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Don Carlos in Toronto

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
10/12/2007 -   - and 17, 20, 23, 25, 28, 31 October and 3 November, 2007
Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlos

Mikhail Agafonov (Don Carlos), Adrianne Pieczonka/Joni Henson (Elisabeth de Valois), Guang Yang/Mary Phillips (Eboli), Scott Hendricks (Rodrigue), Terje Stensvold (Philippe II), Ayk Martirossian (Grand Inquistor), Nathalie Paulin (Thibault), Zdenek Plech (Monk/Spirit of Charles V), Jason Collins (Comte de Lerme), Adam Luther (Royal Herald), Virginia Hatfield (Celestial Voice), Jon-Paul Décosse, Alexander Hajek, Niculae Raicu, Andrew Stewart, Justin Welsh (Flemish Deputies)

John Caird (Director), Johan Engels (Set Designer), Carl Friedrich Oberle (Costume Designer), Nigel Levings (Lighting Designer), Denni Sayers (Movement and Assistant Director)

Paolo Olmi (Conductor), Sandra Horst (Chorus Master)

Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Don Carlos is a solid musical and dramatic success that is unfortunately undermined by monotonous design. The company (in association with the Welsh National Opera) has taken on the ambitious project of the five-act “original” French version, giving us an evening of three hours and forty minutes of music. Conductor Paolo Olmi(replacing COC General Director Richard Bradshaw who died suddenly on August 15) leads a thoughtful, securely-paced performance of the sombre-hued work.

The singing is, on the whole, as good as one could hope. Standouts are the two leading ladies, Adrianne Pieczonka as Elisabeth and Guang Yang as Eboli. The latter is especially adept in portraying all the character’s moods, from coquettishness to anger to remorse. Also singing strongly in her shorter role is Nathalie Paulin as Thibault. Her full voice is especially welcome as the page gets to deliver one of the key lines in the work when he announces that Elisabeth is to marry King Philippe instead of Prince Carlos. In the fourth female role,that of the Celestial Voice, Virginia Hatfield is appropriately soaring and rapturous.

Mikhail Agafonov gets off to a tentative start in the title role. He made a fine impression in Toronto last season in Luisa Miller, however this time his opening aria is stiff and awkward with little of the fluidness the piece demands. For the rest of evening, however, he sounds just fine, with the voice soaring superbly in duets, trios and larger ensembles.

Scott Hendricks modulates his lean, well-focused baritone to great effect throughout. As King Philippe Terje Stensvold displays impressive tone, although his French is unclear. He portrays a man who, though weary of power, is used to seeing his commands obeyed. Ayk Martirossian handles his part well. He isn’t as thunderous a Grand Inquisitor as some, although a huge voice is incongruous from a character who is supposed to be in his nineties. (A voice like the Emperor Altoum’s might be more appropriate - but that is not what Verdi wrote.) The role of the mysterious monk/sprit of Charles V is attractively sung by Zdenek Plech.

The Flemish Deputies make a notably beautiful sound and the chorus is reliably expressive. For the most part the French language comes across with surprising clarity with much credit due to language coach Rosemarie Landry.

John Caird moves the large cast effectively and the relationships between the various characters are always clear. Credited with “movement” is assistant director Denni Sayers. She is presumably responsible for Thibault’s acting out of the story told in Eboli’s Veil Song, a lively and amusing episode that constitutes the work’s only - and welcome - scherzo interlude.

Caird departs from the usual stage directions in his handling of the fates of Rodrigue and Carlos. Instead of being shot, Rodrigue is stabbed by a caperuzo-wearing agent of the Grand Inquisitor. (The caperuzo - or capirote - is the ominous face-covering with pointed hood that the Ku Klux Klan adopted from Spanish catholicism.) In the opera’s final scene, instead of having Carlos taken into the monastery by the monk, the hooded assassin reappears, first putting Carlos’s eyes out before finally dispatching him. While the music Verdi composed for these moments makes a rather subdued accompaniment to such grand guignol action, the gruesome picture is in keeping with the brutality of the inquisition which we witnessed in the earlier auto-da-fé scene. With respect to it, I’ve seen productions in which the torture of the victims was so luridly portrayed as to spark audience laughter, and others where it is kept safely off-stage. Caird’s depiction strikes an effective balance between the explicit and the suggestive.

Nigel Levings also did the lighting for Billy Budd a few seasons ago (another production from the WNO) and won a local theatre award for it. His eloquent lighting in Don Carlos is equally award-worthy. It’s too bad that it fails to alleviate the dreary unatmospheric sets of Johan Engels. In 2004 I saw another of his designs in Britain’s Opera North’s production of Puccini's Il Tabarro where, instead of the Parisian quayside, he gave us an empty freight container. If you want to conjure up an anomic noplace, more suited to a Samuel Beckett play, he is obviously the designer for you - although why such an approach would be considered appropriate to full-blooded Italian opera escapes me. Is black paint that much cheaper than any other? Admittedly the plot and settings are very dark and I have seen other productions that lapsed into the same visual ennui even while adopting a historicist approach to the designs.

Engels’s partner in drabness is costume designer Carl Friedrich Oberle. The stodgy modernish garb of the opening scene’s refugees makes them look more like a group of disgruntled excursionists whose picnic just got rained out. The overall effect is suggestive of Franco’s Spain and the argument behind such updating seems to be that since Schiller and the opera’s librettists constructed a fiction about historical figures, why bother with a historicist design. However, such an approach renders the plot even more incongruous given the 20th century setting, and in this case treats the audience to almost four hours of unrelieved drabness. It’s not as if the Toronto audience has had a surfeit of ruffs and doublets - the last Don Carlo here was in 1988. If anything, the anachronistic trenchcoat has become the trite symbol of the trendily updated operatic production regardless of the composer.

As it stands this is a solid and worthy production, lacking only the engaging panache a more varied visual experience (whether historicst or updated) could bring.

Michael Johnson



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