Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 24th March 2019.
My only previous encounter with this opera was at ENO in 1992 (thank you Google) with Josephine Barstow as Leonora, Richard van Allan as her father, and (it turns out) Edmund Barham as Alvaro. The evening hadn't stuck in my mind in such a way as to make me want to rush to see the opera again, and despite the outstanding musical performances which blessed this afternoon, that overall opinion was not altered.
As a work the piece suffers from various problems. The narrative is highly episodic and doesn't succeed in building dramatic tension through the piece in contrast to truly great epic Verdi like Don Carlo. Several of the choruses are both weak musically and hold up the drama, especially at the end of Act 3 (I puzzled over the fact that cutting this would doubtless be met with howls of protest but yet the House continues to cut the dramatically integral and musically far finer opening chorus of Don Carlo). It's too dependent on chance - Alvaro and Carlos just happen to meet in the army, it just happens that both Alvaro and Leonora seek refuge in the same monastery. Far too many false names are deployed. But fundamentally, the plight of the central trio just never quite got me emotionally. For me the most convincing dilemma is Guardiano's wrestling with his conscience and his faith as to whether to grant Leonora's request to live as a hermit - a scene superbly sung and acted here by the magnificent Feruccio Ferlanetto - a performer who understands the virtue of stillness.
In advance I'd had misgivings about director Christof Loy - my last encounter with him was the first run of his poor ROH Tristan. Fortunately, this production is much more solid, if rarely outstanding. The baffling thing about it is that there are quite a few goodish stretches which are unfussy, with the action allowed to focus, effectively, on the confrontations between the principals - again the Guardiano-Leonora scene stands out here. Loy also brings out nice character details - Alvaro's impatience as Leonora dithers in Act 1, Melitone's fussiness and nosiness in Act 2.
But Loy can't quite resist the operatic director's vice of busyness. That same magnificent confrontation between Guardiano and Leonora is nearly undone by Leonora's bizarre fit/wrestling with the chorus. The shooting in the battle scene looks ludicrous (at least from my unusually close vantage point) - if men are really being shot right next to the watching women I would expect the watching women to flee. There are some arresting images when the full chorus are on stage, but it's sometimes difficult to understand why they're all there - for example at the end of Act 1 given that there is a curtain before we proceed - and they are sometimes given silly things to do - like going off-stage with their chairs and fake bales of hay when they are supposed to be retiring for the night - presumably the inn has run short of beds.
Loy also imposes a tiresome dumb show on the overture - I hadn't read the synopsis with sufficient care so I had to double check later whether in fact that Marquis does lose a son before the opera proper starts, and overall I just found the addition muddled rather than clarifying of character. There was also the baffling matter of the red yo-yo which Carlo plays with in each tableaux and carefully pockets before his departure. I found myself wondering when the yo-yo was invented, and what did this do to the time in which we are set, and did that undermine the religious dimension of the plot. It also puzzled me that the yo-yo then disappeared. Loy also cannot resist the present mania for projections which, as usual, the production would have been better off without.
Lastly, on the production front, there's Loy's general framing. Apart from Act 3 the whole thing seems to take place in the Marquis's house. Aside from reasons of off-stage economy the justification for this never became clear to me.
Musically, though, this is a truly stunning, world class ensemble. The three leads - Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann and Ludovic Tezier all sing tirelessly, powerfully, beautifully. The voices in their various combinations all fit together well - there's chemistry and feeling in these relationships that is so often lacking on the operatic stage. All also know how to shape a phrase - to linger in a moment of anguish, to find a different intensity for anger. They are ably supported by the already mentioned magisterial Furlanetto, and by a nicely characterised Melitone from Alessandro Corbelli. Two performances remain for the Netrebko/Kaufmann/Tezier cast - queue for returns - I wouldn't like to take bets on when so fine an ensemble will be heard in London in this work again. The only soloist slightly below excellent is Veronica Simeoni's Preziosilla. She has a great deal of stage presence, but I would have liked more warmth in the voice which is sometimes a bit shrill.
In the pit Pappano shapes the piece expertly - knowing when to linger and when to drive things forward - indeed the whole team do excellent work in keeping things moving despite the best efforts of the audience to bring everything to a stop with some excessive post aria bravo-ing (I've nothing against in-Act applause but I did think some of the shouting on Sunday was more about audience members drawing attention to themselves). The Orchestra play superbly with great sense of drama and feeling. The Chorus are an energetic presence throughout doing their best with music of variable quality.
Some stood to applaud at the end. I didn't, because despite the magnificent music making the evening ultimately didn't overwhelm me either in staging or emotionally. But the musical quality makes this exceptional. As already urged, queue for returns.