If there is a scene that is the heart and soul of Don Carlo, or Don Carlos, as OperaAustralia insist on calling it, it is that big scene for Filippo at the start of the third act. First of all he pours out his heart lamenting the fact that he is married to someone who has never loved him, who he should never have married. Then, he is joined by the Grand Inquisitor, who proceeds to tell him what he should do, and threatens the king, showing clearly that despite his temporal power, he is only there at the mercy of the church, and possibly also because he is easier to control than who might follow. It is also the big showpiece for the bass playing the king, being the time when he gets to allow himself to be the man, rather than the monarch and husband. In the right hands it can be a riveting piece of singing acting that shows the man behind the crown. In the wrong hands, it becomes a piece of indulgence that holds up the story.
Needless to say, in this production we had the master of this role, singing as if he has lived this life, slipping into the troubled King's shoes as comfortably as we might our favourite pair of slippers. And what a treat, to see and hear the definitive Filippo of our time, live in the flesh! When his opening notes of the monologue, which he effectively sings into his hand that is supporting his head, and which are still clarion clear at the back of the theatre, you know why this man has the reputation he does. That he can do that, and make us care for this tyrant who we already know is responsible for the death of thousands, such is the power of his performance. Oh, and the power of Verdi's masterful writing too, of course.
And yes, having Ferruccio Furlanetto sing this role was the reason I had decided that this would be a must see performance, even before I knew we had Latonia Moore in the role of his wife Elisabetta de Valois. As probably the current Aida of choice for opera companies everywhere, her performance in the theatre here a few years ago remains something I will not forget. If this was not quite that potent a performance, I do think that it is one that she will grow into, with a few more outings, till it is the equal of her Aida. So, think not incredible, but merely very good. This is a queen being torn apart by duty vs emotion, who fell in love on first sighting the young man who later becomes her stepson. Yes, I know, only in opera! To be sure, that glorious voice with its beautiful creamy high notes is still glorious, and the ability to put into a look so much feeling that it carries to the back of the theatre was there. But I still think that she has more to give in this role, I do not think she has plumbed its depths yet and lived with it long enough to build the strength of characterisation that makes her Aida so devastatingly good.
Then we had the Rodrigo of Jose Carbo, a role I know he has long wanted to play, and clearly relishing the opportunity he has been given. Hearing someone you used to sing with a significant number of years ago living up to their potential is always a thrill. When they are singing in such exalted company and showing they belong there too, it is a magical thing. Needless to say, he lives the role, and he is singing better and better each time I hear him, pouring out the sounds in a way that clearly shows he knows the role backwards and lives the meaning of all of it. His death scene was especially well sung.
I mentioned before the Grand Inquisitor (played by Daniel Sumegi) who has that delicious snarling duel of a scene with the king. I did not mention that he was played and sung beautifully. He clearly plays someone who is used to getting his every demand met, who has grown old and yet remains still very much the feared arm of punishment that the church uses to bend others to its will. The somewhat harsh sound that he produced was just right for the elderly but still in control priest.
I also have to say, for a small chorus, we get a lot of sound out of them. The start of the auto da fe scene may have been a bit quiet where I sat, but by the time the chorus were all on stage and not at the back, the sound was impressive. It is a scene that never quite makes sense to me, but Elijah Moshinsky has tried to make it work. To modern sensibilities, being excited over people going to their deaths will always be a big ask. But, he tries, and succeeds in making us see some at least in the crowd are excited.
I will say however, that the casting of Diego Torre as Don Carlo was not something I was overly pleased with. To be sure, he has the ability to sing all the notes, and sing them in a way that ensures he can be heard by all. The problem is, I am not sure it is a voice I want to hear. In the first half, he came across as having a harsh overtone somehow, or maybe it was an awkward resonance the theatre was picking up. I want to say he has the voice of a tenor villain, but I can't think of any tenor villain that needs to be that loud, apart from maybe Grimes. Either his voice improved in the second half, or I got used to it, but he still remained someone who could only sing loud or louder, which was grating against the nuanced performances of the other singers. He also did not convince me that he was still madly in love with his mother in law, which while a stretch for anyone, is essential for his character to be believable.
Also in the less than successful department was our Princess Eboli, Milijana Nikolic. Constantly drowned out in ensembles and at times seeming to run out of breath in her two big arias in awkward places. Last time I heard her in Verdi (as Azucena) I was impressed at how well she took on the role and sang it. This time, I was constantly thinking she was trying to sing a role that is much too big for her. It was quite odd. Of course, having to sing alongside some very big voices would not have helped, but it was a surprising let down given her Azucena was most impressive.
Now, having said all that, I have to say, who in their right mind when setting up the bows puts the unsatisfactory tenor in the title role in as the last to bow in a cast, when you have two big names in opera in leads? Well, apparently our national opera company do. I could not believe they did not put Furlanetto on last, as quite frankly, he was what made this a special night. He deserved it, both for being the big name star in the company, as well as being far and away the best performer in the cast.