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Don Carlos

Verdi
Grange Park Opera
Theatre in the Woods, West Horsley Place
to

Jo Davies’s engaging production immediately draws the audience into a candlelit monastery scene which forms act 1 of Verdi’s revised version of Don Carlos. Throughout the opera, the production makes dramatic use of candlelight, fires and clever rearrangements of Leslie Travers’s set design to take us from place to place.

Amid the candlelight, the first sounds we hear on the stage are from one of Grange Park’s greatest assets: the chorus. Consisting of a number of highly talented young professionals, the chorus of Grange Park never disappoint and they frequently combine with principals to create a formidable sound world in any ensemble or finale. This scene with the men in brown hooded robes, with its frequent major/minor changes in the chorus lines to set a suitably early music tone, sets the atmosphere of uncertainty for the rest of the opera.

Like its counterpart Simon Boccanegra, extended passages of male solo voices can slow the pace of this opera but the two contrasting voices of Leonardo Capalbo (Don Carlos) and Brett Polegato (Rodrigo) make a suitable combination.

The second scene in the Queen’s gardens again highlights the talented chorus of Grange Park. The ladies in waiting sing characteristically light and delicate music around the Princess Eboli (Ruxandra Donose). Whilst her voice sometimes seems too much for this lighter style, later in the opera when Princess Eboli sets her mighty will against Rodrigo her voice perfectly dominates the ensemble to reflect her character’s power.

King Philip of Spain shows his rule of iron when the Queen is left alone in the garden and he dismisses the lady-in-waiting who should have been with her. Of course he is unaware that the Queen was secretly meeting with Don Carlos but the audience were certainly moved by his lack of compassion for the young girl when he sends her back to France. Clive Bayley (King Philip II) provides a suitable vocal contrast to the other male roles and cuts a vocally powerful figure at the end of the opera. Despite his ability, his various solo scenes throughout the opera frequently seem disconnected dramatically. Although the mental anguish is conveyed through fine singing, the lack of movement in these scenes leave the audience watching a more two-dimensional figure.

Throughout the opera, there isn’t a great deal of physical contact. Perhaps this is designed to convey the formality of the court but, despite the large amount of pacing from Don Carlos in his love-stricken scenes, it is only in the fantastically noble bearing of Elisabeth (Marina Costa-Jackson) and the dominating presence of Rodrigo that the movement feels purposeful. The chorus are well choreographed throughout and they add as much to the staging as they do to the music. Indeed, when combined with the chorus, Brett Polegato (Rodrigo) and Leonardo Capalbo (Don Carlos) show the clear divisions in the empire and their friendship as the King rejects a plea from the people of Flanders.

The later scenes show both the cunning of Princess Eboli, who is in love with Don Carlos, and the dilemma facing Elisabeth. Both leads give stunning performances with Marina Costa-Jackson’s rendition of "Tu che le vanity conosce" proving a hit with the audience and giving particular feature to the excellent brass section of the tight ensemble of the English National Opera orchestra under Gianluca Marciano.

This is a revival of a previous highly successful Grange Park production and, though it received good reviews back in 2016, it was disappointing to see empty seats in the auditorium this season. Don Carlos should be a dark tale, albeit with a picnic interval in between, and both the physical and vocal aspects of the production take us from the pleasant Surrey countryside into the dramatic landscape of suspicion that is Verdi’s Don Carlos.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis