It is heart-wrenching to watch a curtain call at the end of a live stream of an opera with no applause in an empty house. How discouraging it must be for the artists not to be greeted by a cheer from the appreciative audience. Frank Hilbrich's bleak and unflinching new production of Don Carlo at the Hungarian State Opera needs a cathartic release. The modern production draws parallels between the sufferings of the oppressed in the historical drama (the Flemish, heretics) and those whose sufferings are more recent, including victims of the Holocaust, refugees of wars, even the victims of the pandemic in the auto-da-fé scene. Volker Thiele's stark sets consist of groups of white steps, with narrow landings for action as well as for entry. The back of the stage is shuttered until close to the end, when it opens up to reveal a desolate void. The lighting is outstanding in creating atmosphere and Gabriele Rupprecht's costumes are stunning. 

The auto-da-fé
© Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera

There is a fair amount of violence on stage. Elisabetta is carried off at the end of Act 1 as the chorus, in somber black, having shed their earlier colorful costumes, dance around in frenzy. The monk in Act 2 is saddled with a round ball made up of books, perhaps signifying conventional wisdom, which he pushes up the steps, only to have it tumble down upon Carlo. During their Act 2 friendship duet, Carlo and Rodrigo engage in friendly horseplay, hurling around a yellow Flemish flag. Tebaldo is raped by the ladies while Eboli sings her Veil Song. The King mercilessly takes away the ring given by Elisabetta to the departing Countess. The Grand Inquisitor’s attendants wear a canine head and crawl around in executing crowd control. They burn books, remove the shoes of heretics and display them on steps, as if in reference to the Holocaust Museum exhibit, before cutting out their tongues. The King and Eboli are in an embrace during the prelude to his famous aria “Ella giammai m’amò”.  Carlo is suspended upside down at the beginning of the jail scene. After a tender moment with Elisabetta as she sings her desire for death, the monk greets Carlo atop the stairs, only to stab him. Elisabetta screams as Carlo tumbles to his death.

Csaba Szegedi (Posa) and Gaston Rivero (Don Carlo)
© Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera

Against the backdrop of this relentless cruelty, the director takes care to create distinct characters who must contend with his/her own private torments. They are distinct individuals with their weaknesses, desires and despairs, alone in a hostile world. The soloists were excellent in responding to the directorial concept of unique characters at the mercy of forces beyond their control. In the title role, Uruguayan tenor Gaston Rivero, the only non-Hungarian among the principals, displayed a strong ringing voice and endless stamina, coupled with a shapely legato and beautiful soft singing. His open and clear vocalization fitted the role of the naive and ultimately doomed prince. Csaba Szegedi as Rodrigo was another delightful singer with a voice of heroic and bright timbre, effortless in his assumption of a complex character caught between friendship and duty. András Palerdi as the Grand Inquisitor, accompanied by canine attendants, made the most of his brief scenes, singing with frightening menace and power as he yielded his bass voice as the straightforward arrow of a fanatic. Géza Gábor, as a youthful monk, was another standout, impressive in his agility in singing and acting. It is not often that one remembers the monk as such a vivid character.

Gaston Rivero (Don Carlo) and Zsuzsanna Ádám (Elisabetta di Valois)
© Valter Berecz | Hungarian State Opera

Young soprano Zsuzsanna Ádám, singing Elisabetta, was a major treat of the performance. Her voice initially struck me as a bit heavy, but while her voice is deep and rich, it can also soar to a beautiful pianissimo while scaling the heights of the melodies. Her voice production is even and unaffected; she simply opened her mouth to sing exquisite phrases and powerful longings. Two veteran singers, Gábor Bretz as Philip II and Erika Gál as Eboli, dominated with their magnetic stage presence and authority. They brought years of experience to their singing and yet sounded fresh and vibrant. Bretz’s bass is gravelly but not cloudy, with a remarkable range of colors to express arrogance, irony, fury and resignation. The Philip–Posa duet at the end of Act 2 was one of the highlights, exciting and profound. Gál’s “O don fatale” was a tour de force, as her Eboli traversed the emotional arc of the troubled woman.

The orchestra, conducted by Balázs Kocsár, played with beauty and finesse, and the horn section was particularly impressive with their expansive playing.  

This performance was reviewed from the Hungarian State Opera's live video stream