VERDI: Don Carlo

the opera still touches a nerve as the (Northern) Netherlands after their war
with their legal count and duke (Philip was not an absolute king in the
Netherlands) became a republic. The opera however is historically correct in
having the revolt started by the Southern Netherlands (hence the Flemish and
Brabantian deputies in the third act). A lot of space was devoted to
Decker’s ideas and concepts and then everything was blown away, not by
the wind, but by a voice. After the premiËre critics, of course, dissected
the production; but even they had to admit for once that some attention
should be given to the singers. OK, make it one singer in particular.

The Amsterdam audiences are always keen to make everybody else believe
that theatrical values score highest in their appreciation of opera. This
time, they dropped their usual make believe and had mostly eyes (ears would
be the more correct word) for Rolando VillazÛn. All at once these audiences,
starved for a world class tenor, reduced opera to its main outstanding
feature: good singing. People applauded hysterically and the frenzy became
stronger with each performance. VillazÛn was almost mobbed when after some
performances he agreed to sign his first solo album. The Amsterdam
in-house-shop had to perform miracles to get the necessary copies, as more
than 1500 people in all waited for hours to have their albums signed.
VillazÛn himself was almost as surprised as everybody else as he had been
engaged for the role when he was still a young promising tenor. Now it was
probably the first time he realized how big a star he had become.

The inevitable question therefore is a simple one: is this VillazÛn
performance the yard stick to measure all other interpretations with? And the
answer can only be a no. On record Carlo Bergonzi (Decca) still reigns
supreme with Placido Domingo (EMI) a good second; while in the live category,
there are some stunning performances by Franco Corelli and Jussi Bjˆrling.
But, it is surely a performance on the level of the unjustly forgotten
Flaviano Labo (DG) whose voice has a striking resemblance with the Mexican
tenor. VillazÛn sings with the by now well-known burnished sound and
intensity, using a quivering voice now and then to show emotion. He phrases
well, has a sense for the Verdian line and the voice remains fresh and lovely
till the last measures with top notes ringing out clear and loudly. During
the performance I attended, and on this DVD as well, there is proof too of a
good control of dynamics; and it is good news indeed to hear from the
tenor’s latest recitals that he has refined his singing still more so
that nowadays pianissimi come easily to him. Moreover, VillazÛn is a most
convincing actor, especially in a role asking for youth, agility and
schizophrenics at the same time. One sometimes has the impression he crosses
the line between acting and grand guignol; but the bonus documentary clearly
shows he is encouraged to act that way by the director.

Not that VillazÛn is the only high class performance. Violeta Urmana, a
stately Eboli (British critics would use “Junoesque” as they dare
not utter the word ‘fat’) sang the role a few months before she
definitely went soprano. The voice blazes with health and volume; the top
notes are shattering and one can understand why Urmana was looking for roles
in a higher tessitura. Soprano Amanda Roocroft as the queen has a more
rounded and darker low register than mezzo Urmana, while in the middle
register both voices are remarkably alike. But, alas, the moment Roocroft
goes into higher gear everything sounds shrill and laboured. A pity as she
acts a very vulnerable Elisabetta.

The men are a more mixed lot. Best of them all is baritone Dwayne Croft
with smooth delivery, good phrasing and a fine thriller, maybe ultimately
lacking a bit in richness and colour in the voice. Colour is surely lacking
in Robert Lloyd’s Filippo. This is a solid, somewhat dry, voice though
one without great power. Mr. Llloyd knows only two ways of singing: forte and
sometimes (and more rarely) mezzo-forte. There is no real beauty in the voice
and that magnificent monologue (being a historian I dare to say Verdi is
probably nearer to the real king than all the biographers combined) goes
almost for nothing at the same loud level all the time. Is it shortness of
breath? or the conductors wish? But the bass chops up the line in those last
magical phrases clearly breathing between each utterance. More is the pity as
Lloyd plays one of the best kings I have ever seen: very near to the eternal
doubter Philip was and not exaggerating his rage, his sorrow or his

It is never a good thing when the king is oversung in big waves of sound
by the great inquisitor. Not that Jaakko Ryh‰nen sails smoothly along; the
sound is often too hollow or simply flat but after all he is supposed to be

Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (this world class
orchestra performs one opera production each year) are magnificent in the
playing and the drive of the singers without looking just for effect. Chailly
knows where to hurry a little bit faster or to temporize more than the score
tells so as to create a real uninterrupted flow of music that goes to the
heart of the unfolding drama. He is asked in the bonus documentary if he has
thought this out all himself and he honestly admits he did not. But, as a
young student, he carefully listened and took notes during performances of
Votto, Molinari-Pradelli and especially Tullio Serafin: conductors who
studied themselves with teachers who had often performed for Verdi himself.
Chailly is clearly proud to have a direct line to the composer’s
intentions. As an opera lover I can only regret that he didn’t go for
the five-act version in this DVD (as a spectator in the house I was happy
enough with three hours of music).

The production by Willy Decker is….well…..rather harmless.
Decker is more interested in the father-son conflict than in the quest for
liberty. He puts it somewhat vaguely in the right time frame and then opts
for a few German director’s clichÈs without making stooges of his
singers or deconstructing the original story. The sets are almost all the
time a few (sometimes moving) giant walls of plaques behind which lie the
deceased kings and queens of Spain. It is based upon the far smaller real
heart of El Escorial near Madrid where King Philip lived most of his life. I
fail to see why apart from some real names on the plaques the director has
some of them named Horatius, Lucius or Eulalie. And (though not to be seen
clearly on the DVD) there are Patricia I and Patricia II as well; probably a
silly inside joke. Carlo’s, Posa’s and Elisabetta’s
costumes are made from the same grey material: probably a deep hint that
these three are one of a kind. Everybody else wears black, even all court
ladies, with the exception of the great inquisitor who cannot fail to have a
blood-red dress—you got it?—though only a cardinal of the church
wears red.

Respect for the libretto is clearly not the strongest point in this
production. Decker is clearly impressed with Bernardo Bertolucci’s
Novecento movie and in the auto-da-fÈ-scene the chorus has to imitate exactly
the marchers in the film. And the scene ends with the heavenly voice inviting
the convicts into heaven while we see….a crucified Don Carlo. In the
third act Philip’s grave is already open and the king sings his
monologue on his own coffin. And of course the opera has to end on an
original note: Carlo commits suicide. Maybe Robert Lloyd has the best
reaction to it all as he tells that the singers are not handicapped by Decker
asking them for difficult movements. Most of the time they can sing their
hearts out lustily and therefore the performance, according to the bass,
comes near to his ideal of Italian opera: singing first followed by a hearty

The picture quality of the two DVD’s is fine though the sound
suffers a bit from the movements of the singers on the scene. Not the
ultimate Don Carlo but still a rewarding performance.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo
product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo
product_by=Robert Lloyd (Filippo II), Rolando VillazÛn (Don Carlo), Dwayne Croft (Rodrigo), Jaakko Ryh‰nen (Il grande inquisitore), Giorgio Giuseppini (Un frate), Amanda Roocroft (Elisabetta di Valois), Violeta Urmana (Eboli). Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera conducted by Riccardo Chailly. Stage director Willy Decker. TV director Misjel Vermeiren.
product_id=Opus Arte OA 0933 D [DVD]