I wanted to see this because I will hear Verdi’s Don Carlos (Don Carlo when it’s in French) any chance I can get but also because the Elisabeth in this production is Anja Harteros. When I saw the DVD of Harteros as Alcina one of the aspects of that performance that struck me was those lovely high floated pianissimos. And Elisabeth is a role that contains a lot of high ethereal pianissimos.
Elisabeth (Elisabetta in Italian, but I think the slightly stand-offish French spelling with the ‘s’ is most appropriate) is a more interesting character than she initially appears. There needs to be a balance between her vulnerability and essential powerlessness and the sort of steely, almost cold determination to do her duty which makes her agree to the marriage and keeps her at arm’s length from Carlos for most of the story. Harteros’s Elisabeth doesn’t have as much steely determination as some I have seen/heard, e.g. her ‘si’ assenting to the marriage early on is more confused and hesitant than it is the assent of someone who has already resolved that this how it has to be. But whoa does this ever sound good. The long, soft phrases in ‘io vengo a domandar . . .perduto ben’ were beautiful. The section of that duet before Carlos faints and then Elisabeth’s aria ‘non pianger’ led to tears for me (but there are sections of this opera that nearly always make me cry – it’s something intrinsic to the music itself rather than performance-specific). And ‘tu che la vanita’ in the last act was heart-stopping.
Anna Smirnova as Eboli kept forcing me to change my mind about what I thought she was up to. When we first hear her in the scene outside the monastery (the bit with the veil song) you might get the impression of ‘oh, this is another battleax Verdi mezzo’ – she’s got the wide vibrato and the whole sort of Battleax Verdi Mezzo vibe. But there is more to it than that. There are moments of a kind of gentle delicacy in how she does the ornamentation in the veil song that I found striking, and more of that same gentleness in the scene with Carlos in the garden, between when he discovers she’s not Elisabeth and when Eboli figures out he loves the queen and loses her temper. (It’s the ‘salvarti poss’io’ / ‘I can save you’ bit). The bottom half of her voice does not have as much volume as the top – I lost her now and then in the first part of the trio with Carlos and Posa, although this may be related to the placement of the microphones. But I don’t think it’s all about microphones. The first part of ‘o don fatale’ where she’s cursing her beauty doesn’t have quite as much punch as the second section, beginning with ‘o mia regina’ — but the style is right, and the emotion makes sense, and the applause is well deserved. This is one of those productions, though, where her revelation to Elisabeth that she was the king’s mistress seems to come kind of out of left field, because Eboli and Philip never so much as look one another in the eye through the entire course of the opera. However. That is not Smirnova’s fault.
And I should also mention Laura Tatulescu as Tebaldo/Thibault, because she succeeds — not all Tebaldos manage it — in not being irritating and also sounding really sweet and fluty and treble-y in that first scene in the forest.
This is more a comment about what I think is interesting about this opera than it is about Jonas Kaufmann, but Carlos was probably the least arresting part of this for me. Kaufmann’s voice has a dark edge to it that I find pleasant. He plays this in the sort of ‘tormented young man’ mode, with ample assistance from his hair, which is perhaps the platonic ideal of ‘tormented young man’ hair. He sounds a little rough now and then, but this works, and I have no complaints. His first duet with Posa (Boaz Daniel) sounded oddly detached, as if both the characters’ minds were elsewhere – but I think this is deliberate. This production pushes Posa’s ambiguity, how he’s caught between loyalty to his king and his ideals and his desire to protect Carlos. Daniel sounds nice – I enjoyed the play between the vocal line and the orchestra in his scene with Philip (before Philip warns him of the Inquisitor). It is not his fault that he is persistently upstaged by his glove.
In terms of the men, the huge wonderful standout is René Pape as Philip II. ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ gave me the cold shivers. If I had paid any money to see this performance, I would cheerfully pay again in order to hear him a second time. He’s also the best part of the duet with chorus in the scene after Posa is shot.
Some of the ensembles don’t seem to quite mesh perfectly — e.g. the brief little Charles V/Carlos/Posa one in Act II. In some places I felt as if I could hear each line perfectly (the Posa/Elisabeth/Eboli trio in Act II when Elisabeth is reading the letter Posa has given her) and in others things got murky, e.g. with the Elisabeth/Eboli/Posa/Philip quartet in the scene following ‘ella giammai m’amo’ I kept losing Eboli, but again this may be microphone placement and also I kept getting distracted by Harteros.
So. This performance glued me to my chair for three and a half hours. I have an opinion about the production itself too, but that can probably wait.
[update: more on the production here.]