Sunday Times, 20 September 2009
Hugh Canning
[Linda di Chamounix and] Don Carlo
The unfairly neglected Donizetti rarity alongside a revival of Nicholas Hytner's 2008 production of Verdi's Don Carlo
Photo: © Robbie Jack/Corbis
The strains of Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem have barely stopped resounding at the nation’s village (aka Albert) hall, and the Royal Opera season is already up and running. Five days before the last night of the Proms, proceedings at Covent Garden opened with the first of two concert performances of a Donizetti rarity, Linda di Chamounix, while a revival of Nicholas Hytner’s 2008 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo raised the curtain on staged opera proper.

Hytner returned to revive his disappointingly stolid staging of Verdi’s magnificent Schiller-based opera, but he hasn’t, alas, improved it. I am still at a loss to fathom how a designer as talented as Bob Crowley managed to conceive such ugly, unatmospheric settings for the Act III Garden and Auto de fe scenes — the tormenting of the heretics suggests Blackadder-style parody rather than the most serious grand opera ever written. The cast appear uncomfortable in their period costumes and the entire show looks undisciplined, a Don Carlo-themed fancy-dress party, instead of a great political drama.

With his expansive yet tautly dramatic conducting, Semyon Bychkov restores the dignity and grandeur lacking in Hytner’s staging to Verdi’s magnificent score. He revels in the evocation of a romantic moonlit night in Carlo’s botched nocturnal tryst with his stepmother. This is a darker, gloomier reading of the score than Antonio Pappano’s volatile, more Italianate account last year, but equally rewarding. He has the advantage over Pappano of not having to nurture a struggling Rolando Villazon as Carlo and an Elisabetta, Marina Poplavskaya, who ran out of vocal steam in time for her big final act solo. The Russian soprano, strikingly blonde and elegant, if vocally glacial, has improved out of recognition this time round, even if her pitch sagged at the end of her aria. Villazon’s replacement, the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, attempts something I have never heard before in a Don Carlo, a fundamentally introverted, poetic soul, capable of heroic heft when needed. His mezza voce in the closing bars of the final duet were spellbinding. Both he and Simon Keenlyside’s elegant Posa would probably be happier singing in the original French. Marianne Cornetti’s busty and gutsy Eboli unbalances the lyricism of the youthful leads, but she matches up to the lung power of the three star basses the Royal Opera luxuriously casts as Philip II (Ferruccio Furlanetto), the Inquisitor (John Tomlinson) and the Emperor Charles V disguised as a monk (Robert Lloyd). For Bychkov and these singers the revival is unmissable. ....

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