There’s something relentlessly dark about Verdi’s Don Carlo. King Philippe and his son, the eponymous Don Carlo, are both very troubling characters, the former power-hungry and vengeful, the latter plagued by desire for his stepmother. Standing next to them are the stepmother herself, Elisabeth, and Don Carlo’s friend, Rodrigo, who are both models of selflessness, but suffer the consequences of their generosity of spirit. Light relief is provided by Princess Eboli, but as the drama progresses even she despairs her fate, suffering the consequences of her jealousy and loose tongue.

Sade, Frontali, Guriakow, Scandiuzzi © Matthias Creutziger
Sade, Frontali, Guriakow, Scandiuzzi
© Matthias Creutziger

In an opera so saturated with anguish and misfortune, it seems at first surprising that only Rodrigo dies, but in fact this lack of death makes the darkness more all-consumingly dense. With death comes release, and hope of a better future, but in Don Carlo the characters are doomed to continue the tragic trajectories of their lives.

At Dresden’s Semperoper all this darkness is transported directly onto the stage, with the entire performance taking place on a chessboard of skulls sunk into the stage and surrounded by plain black nothingness. The costumes also exude darkness, with Elisabeth providing a pinnacle of bright white light among the shadows. Even the pomp of the larger scenes brought little respite, with the majority of the colour coming in the form of deep reds and blues, which heightened rather than diluted the sensation of blackness.

Singing the title role, Neil Shicoff is a powerful tenor, with a big and penetrating voice. He’s a tenor who is clearly phased by nothing, no matter how demanding, and who spins his phrases, both forte and piano, with a level attention and control that few tenors could match. While his somewhat piercing voice may not be to everyone’s taste, what he does with it is extraordinary. His voice is perhaps also suited to this character, who isn’t warm and approachable, but deeply complex and intriguing. It also contrasts well with Christoph Pohl’s warm and lyrical bass-baritone voice, which maps flawlessly onto Rodrigo’s kind-hearted personality.

In the role of King Philippe, Matti Salminen is unwaveringly majestic, with all the solidity and seriousness the role requires. Salminen’s aria in the opening moments of Act III is one of the highlights of this production, with a unerring sense of dramatic direction, and a full, smooth sound. Reluctantly, though steadfastly, at the King’s side is Elisabeth, sung by the wonderful Marjorie Owens. She is one of the Semperoper’s greatest stars, and really lives her character’s tragedy both physically and vocally.

While this performance was thoroughly enjoyable, there are some questionable dramatic choices in this production. On stage music was usually composed as such, especially in the 19th Century, with musicians from the orchestra taking to the stage. Here, as in other Semperoper productions, the director has made the choice to have singers mime with instruments on stage, which is not only unnecessary, but visually jarring and unappealing.

But perhaps the greatest tragedy of the whole evening came in the form of mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn. She is another member of the Semperoper’s wonderful ensemble, and has a beautifully rich and sumptuous voice. Her opening number in Act I is a veritable firework display of everything a mezzo-soprano should be, rich in the lower register, agile in the middle, and rich over the top. Sadly much goes wrong in her final and most dramatic moments, with major vocal malfunctions affecting the high notes throughout her aria in Act III, spoiling an otherwise commendable performance, though hopefully such issues will be overcome for future performances.

The Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden were as impressive as ever, with Pier Giorgio Morandi coaxing a red-blooded and dramatic performance from the players. Throughout, there were moments where the balance was less than ideal, with the orchestra overpowering the singers in the fortes, but with such a big voiced cast this was rarely a problem.

This is a great production, and the wonderful musicians and singers who bring it together only add to the excitement and drama of this tense and harrowing opera.

***11