portrayal of a man, desperate to be taken seriously – which made his motivation for grabbing Carlo’s sword in the auto-da-fé even more believable.  His is a lighter baritone than we often hear in the piece and the tone was somewhat narrow, lacking  a full range of tone colours in order to allow him to exploit the text.  He’s the owner of a fine legato and he threw himself into Berloffa’s vision of the role.

Photo: © Iko Freese

His scene with Nazmi’s Filippo was absolutely gripping.  Nazmi giving off so much dramatic energy that Posa never stood a chance against him.  The latent homoeroticism of the scene was smoking – one didn’t know if Filippo was threatening Posa or actually wanted to have his way with him.  This made Posa’s interjection of how Filippo rules half the world but can’t control himself, even more poignant.  This was a man at the edge, aware of the limits of his power, deeply unhappy, and desperate for something, anything, to relieve him of where life had led him.  Nazmi’s ‘ella giammai m’amò’ was devastating.  Sung with a genuine legato, the tone so fresh and youthful with seemingly limitless resonance at the bottom.  The voice is absolutely huge, enveloping this spectator in a bath of warm, masculine sound.  His encounter with Ernesto Morillo’s Grande Inquisitore was thrilling – the impact of these two massive voices sparring with each other in this intimate house was utterly overwhelming.

Photo: © Iko Freese

If there was one performance that felt less that convincing, it was Eduardo Aladrén’s Carlo.  His is a serviceable tenor of Latin warmth and a decent legato.  Yet, for some reason, it felt that his character wasn’t as fully formed as the others.  It felt that we didn’t really get a sense of who Carlo was.  The voice is a good size, but Aladrén had a tendency to sing everything at an unremitting forte which, combined with saggy pitch at the top, robbed his singing of its full impact.  The remainder of the cast had some very interesting voices – Martin Summer’s firm, youthful bass; Nik Kevin Koch’s elegant and attractive tenor; and Tatjana Schneider’s limpid soprano – all singers I’d gladly hear again.

Photo: © Iko Freese

Given the relative modest resources of the house, the chorus was somewhat small in number – just under 40 – and they didn’t always manage to be heard over the surging orchestral textures from my seat, although they did sing with enthusiasm.  The orchestra was excellent, the strings in particular offering a warm carpet of sound.  Modestas Pitrenas brought out some fascinating colours in the orchestration – especially in the big bass duet, the warmth of the textures echoed in the warmth of the voices.  His tempi felt natural, for the most part, although some of the gear changes in the transitions felt less than organic – the music almost grinding to a halt at the first entrance of the Flemish Deputies is one example.

Photo: © Iko Freese

This was a very satisfying Don Carlo and one that was most certainly worth seeing.  Nazmi and Penda, in particular, gave deeply moving performances and Volpe is a singer to watch.  Berloffa gave us an intensely insightful staging, one that highlighted the human relations to the core of the piece.  It brought to life a group of broken people, incapable of finding true happiness in a society under the control of an over-dominant state founded on forced belief.  A most convincing evening with some very impressive singing.

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