, 16 September 2009
Richard Nicholson
The Royal Opera – Don Carlo [Kaufmann, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Bychkov]
Photo: © Robbie Jack/Corbis
This production is already taking on the appearance of a classic as early as its first revival. A great deal of artistic, particularly musical endeavour has been invested , which for a successful performance of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” arguably needs more than the four greatest singers in the world as stipulated by Caruso for “Il trovatore”: five or six if you include the Grand Inquisitor would be nearer the mark, not to mention the substantial role of the chorus and the fact that, as a French grand opera, scenic spectacle and a wide variety of musical styles have to be embraced and it is clear the heights to which the Royal Opera is aspiring; no routine repertory opera this.

This is only the third production of this great but enigmatic work in fifty years at Covent Garden. The legendary 1958 staging marked the centenary of the present house and represented a collaboration between the designer/director Luchino Visconti and the equally fastidious conductor Carlo Maria Giulini. It was regularly revived for over forty years, by which time the original trompe l’oeil sets had long lost their freshness. The 1996 Luc Bondy staging using the French text, originally displayed at the Châtelet in Paris, was minimalist in scenic terms and that great bass-baritone José van Dam was miscast as Philippe.

This revival of Nicholas Hytner’s production benefited from an outstanding cast, even if a degree or two short of the highest level. Most significantly, the switch to a more reliable exponent of the title role made the relationships at the heart of the work more absorbing and not sidetracked by vocal anxieties. The main attraction among the 2008 cast was Rolando Villazón, who could be counted on to bring pathos to the role. He, as is well known, has been going through a period of shaky vocal health, with cancellations and spells of convalescence. A broadcast from the initial run shows a portrayal of maximum intensity, with tone swollen by emotional energy transmitted through vocal equipment perilously weak for it to bear, something which tenor-watchers had feared and predicted since he came upon the scene.

His successor Jonas Kaufmann has had a career roughly contemporary with Villazón’s but has appeared to own a more robust instrument which allowed him to sing within his resources. A couple of rusty high notes in his Act One aria could easily be excused; an exquisite use of mezza voce announced the singer had engaged with the sensibility of the character. For the heroic declamation of the Act Three public scene he found sufficient weight of tone to hold his own against his raging father, while the long, high lamenting lines of the trio earlier in the Act rang out in powerful confirmation that he realised a turning point had been reached in his life. He retained plenty of stamina for the farewell duet at San Yuste.

Another newcomer to the production is the American Marianne Cornetti. The original Eboli, Sonia Ganassi, basically a Rossini mezzo, though nimble enough in the ‘Veil Song’, was stretched by the heavy dramatic writing elsewhere. Heavy, dramatic mezzos are currently in short supply but Cornetti is of the right sort, an Azucena and an Amneris. She was comfortable at both extremes of the range in the ‘Veil Song’, which was a little restrained vocally. Her jealous fury on discovering that Carlos’s affections lay elsewhere was delivered in tone as impenetrable as teak. Conversely, her remorse before the Queen was movingly conveyed and she offered a rip-roaring ‘O don fatale’. Marina Poplavskaya is a most promising lyrico-spinto soprano with a glowing ruby-red middle and a hauntingly expressive chest register. If her top notes do not yet always burst into flame she is probably right to develop that sort of vocal excitement slowly.

Arguably Posa was the character for whom Verdi wrote his least progressive music in the opera. Though the duet with King Philip in the Second Act embodies the flexible form of evolving dialogue unconstrained by formal rules that is characteristic of the mature Verdi, Posa has three other solos, an elegant romanza in the monastery garden scene and two, one after the other, in his death scene which are conventional. The big duet with Carlo famously ends with a crude C major passage in thirds and sixths which has long been held as a black mark against the composer, at least outside Italy. I did not feel that the role particularly suits Simon Keenlyside, who has made a distinguished career mostly in parts which are physically active and in bold characterisations. Here he has to portray a resigned figure in the prison scene, even if he did achieve the feat of singing most of ‘Io morro’ lying with one cheek on the stage floor!

The central theme of the opera, to which the love interest is really subordinate, is the battle between church and state. Ferruccio Furlanetto dominated every scene except one in which he appears as King Philip. He wants control and asserts it most obviously in his cruel dismissal of the Queen’s lady-in-waiting. Even during his wife’s farewell to her he can be seen casting sideways glances in her direction, looking for confirmation of his suspicions about her. In the auto-da-fé scene his response to Carlos’s appeals is withering. The cry of “Insensato” had me cowering in fright. His colossal bass voice was firmly focused and his enunciation of the text consistently lucid. I do not remember Christoff, Ghiaurov or Ramey producing greater torrents of sound than this. The scene with Posa had found him stalking the Marquis, getting right in his face when accused of resembling Nero but the first signs of insecurity were present as his confided his fears to him. The great aria, for which Semyon Bychkov set tempos noticeably faster than usual, came from a nervy man rather than from a tragic figure and only the final utterances were forcefully sung, The king’s weakness was underlined by the following duet with the Grand Inquisitor, which he began meekly kneeling. Then, when the Inquisitor went on the attack Furlanetto’s tyrant was left completely trounced. He even met his match for vocal power in this inspired piece of casting: The thunder of John Tomlinson’s Wotan voice only faltered on a very few cloudy high notes.

The third bass role of the Monk was sung by Robert Lloyd in a voice imperceptibly changed from his heyday. Whether this was a living human being on his final appearance or an apparition was unclear. Pumeza Matshikiza was a chirpy Tebaldo, prominent in every scene in which she appeared, while the clean sound of tenor Robert Anthony Gardiner contains promise of a career in the lyric repertoire to come. He and Eri Nakamura, a bell-like Voice from Heaven, are members of the Jette Parker Young Artists Scheme. The Flemish deputies made a positive effect vocally as well as dramatically.

Bychkov’s conducting matched that of his predecessor Antonio Pappano. His handling of the orchestral commentary which Verdi writes, especially for the duets in which the work abounds, was telling. The dramatic moments were thrillingly done yet there was subtlety also. In the introduction to the first scene of Act Three statements of the theme of Carlos’s opening aria overlap; his encouragement of each group of players to produce a distinctive colour in these sequences was a memorable moment in the performance. The Chorus excelled itself to an exceptionally high level of vocal standard and musicianship, which Choral Director Roberto Balsadonna is nurturing and managing admirably. These singers’ ability to move smartly into position before attacking their music impeccably was particularly noticeable in the auto-da-fé scene, where the mob had to be corralled against the side wall at the appearance of the monarch.

Nicholas Hytner’s production avoids the excesses of a ‘concept’ staging and characterisations are incisively drawn. The central portrayal of Don Carlos as immature is established in the first scene. He initially approaches Elisabetta, then withdraws bashfully. They indulge in a playful chase with the portrait. Yet there is an erotic daring about him, as he edges closer to her off the two tree-stumps on which they are seated. It comes as no surprise when his libido overflows in the Act Two duet. He stalks her; even when the physical approach is repulsed he crawls over the ground, attempting to trap her train. In the garden scene, expecting her arrival for an assignation, he lies supine in an overtly sexual pose. I was perturbed by his treatment of Posa’s visit to Carlos in jail, however: they pawed each other in a way which suggested that the two men had more than a platonic friendship. Can this have been intentional? Hytner’s handling of all such encounters is responsive to the rhythms of the musical development and his blocking of choral groups such as the ladies-in-waiting during the ‘Veil Song’ thoughtful. The one big mistake is to add sound effects to the scene in the square in Valladolid. The crowd’s shouts of enthusiasm drowned out the stage band (its co-ordination with the orchestra in the pit was extremely well-disciplined) while gratuitously abusing the heretics, each of whom was offered the opportunity to repent by a supernumerary priest not envisioned by the work’s creators.

Bob Crowley’s scenery has elements that are clearly symbolic, such as the portcullis wall which descends repeatedly, cutting off Carlos and emphasising his isolation. Mark Henderson’s lighting is less contentious, the shafts of light piercing the gloom of the monastery highly evocative, as is the lighting of Philip’s study, which left us wondering what might be there in the murky depths of that large space.

While appreciating that The Royal Opera wanted to choose a complete version of this score as approved by Verdi, rather than creating its own jigsaw of the best bits from miscellaneous versions, I would have liked to see the 1866 introduction to Act One (cut before the première the following year), in which the hardship suffered by the peasantry and Elisabetta’s compassion are more strongly drawn (and in fine music), unlike the perfunctory treatment they receive in the shortened version. The quiet ending of Act Five with monks chanting which Verdi originally wrote also seems to me preferable. As it stands, however, this is a triumph.

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