Sunday, 21 May 2017

Don Carlo at the Royal Opera, or, A Revival That Falls a Little Short

This is one of those works I always try to catch when performed. To me, it is one of the most satisfying music dramas in the repertoire. This revival gradually finds electricity but the search is often a bit laboured.

Aficionados will know that there are multiple versions of the score. The Royal Opera does at least include a version of the opening Fontainebleau Act, but persists with a crucial omission (as it has done on every occasion I've seen this work performed there). The opening chorus of distressed French peasants adds a crucial layer to the drama of Act 1, fleshing out Elizabeth's motivations for accepting Philip II's hand. The House should really catch up with other British companies and include it.


Nicholas Hytner's production returns for a third revival. It's a straightforward staging which is, mostly, supportive of the drama if not quite having the absolute punch of parts of the long ago Pountney production at the Coliseum or the more recent Opera North version. Hytner's movement of personnel is generally strong, though there are occasional slips in delivery – for example Ekaterina Semenchuk's Eboli seeming to suddenly recall she had to look at a letter before her next line in Act 4. I never had the problem others have had with the colour of the set in the monastery garden – though I accept the change to black does fit the sombre quality of much of that scene. More damaging are the alterations to the auto-da-fe scene. I feel sure there used to be real flame and burning of heretics. Cutting this renders the end of the scene a damp squib, and tends to expose the fact that there's too much space around the chorus for the wild, mob element (a cousin in my view to the more threatening mob at the close of Act 4) to really register. One other moment remains unconvincing – I can see why Hytner leaves Carlos kneeling by Posa's body through to the end of Act 4 but it is a problem when according to the drama he's supposed to be in flight and one wonders why the soldiers don't just arrest him.

The biggest challenge for any production of Don Carlo is whether you can line up voices of sufficient quality. This production has seen finer singers – Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, Anja Harteros's one unforgettable performance as Elizabeth (which I was lucky enough to catch and the reason why I would still cast her at the ROH despite her regular cancellations), Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip and Eric Halfvarson as the Inquisitor. This revival has one, to my ear, totally first class performance – Bryan Hymel's Don Carlos. He has the requisite power without losing beauty, tireless and with a real sense of drama. I also found him physically convincing (from my usual perch in the Amphitheatre). Next to him in vocal quality is Ekaterina Semenchuk – after a solid veil song she really comes to life in the vengeance trio in Act 3 before giving an appropriately electric 'O don fatale' in Act 4 – preceded by a powerfully done confession (one of the best segments of direction in the piece). Ildar Abdrazakov's Philip gives a fine account of his great Act 4 aria, but he and Posa fail to find the tension and drama in their Act 2 scene (though they aren't helped by de Billy's conducting) and elsewhere some interjections don't cut through the texture as they need to. Kristin Lewis's Elizabeth is curious. She is capable of vocal power, beauty and drama and at her best is a compelling presence – most notably in the long scene that opens Act 5. But the voice can tip into harshness, and doesn't always quite display the necessary flexibility. Simone Piazzola's Posa was similarly mixed. In the scene with Philip, already mentioned, he doesn't find the urgency and passion when singing of the plight of Flanders, to contrast with other parts of the exchange. He also sounded underpowered to me and I worried about how the evening would unfold. Fortunately, he strengthens appreciably in the later acts – contributing effectively to the fine vengeance trio, and making moving work of his death scene. Finally, we come to the one real weak link in the major roles – Paata Burchuladze's Grand Inquisitor. This is not the first time this production has had trouble here. In its first revival back in 2009 the role was ineffectively sung (at times barked) by John Tomlinson. Here the problem is of a different kind – Burchuladze's ageing voice actually does work effectively in the more intimate, quietly threatening moments. But the singer has to go toe to toe with Philip vocally as their Act 4 duet ratchets up and Burchuladze just isn't vocally capable of doing this. The earlier effect is not sufficiently valuable to compensate for the damage done dramatically later. Other recent regional productions have not had problems with this role, it puzzles me that the Royal Opera does, and suggests to me casting people who don't sufficiently understand what it requires.

In the minor parts Angela Simkin, stepping in for an indisposed Emily Edmonds as Tebaldo, gave a beautiful performance. Andrea Mastroni's Carlos V a perfectly acceptable one – though as with the Inquisitor I feel I have heard the role delivered with more power.

As usual the Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra are on very fine form – the cello line was beautifully taken in Philip's solo, the brass suitably baleful elsewhere. But unfortunately a production which has benefitted in the past from exceptional work on the podium by Pappano and Bychkov is here in inferior hands. Bertrand de Billy is at his weakest in Acts 1 and 2 – at 90 minutes, and with a number of scene changes, there is always a danger of losing the dramatic impetus and de Billy did not avoid it. He was often, to my mind, too slow, and failed to find crucial moments of contrast (the Posa/Philip scene being the most obvious). In the later three acts things improved but de Billy still showed a tendency in places to let the tension drop – Act 5 in particular lost momentum in the duet – when in this opera you need to keep things taut, driving forward to catastrophe.

I'm always glad to have a chance to see this work and there are plenty of moments to enjoy, but I have seen several previous performances (of this and other productions) which achieved greater dramatic intensity and were more musically satisfying.

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