Family Drama: Don Carlos at the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

Verdi – Don Carlos

Don Carlos – Leonardo Capalbo
Élisabeth de Valois – Mary Elizabeth Williams
Philippe II – Andreas Bauer Kanabas
Rodrigue, marquis de Posa – Kartal Karagedik
La princesse d’Eboli – Raehann Bryce-Davis
Le Grand Inquisiteur – Roberto Scandiuzzi
Un moine (Charles V) – Werner Van Mechelen
Thibault – Annelies Van Gramberen
Une voix céleste – Annelies Van Gramberen
Le comte de Lerme – Stephan Adriaens
Un héraut royal – Stephan Adriaens

Koor Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Symfonisch Orkest Opera Ballet Vlaanderen / Alejo Pérez.
Stage director – Johan Simons.

Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Antwerp, Flanders, Belgium.  Sunday, September 22nd, 2019.

For its new staging of Don Carlos, the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen confided the staging to Johan Simons and chose to perform the work in the original French.  Interestingly, rather than perform the Paris version, with its extended ballet, the house instead chose the five-act Modena version.  The Fontainebleau act came after the monastery scene.  I’m not aware of any musicological justification for this, but it was all of a piece with Simons’ staging.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

He gives us a study of Carlos looking back at his life, reflecting on the events that led to his incarceration by Philippe II.  Simons makes exceptional physical demands on Leonardo Capalbo’s Carlos.  Not only was Capalbo on stage throughout the four-hour long evening, he didn’t stop moving – whether running around the auditorium, pulling Flemish deputies along the floor, or observing events.  The strength of Simons’ staging is very much its intricate personenregie.  Through his singers, he obtains performances that are strikingly vivid in terms of personality – whether it be a king broken by power, the woman trapped in a loveless marriage, or the friend and freedom fighter willing to take risks.  This is opera about real people, with real emotions, brought to compelling life by a highly dedicated team of singing actors.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Another interesting aspect of Simons’ staging was the boundary between public and private.  The people were a constant presence, emerging at the back of the stage, at times in full view, at others barely perceptible.  That said, the chorus did feel somewhat under-directed, more of a monolithic mass than a group of individuals.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

While there were undoubted strengths to Simons’ staging, there were also a few aspects that were less than convincing.  The use of video (Hans Op de Beeck) providing what seemed to be 1990s Microsoft screensaver graphics of snowy fields or a castle, distracted more than they added additional insight.  It was telling that in Act 4, the action took place in a black box setting, allowing the characters to tell their stories unfiltered.  As soon as Posa started singing ‘Oui, Carlos! C’est mon jour suprême’, the visuals reappeared, distracting from Kartal Karagedik’s elegant singing.  Similarly, there was a lot of moving furniture around – the Auto-da-fé appeared to take place in an obstacle course that Carlos constructed out of various garage sale items.  Again, it felt gratuitous and unnecessarily distracting, especially given the strength of the individual performances.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Musically, the performance gave a lot of pleasure.  Capalbo brought Italianate ardour to the title role, singing with generous abandon and virile, full-throated tone.  He gave so much of himself to us, both vocally and physically, never holding back.  There was a, however, tendency to undershoot at the top of the voice, not quite hitting the notes up there head on.  He sang the role in exceptionally clear French – he’d obviously worked hard on the text and it showed.  His tirelessness, in such an exceptionally demanding staging, was seriously impressive.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

His Élisabeth was Mary Elizabeth Williams.  She is a deeply expressive actress, able to communicate so much through her facial expressions – the pain that she felt saying farewell to the Comtesse d’Aremberg and that look of realization on her face as she contemplated the life that fate had dealt her, was deeply haunting.  Her soprano has a copper core with a tart edge.  She floated some admirable soft singing in the final scene, although there was a tendency for the very top of the voice to be slightly tight, not quite spinning in the way it ideally should.  Her Élisabeth had so much tangible dignity and it was generously sung.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Dignity is also an apposite description for Andreas Bauer Kanabas’ Philippe.  Sung in a resonant bass, with a touch of dryness to the tone reinforcing the world-weariness of this character, Bauer Kanabas savoured the text, drawing out meaning.  He sang his ‘elle ne m’aime pas’ with despairing introspection.  He also rose magnificently to an electric confrontation with Roberto Scandiuzzi’s Inquisiteur.  Scandiuzzi lent his character an almost Shakespearean gravitas, spitting out the words with dominant malice.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Karagedik gave us a very satisfying Posa.  He phrased his big scene with endlessly long lines, pulling back and shading the tone with delicacy.  His legato does tend to have some intrusive aspirates and the text could have been slightly sharper, bringing out the beauty of the diphthongs more, for instance.  These are small things and his singing did give a great deal of pleasure.  Raehann Bryce-Davis was a sensational Eboli.  She gave her veil song such uninhibited sultry sensuality, that I started to question my sexual orientation, working it across the stage, not so much holding it but taking it and commanding it.  Her ‘Ô don fatal’ was tremendous – the voice seemingly without limits, used with thrilling uninhibitedness, and taking wing in that climactic final phrase with room to spare where so many before her have run out of gas.  For a role debut, this was incredibly impressive, and I look forward to seeing her grow even more in the role.  And this house really needs to offer her a Carmen soon too – I have no doubt that will also fit her like a glove.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

As always, the house forces reflected the exceptionally high standards of this address.  Jan Schweiger’s chorus was on blistering form this afternoon.  The tuning from the gentlemen in the opening chorus was not quite à point, but once past that, they sang with glorious warmth and unanimity of tone, combined with impeccable tightness of ensemble.  They responded very well to their new chief, Alejo Pérez, as did their colleagues in the orchestra.  Attack in the band was occasionally ragged at first, but as the evening progressed, it tightened up nicely.  Pérez founded his reading in a strong bass line, underpinning the textures, while also bringing out the craggy monolithic depths at the core.  His tempi were generally quite fluent, guiding the action through to its inevitable conclusion.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

This Don Carlos was an extremely satisfying afternoon in the theatre.  Getting to hear the piece in French, with diction that was generally intelligible, gave it an immediacy and sense of drama that was most compelling, particularly given the utterly believable and relatable characters we were presented with.  Yes, there was some clutter to the stage pictures and unnecessarily distracting visuals that added little, but these do not subtract from the achievements of the whole.  This is another big success for this excellent house – musically, it really was enormously rewarding indeed.

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