Any opportunity to see Don Carlo(s) is difficult to resist, and happily it’s possible in Berlin to allay any sorrow at missing the Royal Opera House’s latest revival with the fact that both the Staatsoper and the Deutsche Oper have it on their Spielpläne this season. This was the penultimate performance at the former, and I'm already eyeing dates at the latter—although Anja Harteros’s planned appearances there in the Deutsche Oper’s Verdi-Tage next May are likely to also be on several people’s radar already.
At the Staatsoper we had the standard four-act Italian version. Philipp Himmelmann’s 2004 production is an austere, concentrated affair with one main idea, as far as I could tell, that it sticks to with admirable persistence: domesticating the grand world-historical forces that define the drama (or at least as Verdi and Schiller portray it).
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Eating, drinking and even ironing played a constant role: Elisabeth feeds the Comtesse D’Aremberg a slice of consolatory cake during ‘Non pianger, mia compagna’; in a clever little touch we get a hint of Philip’s philistinism as he merrily over-salts a dish before tasting it; the whole evening climaxes with a distraught Elisabeth having to pour tea for the Grand Inquisitor.
Eboli is perhaps most interestingly developed in this new take on the piece, portrayed as a voracious vamp in the Veil Song, at the head of what looks like the militant wing of St Trinians. She often appears in striking silhouette at the back of the stage—Johannes Leiacker’s set, helped by Davy Cunningham’s lighting, makes powerful use of sliding panels—and features, to powerful effect, at the start of the introduction to ‘Ella giammai m’amo’, finishing off a clearly joyless sexual encounter with Philip.
Marina Prudenskaya performs the role magnificently, turning in an impressively agile Veil Song and an impassioned, powerful ‘O don fatale’ and throwing herself gamely into all the challenges of the production. René Pape’s Philip also gains in complexity as a character from the encounter at the start of his big scene. He sings in powerful, smooth phrases throughout, but achieves touching melancholic grandeur here, the scene leading into a compelling encounter with Mikhail Kazakov’s implacable, bitingly sung Grand Inquisitor.
Fabio Sartori’s Carlo is tirelessly sung, offering real ringing power if the occasional rough edge. Massimo Cavalletti (one of two late replacement Posas) has a pleasingly grainy and Italiniate sound. He was a little inconsistent at the top of the voice early on, but settled down for a potent account of the death scene. Lianna Haroutounian remains a very decent Elisabeth and sings with commitment and, especially in the impressively focused top of the voice, technical security. but for me doesn’t quite command the regal quality—vocally or theatrically—that the role demands.
Similarly, Massimo Zanetti’s conducting here failed for some of the evening to capture the dark grandeur of Verdi’s score, occasionally feeling a little efficient. There was some terrific playing from the Staatskapelle (to which one can add the pleasure of hearing this opera in the relatively modest Schillertheater), though, and Zenetti’s account seemed to gather accumulated weight as it went along.