Since the Italian version has not been performed by the company since 1989, it's about time that Don Carlo returned to the repertory of the Royal Opera. Considered in some quarters to be Verdi's supreme achievement, the piece juxtaposes the inner turmoil of the heart with the external dual dominating forces of the Church and the Monarchy: this is chiaroscuro on a grand scale.
The occasion is distinguished thanks to Antonio Pappano's absolutely magnificent conducting of the score: he's never done finer work here. But Nicholas Hytner's new staging – a costly co-production with the Metropolitan Opera and the Norwegian National Opera – is, for me, a disappointment. Many years in the planning, and a rare venture back into opera direction by the National Theatre's current Director, the production satisfies few of Verdi's more interesting dramaturgical ideas, says nothing new about most of the themes elaborated in the libretto and strikes me as rather limited in its stagecraft.
Almost without exception, the big arias and monologues were delivered with no attempt at expressing the text, be it Elisabetta's 'Tu che le vanita' or the King's great soliloquy. The fourth-act quartet is more effective, with Filippo supporting his wife while she lies on the floor in distress, and elsewhere there is some exploration of Carlo's epilepsy and fits of madness. The opening tableau is arresting enough – Elisabetta and her companions are seen hunting in the forest – and it's relatively effective to have a huge wall come down before the end of Act I to divide Carlo from Elisabetta and imprison him at the moment when his true love is cruelly taken away from him. The same wall will literally become his prison wall later in the opera and it comes down in other scenes to remind us of his aching heart.
But for an opera which has such potential for beauty and grandeur, Bob Crowley's designs are curiously lacking in inspiration. Act I shows us white plastic trees, two white tree stumps and a piece of white sheeting on the ground to represent snow; the cloister of San Yuste is represented by a pitifully basic tomb with 'Carlos' written on the side; the wall in Act II, Part 2 looks as if it's been made out of giant Lego bricks with a cross-shaped hole in the middle; and the King's Study scene has rarely been so emptily or dully staged in my experience. All the symbolism has been too broadly painted – religion and the loneliness of power are represented but not explored to their full potential – and on the other hand, the loud shouting and jeering of the chorus during the condemnation of the heretics in Act III is wildly excessive. Some of Verdi's most sinister and beautifully crafted music here is drowned out by an unnecessary pantomime, which adds nothing and is at the same time less effective than the more exciting burning of the heretics found in the previous Luc Bondy staging of the French version of the work, which was seen at Covent Garden in 1996.
And yet, the musical performance was so refined, especially from the orchestra, that the opening night was still a noteworthy event. The most complete and impressive performance came from Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II. Vocally, he was as intense and powerful as you could possibly want, while his stage presence and complex understanding of the role helped lift the production to another level during his scenes. The highlight of the evening for me was the sensational duet between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, who was played in an even more sinister way than I've found before by Eric Halfvarson in magnificent voice. His red papal costume and dramatic make-up gave his portrayal a rare edge of terror that reminded us of what the production lacked elsewhere.
Without doubt, the most classy, arresting singing came from Rolando Villazón in the title role. A couple of cracked top notes and hints of strain at the top end notwithstanding (it sounded as if he was slightly unwell, though no announcement was made), Villazón's voice was on display in all its beautiful glory from the word go. The opening aria was delivered with an elegance of line; the friendship duet with Posa was less successful, but the final duet in Act V was sung with classical nuance and was deeply moving. Villazón was occasionally a little too neurotic in terms of acting, but this may have been either a conceit of the production or an understandable attempt to give the production life, and it by no means took anything away from the performance.
Carlo's relationship with Posa – here sung with customary commitment and lavish vocal resources by Simon Keenlyside, even if it's not his most imaginative dramatic interpretation – was more emotionally drawn than that with Elisabetta, to the detriment of the production. If we don't believe in the inexorable attraction Elisabetta and Carlo feel for one another, where is the central tension of Don Carlo? Here, I found that as Elisabetta, Marina Poplavskaya's relationship with her husband was instead unusually, and fascinatingly, intense. Her performance throughout was more than respectable, and in Act IV, Part 1 her singing was extraordinarily secure whilst she had to lie down during the taxing passage where Elisabetta's line is an octave apart from Eboli's and the two run in parallel motion. Whenever she had dramatic lines to deliver, Poplavskaya did so with a fiery spirit and strong tone. Less wholly successful for me was the performance of the Act V aria and duet, which require ease and a more cantabile line in the top register, and there was strain during the latter part of Act I, too, but Poplavskaya did extremely well in a very taxing part.
Sonia Ganassi's Eboli was just too nice a person for my taste. The vocal performances of the Veil Song and 'O don fatale' were excellently controlled and executed with finesse, but I feel the character needs to be portrayed with more vigour and feistiness in order for us to believe she has enough venom to concoct her fatal plot (isn't she meant to have seduced the King and incriminated the Queen?). Robert Lloyd was an excellent Monk – at 68 his vocal powers seem scarcely diminished, if at all – and in Jacques Imbrailo, Krzysztof Szumanski, Kostas Smoriginas, Daniel Grice, Darren Jeffery and Vuyani Mlinde, the company has an above-average team of Flemish Deputies. Anita Watson also makes a very good Voice from Heaven, while Nikola Matisic is a confident Count of Lerma.
Yet the reason why it all gels together so well is Antonio Pappano's inspired leadership. Truly, I've rarely seen him so comfortably in control of his forces: the expanded chorus really raises the roof, the Spanish colours in Eboli's first aria are genuinely sultry, the offstage banda is well coordinated, the chamber music-like passages in the King's Study scene are finely projected, the solo arias are sensitively accompanied but the hand of fate is always allowed to emerge in the climactic passages. The production is to be broadcast on Radio 3 and on the big screens around the country: it's unmissable for the music making.
Read our interview with Marina Poplavskaya about singing Elisabetta in this production here.
Read our interview with Simon Keenlyside about singing Posa in this production here.
And read an interview with Robert Lloyd, who plays the Monk, here.
BP SUMMER BIG SCREENS
Thursday 3 July at 6pm
Live relay of Don Carlo from the Royal Opera House to Trafalgar Square and Canary Wharf in London and Clayton Square, Liverpool.
BBC Radio 3 will broadcast Don Carlo on Saturday 28 June at 6.30 pm
Photo credits: Catherine Ashmore