Wednesday 25 June 2008

Vienna: Don Carlo or The unjust troubles of King Filippo of Spain

Holender´s endless speech in front of the Auto-da-fe

Don Carlo. Italian 4-act. Vienna State Opera. June 23rd 2008. Director: Pizzi. Cast: René Pape (Filippo II), Franco Farina (Carlo), Norma Fantini (Elisabetta), Thomas Hampson (Posa), Stefan Kocan (Grand Inquisitor), Luciana d´Intino (Eboli). Conductor: Marco Armiliato. Further information here.

First of all, this traditional Don Carlo production is so old it hardly matters who the director is, as the drama relies entirely on the chosen singers and thus may vary considerably.

In brief, the casting of Filippo, Posa and the Grand Inquisitor was exceptionally strong, while the casting of Carlo was exceptionally weak, leading to the following take on Verdi´s drama:

"King Filippo II of Spain is indeed a troubled man– first of all, he is the unfortunate father of an idiotic son, who constantly bothers him, rebelling against him as well as trying to steal his wife. That Filippo does not have him killed indeed testifies to his noble nature. Secondly, he is also burdened by a mentally troubled wife, who apparently seems to prefer Carlo to himself, not to mention dare sneak around behind his back. Now, why Filippo chooses Eboli does not make sense either and has to be attributed to some sort of psychological stress. Now why doesn´t he just get rid of both these women and get a decent one? Shouldn´t be too difficult. Just look at him. And he is the freaking King of Spain as well…"

I would much prefer to elaborate on Franco Farina´s strong points rather than dismiss him as already done by the Viennese press: After all, he was hired as a last-minute replacement for Sartori. And first of all, nobody expects him to be an even remotely credible alternative to René Pape´s Filippo. Any sort of anonymous interpretation would have worked fine considering the stellar casting, Thomas Hampson not the least, around him.
But unfortunately Farina manages to draw a considerable amount of negative attention to himself: Wooden and stiff stage presence, no charisma, and on top an intolerably wobbly voice with a strange sliding attack on all notes in the middle and high register. And his strong points? Well, the voice IS rather large. And the low register not entirely useless.. But I do predict him to literally be chopped liver as Otello for Riccardo Muti in Salzburg (one performance only) this summer.

In brief, no surprise from René Pape´s thoroughly commanding and dashing Filippo, entirely unmatched on stage today. In Vienna he delivered a much more troubled portrait than usual (Berlin, Munich), as he has probably been left to his own devices here. Not to mention hitting those top notes straight on in Ella giammai m´amo and in piano as well, where basically nobody else is able to hit them at all.

Thomas Hampson was absolutely magnificent. I have never seen him better. His often overly sensitive-sentimental style genuinely irritates me (Amfortas, Boccanegra, Macbeth, Mandryka, French Posa etc..). But this Posa was absolutely dashing as well as commanding -intellectual as opposed to emotional. A real man for once, not a wimp. Agreed, Hampson is no ”true Verdian barytone” (who is?) – but who cares when he performs like this? Indeed, if Elisabetta for some strange reason really does not want Filippo, what about Posa?

The highlight of the evening was the scene between Posa and Filippo – Hampson being the only Posa I have seen to truly stand up to René Pape in this scene, both vocally and dramatically making the friendship with Filippo both credible as well as the core of the drama. Which, unfortunately, cannot be said of his friendship with Carlo. Why o why does this magnificent man sacrifice his life for this Carlo? A riddle indeed…

Unfortunately, these may be Thomas Hampson´s last performances at the Vienna State Opera in the foreseeable future due to his involvement in the Herberstein affair. [ Hampson´s partner, Austrian aristocrat Andrea Herberstein is involved in a financial scandal concerning possible fraud related to a zoological park on her family´s estate in Austria. The case was presented at the Graz court during the last months and extensively covered by Austrian press, which in general treated Thomas Hampson very respectfully, repeatedly admiring his excellent German (which is indeed excellent). Hampson himself was not charged with anything, though his role in this affair has been extensively debated. Throughout the trial Hampson publicly supported his family and was been present at the courthouse as well. In July 2008 a verdict was finally reached and Andrea Herberstein was sentenced to 15 months in prison (having to serve 5 months). Several of the serious Austrian media indicate Thomas Hampson may allocate to the US hereafter, thus leaving the Vienna State Opera as well].

The other positive surprise was Stefan Kocan (previously unfamiliar to me, but definitely looking like a man of the future) as the Grand Inquisitor: Finally a true profundo bass, with adequate power, no wobble and stunning low notes. In fact the first time I have seen this scene work with René Pape, who always tends to completely overpower the sorry Inquisition (the worst in fact being at the MET in 2006, no names mentioned). Bizarrely, a cell phone started ringing exactly after the announcement "Il grande inquisitore", thus announcing his arrival..

Of the others Luciana d´Intino is a real Verdian spinto mezzo and vocally a great Eboli. Unfortunately her presence on stage is rather tame. Norma Fantini´s Elisabetta I know well from Berlin: She both looks and acts fine, and her voice has a distinct timbre and a beautiful middle section, but the top notes are shrill and marred by a vibrato that almost makes her sound flat.

The true low-point of the evening was the on-stage presentation of an honorary award by General Manager Ioan Holender to a Dr. Springer immediately after the Auto-da-fe with the entire cast present on stage. Holender literally spoke for 20 minutes non-stop in what has to be one of the most boring speeches I have heard in my entire life. The only performer on stage smiling politely after more than 5 minutes of this never-ending story was Franco Farina, which speaks well of his manners, but also leads me to believe he does not understand German.
The consequence being: The prolonged performance thus ended at the exact time it began to rain outside.

The bottom line (scale from 1-5, 3=average):

René Pape: 5
Thomas Hampson: 5
Stefan Kocan: 5
Franco Farina: 1
Norma Fantini: 3
Luciana d´Intino: 4
Production: 3
Marco Armiliato: 4


Parsifal said...

Mmmm...nice review. And the 1-5 scale thing is a very welcome novelty...(Parsi has a satanic smile on his face).

mostly opera... said...

The thing is, I would like nothing more than give Franco Farina positive coverage and believe me, I am one of the most likely audience members to do so, since the casting of Filippo, and the scenes of Filippo is the main reason for me to attend a performance of Don Carlo at all.

Basically I am relatively disinterested in Carlo and who actually performs Carlo, and am willing to overlook all sorts of weaknesses, but this was too much...Not a performance worthy of the Vienna State Opera. Or of Copenhagen. Or Athens, for that sake..

Futhermore I think it is fair to tell people what to expect in Salzburg this summer, where the top ticket price for Otello is 360 Euros.

marcillac said...

"...not entirely useless..." she says. Hehe.

You're right, of course. Its all about Big Phil. Why [expletive redacted] the opera is called "Don Carlo" I'll never know. Still, Eboli's part is...umm...let me think..."not entirely useless" either and once, just once, I'd like to sea and hear a hot Elizabetta sing a compelling "Tu che la Vanita.


I happen to despise both Spain and Russia (was really hoping for Italy/Holland - my two favorite teams) but I'll root for the Ruskies so that Spain may continue to suffer for their heinous depradations on the Danish team. They did, as you well know, crash and burn in both 84 and 86 and Denmark did win the whole thing in 92, so in the grand scheme of things you don't have much to complain about.

Carlos said...

Parsi... you are a bad guy ;) ;)

Anonymous said...

Interesting review - fantastic blog (it's high time I thanked you for your blogging!)

Wondering if you have seen Furlanetto's Filippo? ("Rene Pape...Filippo... entirely unmatched on stage today." Furlanetto is absolutely fantastic - I had seen him several times before, but he never stood out for me, till the first night at Don Carlo (currently at Covent Garden). I'm going back on Sunday.. with this Filippo, it's certainly worth it!

mostly opera... said...

Yes, I´ve seen Furlanetto as Filippo and he is indeed excellent (as are Stephen Milling and Matti Salminen).

The difference btw. Furlanetto and Pape imo in brief: René Pape has more than twice the voice, an infinitely more beautiful voice, he can hit all the notes straight on and varied as well (Furlanetto for all his good qualities is more than shaky in the top) and well..he is 15 years younger than Furlanetto and looks accordingly. And is vastly more commanding on stage.

René Pape´s voice does sound very young, and those preferring an older-sounding and/or looking Filippo may prefer Furlanetto. If that was a priority for me, I´d go for Matti Salminen though. Or Stephen Milling, who is the same age as René Pape, but has a much darker and slightly older-sounding voice (in a positive sense..).

But interpretatively, Pape and Furlanetto are equally convincing, in my opinion - just different. I guess it is a choice between a young, dashing Filippo with a young and splendid-sounding voice and well...just an older one.

And for those finding the love story of Carlo and Elisabetta to be the central to the piece, casting René Pape as Filippo is not a good idea. I believe even the NY Times (who I normally disagree with) commented on this when Johan Botha was cast as Carlos at the MET last season..

We may have the same discussion later this year when René Pape will sing Boris Godunov in Dresden - with Furlanetto singing it in Vienna around the same time. (I´ve seen both in the part, and I have the same comments as on Filippo).

But no criticism of Furlanetto on my part. He is an excellent artist.

Gonzalo Tello said...

I guess Farina is not that good after all...can't wait to have Pape's cd. One of my favorites lately.

Anonymous said...

I am very happy to have found your blog after attending this performance in Vienna. It was my first Opera - and it sounds like I could have done better - though for what I paid I found it enjoyable. Backpacking through Europe only allows limited forrays into society and/or educational and entertaining evenings out. I am not fluent in German but was able to understand enough of the speech to leave about 10 minutes into it. (Did it really last 20 minutes? Goodness).
Be the performance as it may: thank you for the interesting review and information on the perfomers, I for one appreciate it greatly.

mostly opera... said...

kahaha wahine: Thanks for commenting. No need to apologize liking this performance,it was also very good compared to what I paid for my ticket (!)..

For those not overly familiar with opera, these detailed comparisons of singers and stagings (which I make as well, though I try to reduce them) may seem both redundant and even ridiculous. I even find them somewhat ridiculous myself, once in a while...

After all, going to the opera is about enjoying yourself, and in this regard previous experiences may count for very little.
Glad you enjoyed the performance!

marcillac said...

"Twice the voice"

You know somethin' MM? You may actually be almost right about that. Having heard Pape, Morris, and Furlanetto, all within a couple of weeks of each other, that proposition seems valid on its own terms rather than just as a figure of speech. Wow!

This is not to say that either Morris or Furlanetto is "entirely useless". Indeed, both are eminantely useful and dramatically Pape is superior only to the extent that his superior vocal resources, of which he takes full advantage, allow him to do more witht the music. Even vocally both are excellent, if meaningfully flawed. Both are well worth hearing in this role and others but any opportunity to hear RP is an absolute must for anyone who is interested in the Don Carlos or great bass singing.

mostly opera... said...

Oh, but I never meant it as a figure of speech, I was rather serious :)
I haven´t seen Furlanetto live since last season´s Boris in Vienna, but I listened to the London Don Carlo broadcast from a couple of weeks ago, and while he interpretatively may be strong, vocally he was surprisingly weak, by far the weakest Filip I have heard this season, which include Stephen Milling, Peter Rose and Matti Salminen (apart from RP*3, obviously).
If this is Furlanetto´s normal level of singing, the reviewers have treated him very kindly, no matter his interpretative skills.

The comparison btw. RP and James Morris is even easier, as I heard them next to each other twice in Meistersinger this easter, where the same is true. I rather like Morris, though I don´t much care for his voice. I´m rather surprised he was received so badly in Paris.

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