Vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas
Monte‑Carlo (Grimaldi Forum)
11/22/2023 - & November 24, 26, 2023
Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo
Ildar Abdrazakov (Philip II), Sergey Skorokhodov (Don Carlo), Artur Rucinski (Rodrigo), Joyce El‑Khoury (Elisabeth de Valois), Varduhi Abrahamyan (Princess Eboli), Alexey Tikhomirov (Grand Inquisitor), Mirjam Mesak (Tebaldo), Sophie Boursier (La Contessa d’Aremberg), Madison Nonoa (Celestial Voice), Reinaldo Macias (Marquis de Lerma), Vincent Di Nocera (Herold), Giorgi Manoshvili (A Monk)
Chœur de l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Stefano Visconti (chorus leader), Orchestre philharmonique de Monte‑Carlo, Massimo Zanetti (conductor)
Davide Livermore (stage director), Diego Mingolla (assistant stage director), Giò Forma (sets), Sofia Tasmagambetova (costumes), Antonio Castro (lighting), D‑Wok (videography)
(© Marco Borrelli)
It’s always a delight to attend a performance of Don Carlo, indisputably one of Verdi’s finest operas. It’s also Verdi’s most Meyerbeerian opera, premiered as it was in its original French language version, in five acts, at the Paris Opera in 1867, in the style of Meyerbeer’s spectacular “grand operas.”
These had historic themes, such as the plight of the Protestants in France, in Les Huguenots, or the blasphemous John of Leiden in the Netherlands during the early days of the Reformation, in Le Prophète. They also involved dazzlingly grand spectacle and a quintet or sextet of superlative singers covering every voice: usually a tenor and a soprano for the amorous couple; mezzos and baritones for rivals, confidants or parents; a couple of basses might be additional parents or evil conspirators. There lies the difficulty in reviving Meyerbeer’s operas, or those written in his style: a potentially ruinous budget is needed to mount the elaborate productions, in addition to the difficulty and cost of finding five or six lead singers.
L’Opéra de Monte‑Carlo’s production of Verdi’s masterpiece was a felicitous affair, thanks to a nearly perfect cast of singers, and to the brilliant staging by one of Italy’s best and brightest stage directors. Davide Livermore captured the spirit of the opera: the burden of power and man’s powerlessness facing destiny. In fact, the recurring image of the celestial heavens and the rotating circle in the center of the stage are an assertion of this predicament.
The opera solemnly opens and closes by a statue of Emperor Charlemagne in the center of a rotating circle. A monk reflects on the futility of earthly power: “Ei voleva regnare sul mondo, obliando Colui che nel ciel segna agli astri il cammino fedel. L’orgoglio immenso fu, fu l’error suo profondo.” The tone of the opera is set.
The sets were simple but far from modest. The huge stage afforded depth in most scenes and hence a sense of the grandiose whenever needed. The imaginative use of video projections of relevant art masterpieces of the period was more effective than any elaborate set.
One would have a hard time choosing a favourite among the well‑chosen cast. Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov was an imposing Philip II. His stage presence was regal and yet he subtly conveyed his fragility vis à vis his rebellious son, particularly in his Act III “Ella giammai m’amò”. He subtly showed both deference and defiance in his duo with the Grand Inquisitor.
Polish baritone Artur Rucinski was an ideal Rodrigo, virile and poised. His baritone is beautiful and warm and his Italian diction exemplary. His Act IV, “Per me giunto è il dì supremo” followed by “Io morrò, ma lieto in core,” was one of the opera’s strongest moments.
Armenian mezzo Varduhi Abrahamyan was a deluxe Princess Eboli, her voice rich and stage presence hard to surpass. Stage director Livermore chose to dispense with the traditional eye patch (as the historical figure was blind in one eye). This defect would have diminished Eboli’s imposing character. Her Act I “Nel giardin del bello” was charming and tastefully sensual. The Act II garden scene with Carlo was riveting. To see and hear her change mood as she realizes Carlo was expecting someone else at this nocturnal tryst was chilling. Her irony and rage were blatant in the ensuing trio “Trema per te, falso figliuolo”. Her phrasing of “Ed io, che tremavo al suo aspetto” was paramount. The Act III “O don fatale” elicited huge applause. With her substantial vocal abilities, Abrahamyan could have easily tried to steal the show, as many mezzos are wont to do, but that would be beneath her.
Lebanese-Canadian Joyce El‑Khoury was an incandescent Elisabetta, an introverted role that requires total immersion in the character to be effective. The role of Elisabetta can be overshadowed if the soprano doesn’t have the necessary charisma, and there are very few sopranos that can convey the complexity of the character. This is a French Princess, initially engaged and attracted to the young Crown Prince Carlos, who ends up marrying his father Philip II. In the original five‑act version, we witness the courtship of Carlos and Elisabetta, as well as her acquiescence to marry his father to ensure a peace treaty between France and Spain. Elisabetta is no plebeian; she is a woman of rank compelled to master her feelings no matter how burdensome. This patrician character can often make Elisabetta seem cold. El‑Khoury manages to espouse this noble demeanor while maintaining her humanity–no mean feat. Though a lyric soprano, El‑Khoury has ample vocal means and abundant musicianship to excel in this lirico spinto role. The Act II aria, “Non pianger, mia compagna” was effective, and her phrasing superlative. Her final act aria, “Tu che le vanità,” was the vocal highpoint of the evening.
Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov was a convincing Don Carlo: rebellious, tormented and amorous. He possessed the vocal means for the role but his voice is definitely not Italianate enough. In dramatic moments, he sounded slightly metallic and unpleasant. Nonetheless, he convincingly portrayed Carlo as passionate and introverted. His first act aria, “Io la vidi,” was lyrical and resonant. His duet with Elisabetta, “Io vengo a domandar,” was passionate and allowed him to display the frailty of Carlo’s character.
Though I prefer the original French version to the Italian, and while I lament the omission of the Fontainebleau initial Act in this four‑act version, I could also see the merits of this shorter version. With just one intermission, this grand opera–Verdi’s longest work–passes like a breeze. Mercifully gone are the days of an intermission after every act. This would have resulted in three intermissions, interrupting the flow of the opera and jeopardizing its dramatic strength.
In the hands of Davide Livermore, the drama is centered on the futility of power rather than on a superficial recounting of historical events or on a sentimental approach of the thwarted idyll of Elisabetta and Carlo. Despite ruling the largest empire of the day, Philip II has to sacrifice his favourite courtier and friend Rodrigo, accept a loveless marriage and risk the loss of his son. Indeed, all is vanity!
Ossama el Naggar