The Organ

Don Carlos

Welsh National Opera
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
17th September 2005

It has taken ten years for the vision of Anthony Freud and Carlo Rizzi to come to fruition. If ever there was a need for justification of a new home for Welsh National Opera, this was it. There is no way Verdi's breath-taking masterpiece could have been squeezed into the New Theatre, nor to some of the touring venues, but here everything came together as envisaged a decade ago, and if anything better than could have been expected.

I have already written about the magnificent acoustic of the Centre but I had not expected the Bayreuth-like acoustic to prove so malleable. The gentlest accompaniment to the love duets, the sinister introduction to the Grand Inquisitor, are as clearly realised as the most bombastic moments. It is like the best hi-fi equipment - if I may be allowed the comparison - for there is no distortion at either end of the spectrum, all is clear, focussed and immediate. Under these circumstances five hours fly by almost too quickly, and yes it is five hours for this is as full a version as we are ever likely to hear, assuming the ballet continues to be cut!

Learning the work in the Solti version at the ROH I have always felt it somewhat truncated if the Fontainebleau act is axed and in Cardiff the inevitability of the action across the five acts in John Caird's careful staging made me realise how necessary the length actually is. Verdi seeks to set the intimate tragedy of Don Carlos and Elisabeth against the full force of international politics. It is as if Wagner had given Tristan a full historical context!

Consequently we are swept along by graphic choruses, interposed by the closet intimacy of the palace. For this John Engels' set works exceptionally well, its bleak nightscapes set with banks of steps on three sides, and immense hanging crosses, both symbolic and suggestive of forest and emotional labyrinth.

Visual focus is always on the soloists and their quasi-historic costumes by Carl Friedrich Oberle are socially pointed while avoiding unnecessary detail. Ten years is a long time to plan a cast and it would be interesting sometime to find out who was considered but had to be dropped as time passed! In the event this is one of strongest casts WNO have put together for some time led by Nuccia Focile as a feminine yet steely Elisabeth. Paul Charles Clarke is a vulnerable Don Carlos, obviously emotionally disturbed by events, yet his voice cuts through at the top in thrilling form.

Scott Hendricks makes a young Posa, active and virile throughout and vocally exciting, a fine contrast to the malicious gravity of Andrea Silvestrelli's Philippe. Guang Yang is a more sensitive Eboli than I had anticipated, her solos seemingly made in the face of a fate she cannot control. She was rapturously received and rightly so. This was a splendid interpretation. There was the faintest hint of booing for Daniel Sumegi's Grand Inquisitor at the end - nothing I am sure to do with his singing - but his characterisation was so repulsive one almost wanted to hiss! The Inquisitor is the only one to gain anything from the events as they unfold. His machinations manage to destroy everything around him that is potentially good or pure. It is an uncomfortably parable.

The orchestra, as hinted above, was fully responsive to Carlo Rizzi's deft handling, and how lucky the Company are to have him still so securely in charge.

Catch it if you can at:
24 Sept Cardiff
11 & 15 Oct Edinburgh
22 Oct Llandudno
29 Oct Oxford
5 Nov Birmingham
19 Nov Bristol
3 Dec Southampton
10 Dec Liverpool