Monday, June 9, 2003

Don Carlo, June 2003, Cleveland Orchestra

The reason we went to Cleveland was to see the Cleveland Orchestra perform a concert version of Verdi’s Don Carlo, with Simon Keenlyside singing his first Rodrigo. The concerts were at Severance Hall, which is a very pretty hall. The lobbies are rust-colored and rosy marble, and the main lobby has paintings in the style of Egyptian friezes, representing different visual arts. The hall itself has a beautiful, high ceiling covered in stylized silver-leafed flowers and vines, kind of reminiscent of Klimt. It was refreshing to see silver used instead the usual gaudy opera-house gold. Blue velvet seats were also a nice change from dark red or—in the case of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—earwax orange.

On Thursday night, we were in the second row of the center section. The orchestra was on the stage instead of in the pit, and there was a platform for the singers. At first, it seemed like all I’d be able to see would be orchestra’s feet, but it turned out that I had a very good view of Keenlyside.

In another stroke of luck, Ferruccio Furlanetto, who was meant to play Philip II, had gotten sick and had been replaced by Sam Ramey, who is my favorite bass, so I had two-fifths of my ideal Don Carlo cast (which is: Karita Mattila as Elisabeth, Olga Borodina as Eboli, Roberto Alagna as Don Carlo, Simon Keenlyside as Rodrigo, and Sam Ramey as Philip). The tenor who was to have played Don Carlo had also backed out, but he was replaced by Marcus Haddock. I’ve heard Haddock a lot at L.A. Opera, and I’m usually bored and vaguely disgusted by him. These two performances elicited no new feelings about him.

I was really excited about these performances because Don Carlo is one of my favorite operas, and because I love Simon Keenlyside. In spite of this, I was a little worried that I would be disappointed. It was Keenlyside’s first time performing Rodrigo, and I wasn’t sure if his voice would be right for the role, since he usually doesn’t do Verdi. I was also worried that I’d compare him to Sherrill Milnes (the ultimate Rodrigo) too much, or that the performance as a whole would fail to measure up to the five-act French 1996 Chatelet version with Alagna, Mattila, Hampson, van Dam, and Meier, which is a little unfair since the Orchestra was performing the four-act Italian version. Two of my three concerns turned out to be legitimate ones, but I wasn’t anywhere near as disappointed as I feared I would be, mostly thanks to the appearance of Sam Ramey and the glorious talent of Simon Keenlyside.

The orchestra was fantastic both nights, particularly the cellist who played the solo before Philip’s aria “Ella giammai m’amo”. There were a few synchronization problems, but that was all. The chorus was okay, although their Italian was kind of mushy. Franz Welser-Möst, the new conductor, was incredible to watch, not to mention very entertaining. During Eboli’s aria on Saturday, he got very excited and was mouthing the words along with the mezzo. At another point on Thursday night, he was dancing from foot to foot as he conducted. Throughout both performances, he would breathe very noisily and sometimes make funny grunting noises. I couldn’t tell if it was because of excitement or exertion or what, but he seemed to be using the grunts to reprimand some of the string sections. He seemed very supportive of the singers, though sometimes I thought he let the orchestra play too loudly over them.

I think I have been ruined forever after seeing Karita Mattila’s performance as Elisabeth on video. I don’t usually like the female voices and tend not to pay much attention to sopranos, but Mattila’s performance is spellbinding. Her acting is perfect, and her voice is as clear and glassy as a Scandinavian lake and as silvery as the first hint of frost on a window pane. Miriam Gauci, though her part was somewhat different due to the language change and some alterations in the score, suffered greatly by comparison. She didn’t sound young at all (the real-life Elisabeth was 14 when she married Philip, though I don’t know how old Schiller, whose play the libretto is based on, intended her to be), and her transitions from the lower to upper parts of her register were ragged. When she went into her lower range (and her chest voice?), she sounded like she was trying not to burp (which could’ve been the case, since she looked like she had horrible indigestion). She also contorted her face a great deal while singing, so it looked as if she’d had a stroke. Her mother-of-the-bride, straight-out-of-JC-Penney dress didn’t help matters either. Opera singers are very well-paid; surely she could’ve afforded something outside of the softer side of Sears. I didn’t like her performance at all and felt no sympathy for Elisabeth, whereas Mattila, especially in the scene where her lady-in-waiting is sent away, can bring me to tears.

Yvonne Naef, who played Eboli, got the biggest ovations for her arias. On Saturday, after “O Don Fatale”, the conductor himself wouldn’t stop applauding until she came back onstage for another bow. She was good vocally, though some of the trills in the Veil Song seemed off, but I didn’t like her acting very much. On my video, Waltraud Meier is vocally not right for Eboli, but her acting, in my opinion, makes up for it. Naef’s acting consisted of bulging out her eyes, puffing out her chest, and occasionally sweeping her arms around. I couldn’t see her very well most of the time though, so maybe she was more convincing in other parts.

Marcus Haddock was blah. I won’t even bother comparing him to Roberto Alagna. I played the hypothetical parents game and decided that he looked like the lovechild of Dan Aykroyd and a fish. Fishy Aykroyd seems to have only one facial expression—his eyes bugged out and glassy, and his lips drawn back as though he were constantly gulping. I guess that’s what happens when your mama has gills instead of lungs. His acting did improve in the last scene with Elisabeth though. His voice is big (or sounded big at Severance), but it’s sloppy, which made it especially annoying in ensembles because he drowned out some of the other singers with his volume while not putting any effort into his style. His fake sobs during the Friendship Duet with Rodrigo were overblown, inappropriate, and unseemly.

Sam Ramey really saved the show for me. His Philip was incredibly well-acted and multifaceted. On Saturday, during “Ella giammai m’amo”, however, his voice cracked very audibly. I was completely shocked because I’ve heard Ramey many times, and he has never cracked. It was like finding out that there isn’t a Santa Claus. His “Ella giammai m’amo” on Thursday was amazing though. He got the best ovations at the curtain calls both nights, probably because he stepped in with only a week’s notice. I thought it was interesting that they placed him on a platform on the far right of the stage so that he never physically interacted with the other singers. It made a nice visual representation of the isolation Philip feels—isolated by his position as ruler of half the world, and isolated by his inability to open himself to anyone, except, later, Rodrigo. Ramey’s portrayal is a sharp contrast to José van Dam’s portrayal of Philip. Ramey seems confident and quite calm even during outbursts, while van Dam’s Philip is icy, melancholy, almost fragile, with sudden fiery outbursts of anger and an air of menace. I think either portrayal is appropriate, though van Dam’s Philip’s sadness after Rodrigue’s death seemed much more apparent and devastating than Ramey’s. However, Ramey was far more constrained by the staging than van Dam, and his facial acting was incredibly nuanced and responsive.

As a sidenote: I first heard Don Carlo in Italian, but since then have listened to it most often in French, the language in which it was originally written. Roberto Alagna has said that he feels that the French sits more comfortably on the music, whereas the Italian slips and slides over it. At first I disagreed, but now I realize that he’s right. I noticed this particularly in “Ella giammai m’amo”. I’ve been trying to figure out what the difference is, why Gauci swooped up and down so much while Mattila, in French, did not. It could be that Mattila is simply a much better singer, but my mom mentioned that Gauci was doing many of the same things that Montserrat Caballé did on the Italian recording we have, so I’m thinking it’s something to do with the languages. Maybe it’s because while vowel sounds are important in Italian, the consonants also need to be more fully enunciated, whereas in French, it seems that the consonants slip along with the vowels. I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

And finally, Simon Keenlyside. I think vocally he is quite well-suited to Rodrigo, though I perhaps would’ve liked him better as Rodrigue, which for some reason seems lighter to me. Also, if he had been Rodrigue, I wouldn’t have been mentally comparing him to Sherrill Milnes, who I’ve heard as Rodrigo, but not Rodrigue. Rodrigo isn’t a dramatic baritone role, and Rodrigue has been sung with great success by other lyric baritones, such as Thomas Hampson. I don’t know if there is a difference in the score or if Hampson chose not to sing them, but Keenlyside hit several low notes that I didn’t remember from Don Carlos (the French version). He didn’t have the true Verdi baritone sound of a Sherrill Milnes, but his Rodrigo was sensitively, dramatically, and beautifully sung. His voice sounded in the hall exactly as it does on recordings. He did use a score on both nights, but I think that he was the only singer in the cast who had never performed his role in public before. I think he wanted to have the score with him because he is a perfectionist and wanted to be certain that he didn’t make any mistakes. Having the score did hinder his acting, though the recital-like set-up also contributed to that. He definitely seems more comfortable when he’s in costume, and in this plain-clothes, no-scenery, concert staging, he seemed very nervous. He rarely looked at the other singers (though this improved on Saturday night), and he was constantly wringing his hands and nervously rocking back and forth. I had a good view of his face both nights, and it was interesting to watch his reactions. At one point, he sang “Horrendo, horrendo pace!” very loudly and dramatically, then immediately clamped his mouth shut and blinked a few times as if he were surprised that he had been so loud. Other times, he seemed kind of bored while the other performers were singing. After every line he sang, not matter how passionate it was, he always returned to the same placid facial expression. It was disconcerting, but fun to watch. His death scene improved a great deal from Thursday to Saturday, acting-wise; he acted more with his body on Saturday instead of rocking on his heels and wringing his hands (though it was very cute how he flinched at the gunshot sound on Thursday). Both death scenes were glorious to hear though. His Rodrigo is not quite to the level of Sherrill Milnes yet, but I think Keenlyside is one of the best current Rodrigos (if he adds the role to his regular repertoire), and his Rodrigo is more of a quiet, thinking idealist than a heroic warrior like Milnes’s. I think Simon Keenlyside just has a bad case of David Bowie-itis in that he can become a character when put into costume, but feels ill at ease when he is just himself (though “just himself” is incredible!).

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