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The triumph of Don Carlos
By Joel Kasow

PARIS - The long-awaited run of Don Carlos settled in at the Châtelet for seven performances before heading off to the other houses which participated in financing the production: Covent Garden at the end of this season and Brussels, Lyons and Nice next season, the casts varying in accordance with local tastes and budgets. Attention was focused on Roberto Alagna in the title role as he had at one time considered relinquishing his part as too heavy. Fortunately, he confounded all those who were prophesying doom and the end of a spectacular talent with a portrayal full of energy and the kind of singing we have come to expect. That he was singing in French was a great advantage as it seems to evoke an instinctive response, a reaction we have already witnessed in performances of Roméo et Juliette or Faust. At one or two moments the passions came to the fore, but by the time the portrayal has matured he will have calibrated his performance perfectly while retaining the freshness which makes him special.

A cast which looked fascinating on paper even though wildly heterogeneous had been tightly prepared by producer Luc Bondy and conductor Antonio Pappano so that their disparate qualities were all used to maximum advantage. José van Dam's Philippe II today lacks the lowest notes of the role, but the complexities of the character are very present. Thomas Hampson in the pivotal role of Rodrigue, Marquis de Posa sang with the elegance we have already remarked in his earlier ventures into the French repertoire, enjoying the extra opportunities offered him in this version. Eric Halfvarson's well-sung Grand Inquisiteur did not erase memories of either Hermann Uhde or Martti Talvela who were literally spine-chilling.

Karita Mattila's Elisabeth de Valois was very much flesh and blood, perhaps more than court etiquette would have allowed, but her generous performance in all senses left me open-mouthed in admiration. The weakest spot was the Eboli of Waltraud Meier, vocally at sea even if dramatically exciting.

Antonio Pappano deserves all credit for coaxing the Orchestre de Paris to give the sort of performance of which they should regularly be capable. Luc Bondy's production started off reasonably well, despite the occasional touch to indicate that there is a world surrounding the protagonists, but after the first interval such incidents became increasingly numerous to the discomfort of many in the audience. The decors of Gilles Aillaud varied from an atmospheric 1 and 2 to an auto-da-fé all in cheap pine or the King's bedroom which was not as stifling as one might wish. Moidele Bickel's costumes preserved a period flavor while looking as if they might not be out of place today.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this production was the use of the original French text which often sits better on the music than the Italian translation to which we have become accustomed. Bondy and Pappano along with Andrew Porter sifted through the various scores - original, dress rehearsal, premiere, Naples revision and final versions - to come up with their own hybrid, sometimes inserting earlier material in the middle of ensembles later tightened (Philippe-Posa duet) or replacing the final version with the first (Act Four Quartet). Where a section was simply cut and never reinstated there is something to be said for exhumation. But the occasion to hear some of Verdi's music as originally set, including sections removed and never replaced, is unique. You will be able to judge for yourselves when the EMI live recording is released.

Will the identical text be used in each of the co-producing theaters or will the various conductors have other preferences? Let me know.

How do you feel about Verdi being sung in French, a topic which the French seem to think not worthy of consideration even though non-French musicologists are all in favor of a return to Verdi's original.

Click here for Operanet's interview with Roberto Alagna

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