Heart in Darkness: Don Carlo at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Verdi – Don Carlo

Don Carlo – Francesco Meli
Tebaldo – Aleksandra Meteleva
Elisabetta – Eleonora Buratto
Conte di Lerma – Joseph Dahdah
Rodrigo – Massimo Cavalletti

Filippo II – Mikhail Petrenko
Eboli – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Carlo V – Evgeny Stavinsky
Grande Inquisitore – Alexander Vinogradov
Un araldo reale – Joseph Dahdah
Voce del Cielo – Benedetta Torre

Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino / Daniele Gatti.
Stage director – Roberto Andò.

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Teatro del Maggio, Florence, Italy.  Sunday, January 8th, 2023.

This new production of Don Carlo marked the reinauguration of the large hall of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino’s theatre complex.  Following some readjustments, the stage machinery has been enhanced and the balconies remodelled to offer better views.  From my seat at the front of the Platea, it actually sounded pretty good – voices were present and the orchestral sound was able to bloom, without overwhelming the voices, although the acoustic is not as immediate or bright as in the Sala Zubin Mehta next door. 

Photo: © Michele Monasta

The stage direction was confided to Roberto Andò, a new name to me as far as I can recall.  Andò gives us what is a rather statuesque staging.  Personenregie consisted of characters standing, emoting to the front, arms outstretched, barely engaging with each other.  Direction of the chorus was very much about traffic management, marching them as a block from the back to the front of the stage, and then separating them to stand on either side.  The sets, by Gianni Carluccio, consisted of some monumental panels, tastefully accessorized with a few bushes for the garden scene, or books and candles for the scene in Filippo’s study.  Andò’s staging is particularly dark – perhaps in an attempt to match the score’s tinta – the only exception being Elisabetta who wears brighter coloured clothing, compared to the universal black elsewhere.  Perhaps, in this way Andò was attempting to demonstrate how Elisabetta brings youth and light to the darkness of the characters’ worlds, but this seems an idea that is mostly demonstrative rather than insightful.  Similarly, some video projections (Luca Scarzella) add additional visual interest, by projecting some random images during the veil song, flames during the auto-da-fé, and shadowy figures in the closing scene.  I left with the impression of a piece of theatre that was basically concerned with moving people around the stage, rather than allowing us a deeper and more profound insight into the work.

Photo: © Michele Monasta

That kind of staging could work successfully if the musical performance was extremely satisfying.  Here, I’m afraid to say I was left rather disappointed.  Daniele Gatti led a reading that was marmoreal in focus.  His tempi were extremely slow – the middle section of the Carlo/Posa duet, or that of ‘O don fatale’, basically came to a halt.  There were places where it worked.  We got the four-act version today, so the evening opened with Act 2, during which Gatti’s slow and shapely tempo for the opening brought out the solitude of characters who are desperately lonely.  And yet, throughout the evening tension sagged frequently – the Posa/Filippo scene, a moment that should absolutely crackle with repressed sexual tension and conflict, felt droopy because it just meandered along.  Attack in the orchestra was also rather soft grained, although Gatti opened the auto-da-fé with the kind of precise and highly rhythmic impetus that was lacking elsewhere.  This isn’t to say that Gatti’s reading was without interest – the prelude to the evening in the Queen’s garden scene (the start of Act 3, Act 2 here), sounded redolent of Lohengrin in the slow evolution of a melody emerging from beneath shimmering strings.  However, the overall impression I took away from Gatti’s reading was that it lacked in drama.  He obtained superb playing from the Maggio orchestra who were at one with his vision of the score, playing with poetry and beauty.  The strings were impeccable in intonation even in the most exposed passages.  There were a very few split brass notes as we went through what transpired to be a lengthy evening, but the horns played with genuine handsomeness of tone.  Lorenzo Fratini’s chorus made a magnificent noise, offering roof raising singing, but also immaculate tuning in those treacherous off-stage unaccompanied passages. 

Photo: © Michele Monasta

The cast was divided between Italian and Russian or Belorussian singers.  What was very noticeable was the sheer clarity of diction from the Italian singers in the cast – it really brought the drama to life.  Francesco Meli took on the title role.  Where he wanted to, he sang with genuine elegance of phrasing, the text always front and centre.  He sang his opening ‘io la vidi’ with long lines, a genuine legato, and a deep bel cantist sensibility.  His tenor has always sounded rather wiry in tone and today I was aware, perhaps more than usual, of the top thinning out.  Perhaps aware of that, Meli had a tendency to fire on all cylinders up there, pushing the tone, rather than letting it emerge freely.  Still, the clarity of his diction and willingness to search for the beauty of the line gave pleasure.

Photo: © Michele Monasta

As Posa, Tuscan baritone Massimo Cavalletti sounded a little out of sorts at first, the top lacking in body and the legato aspirated.  As the evening developed, he rallied, concluding with his big scene that saw Cavalletti singing with long lines, focused tone, and immaculate textual awareness.  Ekaterina Semenchuk was clearly more comfortable in her ‘don fatale’ than in her veil song.  She got through the latter with her dignity intact, although the florid writing was skirted over.  In her ‘don fatale’, Semenchuk sustained the central section well, particularly given the extremely slow tempo, the lines seemingly endless, and rose to the occasion of her big finish.

Photo: © Michele Monasta

Mikhail Petrenko was a world-weary Filippo.  The voice is somewhat dry in tone, seemingly lacking in the true bass resonance that one has come to expect in this role, but the dryness of the tone did match the tiredness of his character.  He sang his big number with introspective feeling and was rewarded with a generous ovation from the Florentine public.  Alexander Vinogradov boomed resonantly as the Inquisitore, as indeed did Evegeny Stavinsky as the Frate.  In the supporting roles, Joseph Dahdah sang his roles with strikingly handsome tone and attention to the text, while Benedetta Torre was a suitably angelic Voce, her silvery soprano feather light.

Photo: © Michele Monasta

I’ve kept the Elisabetta until last because Eleonora Buratto’s incarnation of this iconic role was very much the highlight of the evening.  Buratto injected her music with so much intelligent feeling – apparent even from her very first entry where she sang ‘Ahimè! spariro i dì che lieto era il mio cor’, using the text to colour the tone and bringing out Elisabetta’s longing for happier days.  Yet her Elisabetta also had determination in how she made Carlo aware of the consequences of his infatuation, bringing out a steel in the tone.  Buratto’s soprano is in fabulous shape, the registers absolutely even, founded on a rich and resonant chestiness that gave Semenchuk a run for her money.  Of course, we all wait for ‘Tu che le vanità’ and here Buratto soared over the orchestra with wistful ease and limpid pulchritude of tone.  I did sense that she would have appreciated things moving a little faster than Gatti was willing to – there were moments where it was clear Buratto wanted to push ahead.  And perhaps in future performances, Buratto might be able to have the luxury of using an even wider range of dynamics, but this is only her second assumption of the role having debuted it in New York City late last year, and she is already an exceptional Elisabetta.  Once again, Buratto has proven herself to be the finest Italian soprano before the public today.  She really did give us a singing lesson.

Photo: © Michele Monasta

This was a performance that was, to my taste, distinctly mixed.  Some of the singing was rather rough around the edges, the staging focused more on traffic management than character development, and the conducting was ponderous.  And yet, it also gave significant satisfaction – the clarity of the diction from much of the cast, the willingness to find lyrical beauty, and the superb orchestral playing and choral singing.  Above all, this was a triumph for Buratto and a major assumption of this great role.  The audience rewarded the cast with an exceptionally generous ovation – indeed they cheered Gatti with roars of ‘bravo’.  Certainly, an evening that will stay in the memory. 

One comment

  1. We were also at yesterday afternoon’s performance and agree with you totally about Buratto’s performance. Sensational!

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