Film/Opera Review: Don Carlo

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This film presentation by Palace Films of the Opera di Firenze’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlo was captured live on 5 May 2017. In four acts, the screening runs close to four hours (!), which includes one short interval that featured interviews with some of the production’s creatives. These were not to be missed. So, there wasn’t really an interval at all and bladders were sorely tested! It was sung in Italian with, at times, confusing English subtitles.

Verdi was one to make numerous revisions to his operas and Don Carlo was no exception. It is so long that promoters themselves made changes by shortening it and, ultimately, Verdi made changes and ‘sanctioned’ two versions: the so-called four-act ‘Milan’ version and the five-act ‘Modena’ version. This screening is the four-act version, which commences where the first act of the Modena version would end. If one doesn’t know the difference between the two, it doesn’t really matter as it becomes quite clear to a Milan-version audience what has happened before the curtain actually rises.

The story line, which is based on historical events, is quite straightforward but there are twists and turns and, of course, there are embellishments. Carlos, Prince of Asturias and son of King Philip II of Spain was betrothed to Elisabeth of Valois. However, this soon changed when she was instead married to the widower Philip as part of the peace treaty that ended the Italian War of the 1550s.

Carlos is devastated and never loses his flame for Elisabeth. This eventually leads to his downfall at the hands of his own father. Along the way, Carlos is assisted in his endeavours by his friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, and seduced by the beautiful Princess Eboli, an aristocrat in court, who ultimately betrays Carlos to Philip when she is refused by Carlos.

In interview, Italian tenor Roberto Aronica commented that the role of Carlos traverses broad emotional territory and this presents a risk of over-acting. This sounds quite plausible but it meant that what we got instead was a very stiff and stifled performance that didn’t ring true. Vocally, however, Aronica was at the top of his game, but he bordered on being boring. The Director’s fault, not his.

This, in turn, injured the on-stage relationships Carlos had with Elisabeth and Princess Eboli. American soprano Julianna Di Giacomo sang a dutiful and mostly constrained Elisabeth who saved her very best to last with a touching performance of the aria ‘Tu che le vanità’ and the duet ‘Ma lassù ci vedremo in un mondo migliore’ with Carlos. Russian mezzo-soprano, Ekaterina Gubanova, was superlative in the role of Elisabeth. She was sassy, sexy and in glorious voice. She was so good that one wondered why Carlos was so love-struck with Elisabeth.

The performance came to life at the beginning of Act 3 with Russian bass Dmitry Beloselskiy’s moving performance of Philip’s mournful aria ‘Ella giammai m’amò’. The Florence audience was audibly moved by Beloselskiy’s passion and, unusually for a screening, members of the Palace Cinema audience also applauded!

Throughout, Italian baritone Massimo Cavalletti was exceptional in the role of Rodrigo. His acting skills are honed and his rich and resonant voice gave much needed believability to a number of scenes, especially his death scene towards the end of the opera. It wasn’t a case of singing instead of dying. One could sense the ebbing away of life. It was exquisite.

In the 1500s, the Spanish empire was so vast and spread out across the globe that it was appropriately described as an empire on which the sun never sets. This was the inspiration for Carlo Centolavigna’s set design which comprised a full stage box on which maps of the world were depicted on all walls, the floor and the ceiling. It underlined the geo-political importance of the Spanish crown and hence of Philip and his son Carlos.

Jesús Ruiz’s costuming was superb with a cornucopia of fabulously rich and decorated period costumes. The whole thing was a visual spectacular, but the visuals were spoiled by the staging of the ‘auto da fé’ scene. The scene was dominated by a ridiculously large statue of a fully naked crucified Christ. It was so large it was actually an impediment to the movement of the cast and there was no room to do anything about staging the actual burning of the heretics. Not that we wanted graphic detail but there was… nothing. The solemnity and macabre brutality of the scene was swept away.

Zubin Mehta allowed the beauty of Verdi’s rich and detailed score to come through, and the very large chorus was always clearly heard.

Don Carlo is an opera which is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a big ask to sit and concentrate for four hours, but it pays handsome dividends, and this screening, despite this reviewer’s misgivings of the performance of the eponymous role, is worth the effort.

Reviewed by Kym Clayton
Twitter: @theatrekym

Rating out of 10: 7

Don Carlo will screen again on 28 June 2017 as part of the Palace Opera & Ballet cinema season, presenting The Royal Opera House, La Scala and Opéra national de Paris – exclusive to the Palace Nova Eastend cinemas.

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Long!

Don Carlo is an opera which is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a big ask to sit and concentrate for four hours, but it pays handsome dividends, and this screening, despite this reviewer’s misgivings of the performance of the eponymous role, is worth the effort.

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