This was the first night of a second run of revivals for David McVicar's 2007 Don Carlo at Oper Frankfurt, and it's easy to see why the house has been so keen to bring it back so often and quickly; it returns early next season, too.
In interesting contrast to Richard Jones's arguably over-staged Billy Budd, McVicar chooses to place all the action—which in the five-act version takes in a variety of locations in two countries, and runs the gamut from the grandest of crowd scenes to intimate soliloquies—in just the one set, designed by Robert Jones. Constructed out of light grey bricks, it has pillars either side and a back wall which can be lowered and raised, along with the large blocks on the stage itself. It doesn't sound like much on paper, perhaps, but in the theatre, with McVicar's characteristically sure touch for the details of ceremony and courtly gesture, the results are highly suggestive and effective. Carefully thought-out personenregie helps achieve a dramatic intimacy that is contrasted with the unforgiving emptiness of the set.
The only casualties are perhaps are an initially unimposing auto da fé—crowned by a large cross at the back becoming engulfed in flame—and the scenes in St. Juste, where I missed an extra sense of dark foreboding; Elisabetta also has to pick her way around the brick blocks rather fussily in her 'Tu che la vanità'. Nevertheless, to stage such an opera so effectively with just the one set shows remarkable ingenuity, not to mention an economy that the Frankfurt accountants must have welcomed.
The costumes (by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) are finely detailed concoctions of ruff and black cloth, clearly inspired by Valasquez portraits reproduced in the programme. The introduction of similarly dressed children into Eboli's entourage in Act Two, Scene Two is also clearly influenced by the pre-pubescent royals that stare blankly from the Spanish master's canvases. Along the lines of a similar effect in McVicar's recent Covent Garden Aida, Philip enters in the auto da fé scene with an enormous, black cloak trailing behind him, momentarily bisecting the stage. The cast and chorus are all directed with care and McVicar shows his desire for dramatic verisimilitude in overruling the opera's final gesture: Don Carlo is stabbed by two soldiers, while the revelation of Carlo V becomes little more than a musical moment to bolster the drama of this death.
Musical direction is provided by Carlo Franci, who has been conducting at the Frankfurt Opera for some 35 years. His no-nonsense approach made for the occasional feeling of being rushed in the first two acts, with rubato sometimes feeling artificial, but this was an interpretation that grew in stature as the evening progressed, turning the screw as the personal and political pressures on Verdi's characters became more intense. The playing of the Frankfurt Oper- und Museumsorchester similarly grew in warmth and power, and by the final act the sound was burnished and rich, the final chords shattering.
As Don Carlo, Uraguayan tenor Carlo Ventre was not a singer to provide sophisticated Verdian lines. What he did provide, though, was a fearlessly and tirelessly sung account of this taxing role, and while there's a slightly veiled, unfocussed quality to the middle of the voice, there's no lack of power and volume in its higher reaches. Opposite him we had that rare creature, an Italian soprano taking a lead role in a Verdi opera. Annalisa Raspagliosi's Elisabetta had her moments of wayward intonation, but there was an innate feel for the idiom, and an old-fashioned sense of phrase that one hears all to seldom. Occasionally I missed that extra dash of spinto weight, and her technique did not always provide the support she needed, but this was still a portrayal to cherish.
Making his house debut as Rodrigo was Tassis Christoyannis, an ensemble member of the Deutschen Oper am Rhein Düsseldorf/Duisberg, whose Ford impressed at last year's Glyndebourne (now also on DVD). His easily produced, vibrant baritone might have a timbre a touch lighter than ideal for this repertoire, but his vocal stamina and engagingly open stage manner make him a likable and believable Rodrigo. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner's Eboli was a rather low-key presence early on, but came into her own in the later scenes, rising to a visceral 'O Don Fatale'. Kwangchoul Youn's Phillip was at his considerable best in the great opening scene of Act Four, his 'Ella giamma m'amo' movingly introspective and the confrontation with Hakan Tirasoglu's wonderfully imposing Inquisitor. Thorsten Grümbel made a strong impression as the Monk, as did the members of Frankfurt's Opera Studio, entrusted with the smaller roles.
By Hugo Shirley
Photo Credit: Wolfgang Runkel