Opera UK, November 2009
Don Carlos
Royal Opera at Covent Garden, September 15
Every regular opera-goer will understand why Don Carlos is such an undertaking: its length, its dramatic and scenic complexities, its orchestral difficulties. And then of course there are the singers: six of them, indeed, with all but one (the Inquisitor) making strenuous demands on even the best international voices. One of the reasons this revival worked so well was the way in which these voices blended or contrasted with one another with such compelling variety, showing us yet again that Verdi, despite other prodigious skills, was first and foremost a master of epic vocal confrontation.

On one side of Don Carlos, the dark triangle of the Inquisitor, Posa and Philip, these confrontations are spiky and declamatory. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Philip, the fulcrum, was well-nigh perfect here, his diction razor-edged but with an ability in “Ella giammai” to break into unexpected, heart-rending lyricism. In the Act 4 duet he was matched every inch of the way by John Tomlinson’s Inquisitor; the latter’s upper reaches were perilously strained but the soul of the part, its grim, unseeing, obstinate centre, was powerfully intact. Simon Keenlyside’s Posa fitted well into this ambience. His baritone is not conventionally Italianate, and in that sense contrasted strikingly—dramatically— with Furlanetto in their confrontation. But he is un-Italian for all the right reasons: although more than capable of a long-spun line, he typically thinks in small-scale musical shapes and vocal contours, forever alive to the nuances of individual words and the potential for musical conversation. This triangle mostly shouts at each other, producing what Verdi liked proudly to call Dramma (always with that capital D). But there’s another, made up of Posa, Elisabeth and Carlos: one that—although with moments of violent disagreement — typically blends. Here the fulcrum is Carlos, an ultra-demanding role negotiated with remarkable skill and telling effect by Jonas Kaufmann. Again the voice is un-Italian, its baritonal edge making the Act I aria rather odd, but after that he was always strongly compelling. The “shoulder-to-shoulder” moments with Posa were excellent; more memorable still was the variation of tone he used in his duets with Elisabeth—his quiet singing in the final duet produced some of the most ravishing vocal sounds I’ve heard in a long time. He was ably supported here by Marina Poplavskaya, whose Elisabeth tired a little towards the end of her Act 5 aria but whose passion and beauty of tone had until then supplied all the light we needed in this fundamentally gloomy opera. The only slight disappointment came from Marianne Cornetti, who contributed a melodramatic, rather squally Eboli. Semyon Bychkov coaxed some beautiful sounds from the Royal Opera House orchestra and made patient, loving sense out of the opera’s endlessly demanding instrumental palette.

Nicholas Hytner’s production divides the critics, perhaps because it is itself curiously divided. Moments of frank routine (the bear hugs and chest-thumps so freely exchanged by Posa and Carlos) alternate with moments of great sensitivity (the delicate choreography of that final Elisabeth-Carlos duet). Some large-scale scenes work wonderfully: the courtiers throwing down their cloaks to pave Elisabeth’s way to her marriage with Philip fits uncannily well with the musical backdrop. But why oh why does Hytner distract from Verdi’s so-carefully gradated sound-world in the auto-da-fé by having peals of Mussorgsky-like bells, a shouting chorus and (worst of all) a priest loudly calling out the inquisitorial odds? Bob Crowley’s sets are equally hit-and-miss: the prison-like cloisters, with their shafts of light suggesting constant surveillance, are tremendously evocative; but the Legoland shapes and colours that adorn most of Act 2, which just about work for the fans and skirts of Eboli’s entrance aria, seem hopelessly out of place as a setting for the stark pragmatism of the Philip-Posa duet, Of course, no directorial reading of Don Carlos is going to please everyone all the time. Dramma, as Verdi knew all too well, is a constantly shifting value. But, musically at least, this ROH revival showed the opera in something like its full glory, and for that we can be grateful indeed.

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