I wrote a lengthy review when this superb production first appeared at the Royal Opera House a little over a year ago. It was so brilliant that when it showed up this season, I knew I had to go again. Fortunately, my view a year on is largely unchanged, so I won't praise the production again, or moan about the cuts that shouldn't have been made, since I'd just be repeating myself (you can also read that for an explanation of why I insist on calling it Don Carlos, not Carlo as seems to be the current fashion).
There are some changes though. First and foremost, the title has been recast. This only enhanced its appeal, since Rolando Villazon was a weak link in 2008: his voice too small for the part, Pappano having to restrain the orchestra too much to compensate. There should have been no such problems with his replacement Jonas Kaufmann. Sadly, I'm unable to judge, since Kaufmann was taken ill and replaced by Alfred Kim for my performance.
The announcement may have occasioned groans of disappointment from the audience, but they were misplaced. Despite only having flown in that morning, Kim was superb. It helped that he'd stood in during last year's illness plagued run, and also played the role when the production went to Norway. True, his voice was perhaps a little light, and yet he had no difficult finding power when needed and always seemed to carry over the orchestra. His acting was solid too. Altogether it was one of the finest last minute stand-in performances I've witnessed and preferable to Villazon's reading last year.
Opposite him, Marina Poplavskaya remained as Elizabeth. Her acting seemed less wooden than last time around; I suspect it will have helped that wasn't battling illness. However, she doesn't entirely sweep me away.
Keenlyside, on the other hand, also retaining his role of Rodrigo, was astonishing. Not simply in terms of the quality of his voice, superb though that is, but his exceptional acting talent. For my money, and for this reason, he is one of the finest opera singers in the world. The sheer power, for example, of the scene in act three where he disarms Carlos was stunning.
Ferruccio Furlanetto also remained in place as Philip II, and was similarly impressive, both in his voice and his acting.
Marianne Cornetti's Eboli, on the other hand, was rather disappointing. A voice too heavy with vibrato and not nearly light, agile or pretty enough to carry off her big act two aria. That said, I warmed to her in acts three and four, perhaps because the role changes and the character behaves more nastily and thus fits her voice better.
The role of the Grand Inquisitor was taken by John Tomlinson. It was a powerful performance, though. to my taste, his booming voice was not so ideally suited to the role, or as spine chilling, as Halfvarson was last year (though this really is splitting hairs).
Robert Lloyd was simply staggering as the monk/ghost of Carlos V. His voice booming through Covent Garden with such power you might have thought it was amplified. It's a fairly minor part, but breathtaking to have it cast so well.
It's an old joke, but to do Don Carlos well, what you really need is the six best singers in the world. No production is ever actually going to manage that, but to get a cast as strong as this one is to have done pretty well.
Which only leaves one major change: Semyon Bychkov replacing Antonio Pappano in the pit. This choice doesn't seem to have gone down terribly well with critics, but for the life of me I can't see why. I was expecting good things, having the other week heard Verdi Requiems by both him and Pappano on CD Review, and preferred Bychkov. His handling of the score was, to these ears, superb. There was none of the feeling of holding back for fear of drowning the singers that sometimes existed last year. I'd read elsewhere it was a slow reading, but didn't find that. Instead he seemed fluid: quick when called for, broader tempi elsewhere; beautifully delicate playing at times, overwhelming force at others, such as the crowd scenes. The playing of the orchestra was exceptional, particularly some of the winds and a beautiful cello solo.
All told, it was, if anything, slightly better than last time. I know an attempt was made to tape it for DVD then. However, I suspect it's failure to appear is down to the number of performances that didn't feature the headline cast. Things have gone much more smoothly this time round, so I hope to goodness we can expect an Opus Arte issue post haste. If not, they'll just have to revive it again.....
One more thing, I realise Alfred Kim deserves an award or his performance. Fortunately, we recently inaugurated just the one: The Gary Walker Award for Stepping into Gargantuan Shoes at the Last Minute and Turning in a Fantastic Performance.