In the Power of Don Carlos
Astana Opera invites residents and guests of the capital to get acquainted with the world classical masterpiece – Verdi’s opera Don Carlos. The entire opera house is now in the power of the composer: orchestra musicians, choir singers and soloists are rehearsing onstage, workers of the Scenic, Costume and Prop Shops are making the very last alterations. The premiere will take place on October 11 and 13 under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
Italian stage director Davide Livermore, who on October 1 has received the most prestigious award of the operatic world – Opera Star International Opera Award 2019, also called the ‘Opera Oscar’ as the Best Director, is working at the Astana Opera not for the first time. The Maestro staged grand opera productions of Puccini’s Turandot and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Davide Livermore noted that he has a great responsibility to present the opera Don Carlos for the first time in Kazakhstan, and that he must pull out all the stops to make the people here love Giuseppe Verdi even more.
“We will strive to make people feel the power and importance of this score. This opera, in addition to political strife, speaks of each character’s loneliness. On the one hand, a person can be rich and have great power, but on the other hand, he turns out to be lonely and unhappy,” Davide Livermore said.
There are almost no ‘passing’ characters in this opera; all six main parts play a leading role in the plot development and musical material. The composer created many hits for all voices – tenor, baritone, three (!) basses, soprano and mezzo-soprano. The opera is designed for leading singers who are able to fill one of Verdi’s most emotionally affecting compositions with drama.
The title role of Don Carlos is dynamic, with many dialogues and actions. The part of Carlos has been present in all outstanding tenors’ repertoire since the middle of the last century.
Medet Chotabayev and Naoyuki Okada (Japan) are preparing to perform Don Carlos.
“I like the melodiousness of this opera, its excellent music. Right now there is an active rehearsal process, and each of us is striving, making every effort to ensure successful performances that the audience would love. For me, this is a new field where a great deal of work remains to be done and showing high skill is paramount, this part opens up new opportunities. Working with our entire production team and, of course, with the director Davide Livermore is very interesting for me,” Medet Chotabayev says.
A Look behind the Scenes
Voluminous historical dresses adorn the Astana Opera Costume Shop. It is hard to imagine how many rolls of fabric it took to make them. It is known that it took about 120 meters of trim for one costume. The fabrics must reflect the historical era, but it is extremely difficult to find such non-modern materials, they simply are not used today. Costume designers Sofya Tasmagambetova and Pavel Dragunov are great masters of their craft; they were able to realize the director’s most incredible ideas.
“I really like the process of working on this production. At first it seemed rather complicated. Having understood the era, plunged into the costume history of that time, my attitude to the production changed. Costumes of the Spanish nobility of that era are very stylish. This applies to fabrics, styles, cuts and even trimming. I admire the fantasy of people of that time who came up with such outfits. The plot itself suggests gloomy atmosphere, and the costumes are respectively executed in dark colors. But due to the finish, they look striking: braid, brocade, gemstones, brooches and pearls give them a special allure,” Sofya Tasmagambetova says. “Our task was concrete – the director wanted the production to be historical. The costumes of this era are spectacular; however, in this production they do not literally repeat this period, they are only stylized according to it. All the productions are grand at the Astana Opera and it is always enjoyable and interesting for us to work in close tandem with the company of this opera house.”
Costume designer Pavel Dragunov was responsible for men’s costumes. He said that the time period of the opera was moved two generations forward.
“Our costumes were created according to the laconic canons of fashion during the reign of King Philippe IV. I started from the work of the great painter Diego Velázquez. He is one of my favorite painters, I consider him one of my teachers. In addition to theatrical projects, I do portrait painting. This era is close and easily understandable for me. At that time, the nobility wore austere, ascetic clothing, usually of black color. The Inquisition did not approve of pompous adornment, for example, lace collars, especially for men. Therefore, a variety of textures were often used, the combination of which added decorativeness to the garments. The outfits were very complicated, sophisticated, despite the fact that they are extremely laconic, as in Velazquez’s paintings, where you can even see the stitching on the clothes of the depicted characters. The asceticism of this era can be determined by the costumes’ collars, the fashion for them changed rapidly: from a cartwheel ruff to a laconic rounded collar.”
Not only expressive costumes, but also large-scale sets that will change quite often will engage the audience. Set designer Cristiana Picco has very fresh and interesting ideas, which were not easy to implement for the Astana Opera’s Scenic and Prop Shops. The production is unique in all aspects; it does not repeat directorial ideas of other international opera houses.
“This is a monumental production. Astana Opera has a large technologically fitted out stage, which allows showing the historical version in an interesting way and demonstrating the full scale of this opera. We will present the Italian four-act version. Monumentality lies not only in the lengthy running time, but also in the fact that we will show different sets: the church, the monastery, the throne room, the King’s office, as well as magnificent gardens in the scene with the queen. In this production, like in no other, we used all the capabilities of stage machinery, scenic lifts, which allow us to create an unexpected appearance of the King. In addition, for the first time, stage technology is applied with five motorized paths that move the sets. We use frontal and rear projections, and we also have a multi-ton construction, divided into three parts. Some set elements will be located at different heights: cages, cells, dungeons, in other set pieces we will see hatches and windows that open. I am sure that throughout the performance the audience will receive an emotional charge,” Victor Carare, Deputy Director for Design, Production and Building Maintenance, said.
Abundant props, on which the craftsmen have been working for two months, will complement the sets.
Here are the embroidery frames made using the 17th century technology, but they can be used even today. Flags, standards, halberds, épées that are quite durable for fencing and fans have already been handed over to the soloists for work onstage. Perhaps most of the time was spent on making a small sculpture – a cross, two and a half meters tall, with the weight of 8 kilograms. Torches, the red lights of which look very natural, will illuminate the gloomy pictures of the palace. Prop masters did painstaking work inlaying various small details with stones. In addition, they skillfully carved a bell out of wood and painted it to appear bronze, inserting inside a tiny bell that will make a sound. The queen’s trunk was faced with aluminum; in the places of сriss-crossing they made special rivets that create the appearance of forging.
The Astana Opera Voices
The role of Élisabeth de Valois is assigned to the opera stars Maira Mukhamedkyzy and Zhannat Baktay.
“Everything is complicated in the part of Élisabeth: both vocals and acting. What does it mean to be a queen? It means that you need to show regalness, a special plastique of movements, grace. Élisabeth is young, smart and powerful. It is important to create a portrayal in such a manner so that the audience believes that I am a queen. Before this part, in my repertoire there were only young women who are in love or dying. Now I am exploring this character: trying to understand what she thinks, what she feels. Élisabeth, a woman who is deeply suffering, loves Don Carlos wholeheartedly, but retains her honor in the name of the King. When I rehearse, every time I think about how complicated their life is. For example, the entire world lies at King Philippe’s feet, but he suffers from the fact that he is not loved. At such moments, I understand that I am a happy opera singer, because I have the opportunity to try on the fate of different characters, and then become myself again,” Maira Mukhamedkyzy said.
Zhannat Baktay considers the part of Élisabeth very interesting.
“This is a new for me lyric-dramatic repertoire, in contrast to the usual lyrical-coloratura parts. Élisabeth is lower in tessitura than Eboli, thus, in a vocal sense, of course, it will be difficult. Vocal coach from Italy Ala Simonishvili worked with the singers and, even before meeting with the director, some work had already been done. The opera is big and the pressure lies not only on the artists, but also on the listeners, who must be prepared, read the libretto, and feel the atmosphere of that time. I like my heroine, because she is a loving woman, but, unfortunately, her dreams remain unfulfilled. I have experienced partners, we worked a lot together and have come a long creative way.”
Baritones Sundet Baigozhin and Talgat Mussabayev are preparing the part of Rodrigo di Posa – the King’s confidant, friend of Don Carlos. The artists note the main trait of their hero – honesty and dignity.
“This opera is considered one of the most difficult, not only by Giuseppe Verdi, but also in the entire world opera. The main difficulties lie in the vocals, because, for this opera, incomparable voice control – ‘belcanto’ – is required from the singers. Rodrigo – the role that I perform – is a man of his word, of honor. He worries about the people and their future. He tries with all his might to change the life of people oppressed by the brutal Inquisition, giving his life in the name of faith in the future, real friendship and bright ideas. We are all happy this production will be added to our repertoire. At the moment, in collaboration with the wonderful director Davide Livermore, with whom we have been working not for the first time, we are seeking new ways of interpreting this character in order to implement them,” Talgat Mussabayev shared.
Kings Can Do Everything…
Barseg Tumanyan performed Philippe II at different international venues many times, but he clearly remembers his first appearance onstage in the role of the King.
“The first time I performed this part in Los Angeles, my stage partner was Placido Domingo in the role of Don Carlos. No matter how many times I worked on this portrayal later, each time I think how to make it different. This is a very interesting opera not only in terms of music, dramatic content and people’s relations, the plot shows on what kind of falsehood an empire was built, and what kind of sacrifices people were ready or obliged to make. Philippe II, known in history as the most bloodthirsty king, was able to create Spain through the Inquisition and faith (church). Director Davide Livermore stages this opera very symbolically, every gesture here has meaning.”
For Evgeniy Chainikov, like for many other singers, this will be a debut performance.
“Just recently, I switched to the bass repertoire and this is my first major bass part. Maestro Livermore is confident that the role of Philippe II suits me not only in voice but also in appearance. I get great pleasure from working on it, I feel very harmonious in this role. This spring, I performed the opera Il Matrimonio Segreto in Spain, in Barcelona. There I had an opportunity to visit ancient castles, museums, and also the performance of Sara Pereyra Baras – one of the most famous flamenco dancers in the world. Incidentally, flamenco dance is also present in our production. I was very inspired by the Spanish atmosphere and this helps me to convey the spirit of the Spanish people onstage today.”
The sounds of the orchestra do not cease in the rehearsal halls. The musicians, led by Music Director of the production Maestro Alan Buribayev, are searching for new musical colors, working on phrasing and rhythms. The Principal Choirmaster of the Astana Opera Yerzhan Dautov hones the artists’ skills in the fiendishly difficult chanting choir in the auto-da-fé scene and the monks’ choir.
The opera Don Carlos stands out from the entire context of Giuseppe Verdi’s work, but remains one of the greatest creations that came out of the composer’s pen. The versatility and complexity of this opera is a real challenge for any opera house and the Astana Opera will certainly master this task!