Who can they trust? Opera Australia’s Don Carlos
Opera Australia’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlos is a deeply involved, dramatic production, with large performances, an eerie visual feel, and a rich sound. However, the Oedipal story was difficult to present in a way that could be understood easily by the audience. Nevertheless, the singing was wonderful, and the production overall was compelling.
Don Carlos opens with a tension-building slow-moving shadow of a ghost, hobbling through the curved dynamics of the green crypt. What the audience is set to witness is art, and it is effecting.
Tenor Diego Torre in the title role was somewhat unassuming at first glance, but from the initial moment he voiced his grief, he completely commanded the stage. He had an impressive dramatic presence in his heart-wrenching role. He expressed the pain of his mournful lost love, and the tenderness of his friendship with Rodrigo, with skill. Torre is a star. Vocally he did not seem to tire at all. His voice is large and dramatic – he produces an immense sound, with rich colour. His was a strong, well-rounded performance. It was a treat to see such a superb international tenor in an OA production.
Mezzo-Soprano Milijana Nikolic as Princess Eboli was also wonderful. She has a very engaging, statuesque presence on stage, with strong acting skills and a fine voice. She pleased the audience with her dramatic and vocal power. It is a huge sing, and as a result she seemed to tire a small amount throughout the performance. Soprano Victoria Yastrebova as Elisabeth had a pretty enough tone, but her voice was ultimately a bit forgettable.
Baritone Jose Barto as Rodrigo was wonderful, and he had great vocal energy when singing with his castmates, his voice soaring – and he has a dashing stage presence to boot. Rodrigo’s grand sacrifice for another – Carlo – was touching. The projected image on the screen that descended for every scene change made sense when this scene unfolded. Christ’s sacrifice for others, as represented in the sacrificial wound, mirrors that of Rodrigo, as he was dramatically killed in a moment that evoked genuine surprise from the audience.
Bass Giacomo Prestia as King Philip II turned out to have a very impressive voice. He clearly has great vocal technique to sound so wonderful. He delivered a powerful performance, particularly potent in his moments of anguish. Ah, the language of love and loss, of doubt and pain, is universal.
The chorus numbers in Don Carlos were a huge highlight of the entire Opera Australia season. It may be impossible for the OA chorus to deliver a bad performance. They produced a suitably huge, sweeping, religious sound. Marvellous.
Though it was not a flaw-free production. The convoluted plot, pulled in every direction by the undercutting power dynamics between many characters, involving royal politics, sexual politics, and the religious politics of the Spanish Inquisition, will leave even avid opera fans baffled if they are not intimately familiar with the text. There may have been a clearer way to present the difficult material for the wider accessibility that Opera Australia has been striving for. Perhaps it was a translation issue – the way Italians sing about love cannot be merely translated.
The costumes were a bit disappointing, looking mostly dull against the rest of the high quality production, which was a shame. The way the huge chorus scene inside a church was creatively and dynamically staged was visually interesting and effective. It seemed 3-dimensional, but also somewhat compressed, evoking the 2-dimensional feel of Renaissance art. This was a great scene with (I counted!) over 70 singers on stage.
The sets were hit and miss. As it was demanded “Open the gates!” in the dungeon, black panels opened up seemingly out of nowhere and soldiers filed through. This was more surreal than sensical. There were some dynamic and visually interesting moving shapes in the set, but some pieces were more effective than others.
Don Carlos was musically satisfying, with expert performances from the cast and the orchestra. The few times the singers were out of synch, they found their way back to their places quickly. Despite the great music, the confusing plot may alienate those unfamiliar with the political and interpersonal complexities of the story.