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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

Giuseppe VERDI, Don Carlos at The Royal Opera in Stockholm, February 12, 2005 (GF)


This production of Don Carlos was premiered on December 11, 1999 but this revival has several new singers, however. Directed by Friedrich Meyer-Oertel, with sets, costumes and light design by Maren Christensen, it is played in period costumes but set in neutral, restrained sets. The actual settings are just hinted at with a few props, the atmosphere created with colouring, half-transparent curtains and the hydraulics of the stage machinery. The “clean” stage picture means that the action comes to the foreground; it also means that very short pauses have to be made between the many scenes in the drama, which makes this, the longest of Verdi’s operas, feel short and compact. Including one interval after Act III it takes less than four hours – and still, this Stockholm version is unusually long since the director has opted for inclusion of several usually cut passages to clarify the action.


That the performance hangs together and never feels long-winded is something the conductor, Pier Giorgio Morandi, has to take credit for. He never goes to extremes, but he moves things on; he is rhythmically alert and he can build climaxes to impressive effect. Once or twice one can get the feeling he is missing a dimension of the drama, Philip’s monologue in Act IV being one example. The orchestral prelude is finely played with the wonderful cello solo beautifully realised but it is too “outward”. And when Philip sings his soliloquy it becomes more like a public proclamation. Jaakko Ryhänen sings it magnificently, of course – what a wonderful singer he is! – but still I would have liked it more scaled down, which it is on the Naxos recording made shortly after the premiere in 1999, where Ryhänen also took the part. But this is an exception. In general Morandi’s interpretation is outstanding.


Just as in the Tosca performance I reviewed at the beginning of January, the orchestra played exceptionally well. Badea then, and Morandi now, are obviously the right conductors to raise Hovkapellet (The Royal Court Orchestra) another inch or two from an already high level. Morandi is no newcomer to the Royal Opera, however: he conducted exquisite performances of Norma a couple of years ago, and that he is appreciated by the musicians was obvious from the fact that the orchestra gave a touche.

The opera chorus were also on their best behaviour in this taxing opera. Mainly, in this staging, the chorus is treated as a collective, moving in groups, dressed uniformly. The great auto da fé scene is an obvious example where the heretics, brought to the stake, are individuals sticking out from the broad mass of the people, who in their turn are dressed in Mao-like costumes and move almost mechanically. The soloists act to a great extent “formally”, as befits nobles from the 16th century, with gestures, positionings and movements stereotyped. The exception is Don Carlos himself who lurks around like in a dream. The costumes are in general sober in colour, although Elisabeth in virginal white and Eboli in sinful red stand out.


The singing is also outstanding and to a large degree this was the singers’ afternoon. I have already mentioned Jaakko Ryhänen as Philip. He has been singing great parts in Finland - and all over Europe - for many years now and is approaching 60, but there is no evidence of vocal decline. It was always a magnificent instrument, a true bass with enormous power to fill even the largest hall, and at the same time such a beautiful voice. There is something of Kim Borg’s warmth in it. If Ryhänen’s voice is big, then Hans-Peter König’s is even bigger. He has enormous presence, not through his acting, which in his part as the Grand Inquisitor is rudimentary anyway, but his voice has that thunderstorm quality that makes you want to seek shelter. I heard him in the same part in Helsinki not long ago and was equally impressed. A third bass with a good voice, although not of the size of the two already mentioned, is Lennart Forsén in the small part of the monk.

At the other end of the voice spectrum we find Hillevi Martinpelto, who was also in the original production and also on the Naxos recording. And here I felt a bit hesitant when I walked to the Opera House, since on the recording she sometimes sounds strained and shrill. After five years, however, Martinpelto now exposes a perfect Lirico spinto voice, clear as a bell, beautiful and with the impressive ability to expand at climaxes. She also acts convincingly within the confines I mentioned earlier. I think with hindsight, that in 1999 she was still too much a lyric soprano, for whom Elisabeth de Valois was a number too large and now her voice has grown into the role.


Young Martina Dike, who has gone from strength to strength over the last few years, makes an Eboli where the sparks flew. She is powerful, intense, absolutely steady and the end of ‘O Don fatale’ almost knocked out the audience. The two friends Rodrigo (Posa) and Don Carlos are also excellently done. Jesper Taube’s baritone may not be king size but it is a fine voice with a manly timbre and he uses it intelligently. As an actor he has authority and in the death scene he also shows his lyrical qualities.

So does also Badri Maisuradze, especially in the duet with Elisabeth in the final scene of the opera. Otherwise, this Georgian singer has a large, powerful tenor with shining high notes. I heard him a little more than ten years ago when he was one of the three prize-winners in The Jussi Björling Tenor Competition, held in Borlänge, Björling’s birthplace. Even then he made an impression and a decade of singing big roles in important opera houses has made him develop further.

To sum up, The Royal Opera in Stockholm have come up with another trump card. A great evening!

Göran Forsling

Jaakko Ryhänen as Philip, Hans-Peter König as Grand Inquisitor, Jesper Taube as Rodrigo, Martina Dike as Eboli: © Alexander Kenney, Royal Opera in Stockholm, February 2005



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