, 16 September 2009
Dominic McHugh
Don Carlo
Photo: © Robbie Jack/Corbis
Like Schubert's so-called 'Unfinished' Symphony, Verdi's Don Carlo never reached a definitive form, and we don't even know which language to perform it in or whether to call it Carlo or Carlos. Four acts or five acts? With or without the ballet? It's anyone's guess.

So I suppose it's also a matter of opinion how it should be played and staged, and if the audience reaction at the first revival of Nicholas Hytner's production of the piece at Covent Garden is anything to go by, both his direction and Semyon Bychkov's conducting are a public success. For me, though, the production's problematic elements are no better on this second outing, while Bychkov's reading was a vast disappointment.

The first problem with the production is that it's not scenically coherent. Bob Crowley's designs veer between literal representation and complete symbolism. The forest of Fontainebleau is shown with its bare trees and snow on the floor (the latter created by a piece of white material which was tripped over twice), but when Carlo is left alone at the end of the act, the camp fire and snow are dragged to the back of the stage while a prison-like wall symbolically moves down to show how he's been trapped by his position into being separated from his lover. It's so awkwardly done that the point loses its power. Then we have the cloister at San Yuste, which is once again made risible by the sight of the tomb of Charles V whizzing about the stage electronically.

Eboli's Veil Song is backed by a Lego-brick wall and a field of poppies painted onto the backcloth, while the King's study is implausibly bare. Worst of all, perhaps, is the auto-da-fe, which has some kind of blood-stained image of Christ projected onto a curved wall, while the back shows a golden edifice with three doors, which is spoilt by the presence of a jarring red backdrop behind it. The best scene, I find, is the prison where Posa is kept locked away: the massive walls which have lurked at the sides until now suddenly come into their own. It's still rather odd to have a line of armed soldiers across the extent of the stage watching Posa, however, and it undermines the intimacy of the all-important final encounter between Posa and Carlo.

The other issue I have with the production is that the direction has not had the necessary effect on the cast. Several of the key monologues – most notably Philip's and Elizabeth's – go by with almost no noticeable directorial imagination coming into play, even though these are some of the most psychologically-probing moments in opera. There's a general lack of passion and fervour, too, which is crucial in an opera whose story, to be frank, doesn't always make much logical sense if emotion isn't the key motivator. After all, clarification of the story and its impetuses was the key reason for Verdi's revisions.

What surprised me more about the performance, though, was Bychkov's conducting. A sensitive interpreter of Boris Godunov, The Queen of Spades and Lohengrin at the house in recent years, Bychkov is now firmly established on the London opera scene, and I confess that I had taken his success in Don Carlo for granted. Many of the same characteristics of the earlier operas were present: in particular, it was obvious that every gesture was deliberate and carefully calculated, and the degree to which markings of articulation in the score were performed was astounding.

But I'm afraid that on this showing, his feeling for the Italian repertoire is not yet instinctive. There was a metronomic precision to his speeds, but taking so much of the score at a slow tempo was absolutely detrimental to the performance, in my experience. I've never heard the opening of the auto-da-fe taken so slowly, even on record, and most of the big numbers, including 'Tu che le vanita' and Rodrigo's death scene, dragged on without nuance. One aspect of the problem was inflexibility towards phrasing: often the singers needed to expand or move in and out of a phrase with a fluctuation of tempo, as is characteristic of this style of music, but Bychkov was almost metronomic in his beat, causing singers to struggle with long or high phrases (such as the King's line in the Act 4 quartet). Life and energy were seriously lacking as a result of this, which is a huge shame: few conductors can get so much colour out of an orchestra as Bychkov can, but what's needed now is a more visceral approach.

The cast was also sadly uneven in many respects, but with a lifelessness in the conducting and unfocussed staging it was difficult to be convinced by the performance in its entirety. For many, the main draw of the evening was Jonas Kaufmann's Carlo, and after a strained cavatina he was indeed excellent. Both physically perfect for Carlo and intelligent towards the text, Kaufmann contributed heavily to the evening's successful aspects.

Returning from the original production, both Marina Poplavskaya (Elisabetta) and Simon Keenlyside (Posa) gave similar performances. Poplavskaya has grown as an actress and her control over her voice has likewise improved so that she now fills the house impressively, but her tone is still thin at the top where strong money notes would have greater impact, and for me she could still be more impassioned and less cold. Keenlyside is no natural Verdian, either: one could not even slightly criticise his commitment, musicality or intelligence – he deservedly won loud applause at the curtain call – but compared to someone like Cappuccilli his vocal performance is too small and lacking in the golden edge and heft of the great Verdi baritones. It's also curious that he didn't have as much dramatic impact as Kaufmann in this performance, so he almost seemed more suited to the character of Carlo than the strong revolutionary Rodrigo.

Ferruccio Furlanetto is back, too, as Philip II, but at this performance he didn't always sound at ease with Bychkov's tempos. One of the conductor's quirks was to have the opening line of 'Ella giammai m'amo' sung very quickly, in rhythm, rather than drawn out with the sobbing emphasis that is usually given to it (not least in Furlanetto's performance last time around). I'm not sure it works, and although the bass looks great in the part, his overall performance was less imposing than last time. Marianne Cornetti made a strong debut as Eboli, slicing through the orchestra easily with her hefty instrument and commanding the stage easily. The Veil Song requires too much flexibility from her – she had a slightly wide vibrato – and it didn't have the effortless feel that's needed, but 'O don fatale' had the requisite thrilling effect.

In smaller roles, Robert Lloyd was once again an excellent Monk, and this time Sir John Tomlinson played the Grand Inquisitor. Tomlinson's stage presence and expressivity are always a wonder to behold and he was perfect as the corrupt master of religion, but the role lies rather high for him in places, which was a shame. Young Artist Eri Nakamura was absolutely superb as the Voice from Heaven, and Pumeza Matshikiza put in a good performance as Tebaldo, too.

The problem, perhaps, is that Covent Garden's seen quite a few stunning Don Carlos in its time, and even in my relatively short opera-going lifetime the ROH performance of the piece at the Proms with Haitink, Hvorostovsky and Borodina and the Luc Bondy production with Mattila, Alagna, Hampson and Urmana were both far more memorable than the current revival. To perform this piece is always a great achievement, and the chance to see Don Carlo is rare enough in Britain to make it worth seeing; however, on the basis of this showing it would seem that neither Bychkov nor Hytner can yet compete with their forbears.

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