Monday 22 September 2008

Oslo Don Carlo: Superb Pape, Harteros, Mattei in Hytner kitsch production

Don Carlo. 5-act Italian version. Norwegian National Opera, Oslo. September 20th, 2008. Production: Nicholas Hytner. Cast: René Pape (Filippo), Anja Harteros (Elisabetta), Peter Mattei (Posa), Alfred Kim (Don Carlos), Ingebjørg Kosmo (Eboli), Ketil Hugaas (Grand Inquisitor). Conductor: Marco Guidarini. Further information here.

Nicholas Hytner´s production of Don Carlo is the first staged opera production at the absolutely magnificent new Oslo Opera house. The production comes from Covent Garden, where it earlier this year received extraordinarily mixed reviews ranging from disastrous to brilliant, and is scheduled at the Metropolitan Opera in upcoming seasons. Nicholas Hytner is an esteemed theatre director (as well as director of the National Theatre, London) and to be honest, I had expected much more from him.

Nicholas Hytner has in fact created a very conventional Don Carlo, which most of all looks like 70´s style kitsch with several of the tableaus distinctly reminiscent of plastic replicas of religious artifacts. Or just plastic replicas of anything. It´s occasionally semi-aesthetic kitsch, with singers in mostly unflattering period-style costumes, but nevertheless kitsch. It doesn´t look like Hytner directed the Oslo production himself, but I doubt that Elaine Kidd did not follow his instructions closely. The lack of insights into the motives and interactions of the characters surprised me, coming from a director who is apparently "opposed to stereotypes". The only truly outstanding dramatic performance was that of René Pape, which I somehow doubt may be attributed to the stage director. Production photographs and reviews from the London performances here.

First of all, German bass René Pape delivered the most shattering performance of Filippo I have ever seen, including many of his own previous shows. A broken man, from start to finish, laying his soul completely open, he was simply heartbreaking. Completely different from his usual appearances and if I hadn´t seen him approach something like this in last years Boris Godunov, I frankly wouldn´t have thought him capable of it dramatically. Somehow I doubt that Nicholas Hytner/Elaine Kidd is responsible for this, as none of the other singers even approached that level of acting. If he is going to perform like this as Boris in Dresden in December (which I for several reasons suspect he will) it will be worth traveling a long way to see. Vocally, he was as perfect as ever, not even worth mentioning. That said, I strongly disagree with Hytner on this characterization of Filippo, which seems far too monodimensional and insightless.

Only in one scene were the sets kitsch-free, luckily it was in the most important one - Act 4 scene 1 with Filippo and the Grand Inquisitor. The Grand Inquisitor seems always cast with basses on their way up or down. I am not sure which category Ketil Hugaas belongs to, but the part needs a major voice in it´s prime to fully carry it off.

I would be surprised if Anja Harteros doesn´t become 1st choice worldwide as Elisabetta. This performance was her role debut, and already at this early point I cannot name a better interpreter of the part today. Her voice is certainly big enough, she is unstrained and on pitch. Furthermore, she looks the part. Her singing is very straight forward, with a minimum of portamento, stylishly not unlike Karita Mattila´s previous interpretation. I have only one but..., which is that for some strange reason I find Anja Harteros somewhat unengaging. Not only as Elisabetta, but as a performer in general. Those not sharing this general reservation, will most probably find her perfect.

Peter Mattei is a great and very noble Posa with a soft-grained clear and beautiful voice. However, the role needs a bit more ring to it, particulary in the confrontation with Filippo, where he furthermore looked too much an adolescent schoolboy next to René Pape, not the oldest Filippo on the circuit either. An aspect of the part Thomas Hampson mastered superbly earlier this year in Vienna. That said, Peter Mattei approaches being top choice for this part as well.

Hytner clearly built this production around Don Carlo, with him appearing in front of the sets between most of the scene changes. A fine approach, especially if you have a singer with the dramatic and vocal strenghts of a Plácido Domingo in his prime at your disposal. Read: To make this concept work you need a stronger presence than Alfred Kim, who is simply too easily forgotten despite fine singing. Ingebjørg Kosmo got away with Eboli´s fiendishly difficult part impressively well and managed to hold her own among these international top-singers.

Marco Guidarini and the orchestra also performed at a higher level, than I had expected. It´s hardly their fault that I simply find the 5-act Don Carlo too long..

Compared with the London cast (broadcast only), I´d say this Oslo cast wins 3-2. An easy 3-2, perhaps even a 4-1.

Peter Gelb over at the Metropolitan Opera must now have something to think about: To bring this kitsch to Met audiences in replacement of their much-loved, traditional Don Carlo production (notwithstanding I personally find it undead)....well, good luck. I will believe this production to replace the old one at the Met when I see it.

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

René Pape: 5
Anja Harteros: 4-5
Peter Mattei: 4
Alfred Kim: 3
Ingebjørg Kosmo: 3

Nicholas Hytner´s staging: 2-3

Marco Guidarini: 4

Overall impression: 4


operanuts said...

Thanks for this fine review.
The opera house looks stunning.
You´re so lucky to (see and ) hear Anja Harteros in her role debut and Rene Pape as Filippo.

John F said...

I agree with a lot of the comments by the first reviewer but have to take issue with his view that he finds Anja Harteros somewhat unengaging. I think the exact opposite and her big aria in Act 5'Tu che le vanita' was riveting and got quite the most sustained applause and cheering of the night. The new opera house IS magnificent although we found our seats on the second balcony had a disappointingly restricted view of the stage.

mostly opera... said...

Yes, I expect many to disagree with me on her, which I am only glad to hear, as she "objectively" is a superb artist, as I believe I wrote..

I am quite familiar with Anja Harteros from Germany - both in opera parts such as Alcina and Violetta as well as in several concert works (Verdi, Dvorak Requiems etc.) - so I´m afraid it´s a well-founded general impression, which may of course change.

Thanks for posting about the seats - the seats we checked out all around the auditorium seemed fine. Our 1st balcony middle seats were of course superb, but interesting to hear that the position of the seats is not so optimal as I thought they were..

Anonymous said...

I've only seen Harteros as Violetta - and definitely found her engaging. Interesting to know she did Alcina too..

From reading this blog, I am starting to get suspicious.. is opera blog in fact Rene Pape's agent/other half? :-) More seriously, I shall be looking out more for him.. unfortunately he doesn't come to London much.. but I'll see his Marke at the Met in Dec.. with Barenboim as well, it's looking like one not to miss..

marcillac said...

Suspected as much about Harteros but am glad to read that you viewed her so favorably.

Dramatically I found her a superb Countess during multiple performances at the Met. She was vocally excellent but dramatically quite "unengaged" as Anna in a new Don production, however. The whole production, was kind of off kilter so I'm not sure how this reflects on her. Even Pape doing his thing as Leporello couldn't save it. Will be looking forward to her Violetta next month and hopefully Elisabetta in the near future.

Am glad you to see you like Mattei as Posa. He's my favorite Count and (somewhat surprisingly tor me) Don.

mostly opera... said...

Apparently Mattei intends to take on some of the heavier rep, as he´ll be singing Macbeth in Stockholm later this season.
I do not at all like his Don G where I much prefer a basso cantante to a lyrical barytone, and he furthermore is just not the type I´d prefer in the part.
The only two parts I don´t like RP in is actually Leporello (which he for some strange reason will continue to sing) and Figaro.
I believe it is a public secret that a new Don G is to be staged at the Met within a couple of seasons..

If you are going to the Salome, please write something about it.

Anonymous said...

In case you didn't already know, I received an email this morning saying that the Met are broadcasting Salome:

mostly opera... said...

I certainly know that (thanks anyway for mentioning it), however the HD broadcast is on October 11, and the production opens tonight, so if anyone is going tonight I´d be very interested to hear about it. Otherwise I may have to open a Salome post based on Anthony Tommassini´s review....

marcillac said...

Mattei: When I said "somewhat" surprisingly" in referreing to Mattei as my favority Don I did so precisely because I too would generally prefer a basso cantante, or even a full bass (alla Pape - although I haven't heard him). Still, in the actual performances I've liked him quite a bit.

Pape as Leporello: Not his best role, to be sure. I absolutely prefer Furlanetto and even Torfel. Still well worth hearing and am looking forward to Vienna this May.

Salome: I have tickets for next week but as it happens a collegue just walked out of my office who has tickets for tonight but might have to work late and not be able to go. If the logistics work out we might switch. In any case I will write subsequent to whichever performance I go to.

mostly opera... said...

"I absolutely prefer Furlanetto"

&%¤¤#"#" !! Read: You are stretching it here..

btw in this repertoire I´d definitely count RP among basso cantantes..

"am looking forward to Vienna this May."

Yes, but they should have switched the Don-Leporello casting, imo.

Salome: I seriously considered going to NY for this. I´ll probably regret not going..

You didn´t happen to be at the Met yesterday as well?

marcillac said...

Did make it to the Salome with predictable results. More later but you should certainly try to make it if you can.

BTW, I'm told Fleming was there last night as well.

For some reason I've always associated Basso Cantante with a lighter voice but RP certainly has the requisite capabilities plus the heft.

Anonymous said...

I attended the performance on 23.09 and 30.09 and Pape and Harteros were just excellent both evenings. On the 30.09 performance another tenor (Keith Ikaia-Purdy) was hired for the title role. Before the performance started I thought this was a good idea, bearing in mind Alfred Kims somehow limited capacity, but I quickly changed my opinion. The new guy was terrible, very strained top notes and notoriously off pitch when trying to sing soft. On top of that he was even shorter that Alfred Kim so when standing next to Harteros he was looking like her 11 year old son.
Without the superb singing from Harteros, Pape and Mattei, and then Pape in particular, the 30.09 performance would have been no less than totally embarrassing.

Anonymous said...

The replacement of the tenor was only due to the Norwegian tenor who should have taken over getting a cold. Keith Ikaia-Purdy had only had a few hours rehearsal before taking to the stage and was impressive in how much of the staging he got right. I agree with you on the singing but he was better on the performance two days later. Alfred Kim will return for the last two or three performances. From now and out there is a mostly Norwegian cast. Some fine singing from Birgitte Christensen who made her role debut yesterday and who is a better actress by fare from Harteros and Trond Halstein Moe as Posa will join the cast on Saturday. He has impressed earlier seasons in both Traviata and Ballo de Maschera so it is clearly his element. Looking forward to even more Don Carlo!

Anonymous said...

Agree with you with regards to Keith Ikaia-Purdy's acting, but I also think that the singing ruined his performance. I am happy to hear that he improved though. Before the first intermission I was wondering what would be the worst scenario: he walking off the stage or continue to sing. After act four I was really happy that he finished because I have never ever heard anything so good as Rene Papes "Ella giammai m'amo." He was so amazing and if this is his "normal level" I can understand why some think he is the bast male opera singer in the world today.

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