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05 May 2013

Superlative singing: Don Carlo, Royal Opera House

Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.

Giuseppe Verdi : Don Carlo

Don Carlo : Jonas Kaufmann, Tebaldo : Dusica Bijelic, Elizabeth of Valoius : Anja Harteros, Count of Lerma : Pablo Bemsch, Countess of Aremberg : Elizabeth Woods, Carlos V : Robert Lloyd, Rodrigo, Marquis de Posa : Mariusz Kweicien, Philip II : Ferrucio Furlanetto, Princess Eboli : Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Priest Inquisitor : Téo Ghil, Flemish Deputies : Zhengzhong Zhou, Michel de Souza, Ashley Riches, Daniel Grice, Jihoon Kim, John Cunningham, Voice from Heaven : Susana Gaspar, Grand Inquisitor : Eric Halfvarson, Conductor : Antonio Pappano, Director : Nicholas Hytner, Revival Director : Paul Higgins, designs : Bob Crowley, Lighting : Mark Henderson


Act One started a little tentatively. Perhaps it takes time for the drama to unfold and Kaufmann knew how much was yet to come. His pacing was deft : when he needed to stun, his voice rang out with ferocious colour. This was a Don Carlo one could imagine defying the Spanish Empire, its violence and tyranny. His vocal authority was matched by physical energy. Kaufmann embodies the part perfectly. His interactions were outstanding. His voice balances well with Anja Harteros (Elisabetta) and Marius Kwiecien (Rodrigo), and he allowed the duets and trios to work seamlessly. There was no big name ego dominance, Kaufmann placing his art above all.

Verdi prepares us from the start for the turbulence turbulence that will meet Elizabeth of Valois. Even before she leaves home, Elisabetta experiences extreme changes of mood within a compressed period of time. Anja Harteros delineates these intense feelings deftly, without exaggeration, so they arise naturally from her singing. When she bids goodbye to the Countess of Aremberg (Elizabeth Woods), Harteros sings as though she were bidding farewell to life itself. Indeed she is, for Elisabetta is now alone, trapped in an alien world. Harteros creates Elisabetta with such conviction that she dominates the drama even when she is silent. Her presence is felt even when others are singing about her. When Harteros sings "Tu che le vanità", we feel that Elisabetta has reached valediction, after a long and tortured journey. She sings of Fontainebleau and her brief day of happiness so tenderly that the agony of "Addio, addio, bei sogni d'or, illusion perduta!" becomes truly overwhelming. Harteros and Kaufmann have taken these roles before together. Here, in London, they achieved transcendence.

Ferruccio Furlanetto was equally outstanding. His years of experience in the part give him authority. Verdi writes the part to reflect the personal austerity for which the historic Philip II was known. A solo cello introduces his big aria "Ella giammai m'amò", emphasizing the King's loneliness., despite the trappings of wealth and power around him. Later, violas and basses extend the mood of melancholy. Furlanetto sings with force, but with colour and tenderness. Because he makes us feel the man beneath the public persona, we realize that the tragedy involves Philip as well as his wife and son. Furlanetto makes us realize that the king is just as much trapped by the system as they are. "Beware the Grand Inqusitor !" he cries, for the Grand Inquisitor is perhaps the only truly evil character in this opera.

Verdi introduces the Grand Inquisitor with music that exudes menace. Slow, low rumbling sounds, suggesting a snake slithering, oozing poisonous slime. Eric Halfvarson was indisposed with a cold, but this didn't affect his singing. The Grand Inquisitor is supposed to sound diseased. "Did God not give his only Son to save the world ?". Theology is twisted for evil purposes.

Mariusz Kwiecień was a clean voiced, muscular Rodrigo, and a perfect complement to Kaufmann's Don Carlo. The dynamic between them is very good : they're both relatively youthful and fresh. This similarity is important, for it reinforces the tragedy, and the theme of sacrifice. When Kwiecień sings Rodrigo's last aria, "Per me giunto è il di supreme", he infuses it with warmth and love, so it connects with Elisabetta's farewell to life.

One of Béatrice Uria-Monzon's signature roles is Carmen, so when she sang the Pricess of Eboli, she brought a Carmen-like sharpness to the role, which was entirely in order. Her Veil Song was a showpiece, but the song is a mask, since the princess's true feelings are also hidden behind a veil. When she realizes her mistakes, her personality disintegrates. When Uria-Monzon sings of the convent, she suggests the horoor of living death.

Dusica Bijelic sang a sprightly Tebaldo. Even the Flemish Deputies made an impact greater than the size oif their parts : extremely tight ensemble, yet individually characterized. Robert Lloyd sang Carlo V credibly. The Royal Opera House Orchestra and chorus, always excellent, were on even better form than usual. Verdi is Antomio Pappano's great strength. He's inspired towards an highly individual but vivid reading which emphasizes dramatic detail. He's also a singer's conductor, who lets voices breath, as we heard so admirably.

This would have been an almost perfect Verdi Don Carlo, but is lamentably let down by the production. Originally directed by Nicholas Hytner and revived this time by Paul Higgins, it was first seen at the Royal Opera House in 2008. The designs (by Bob Crowley) feel outdated, serving little dramatic purpose. Huge expanses of space are filled with grids of holes. Perhaps these represent windows, walls or even the spying eyes that are ever present in tyrannical regimes. If the image had been developed well, it might have enhanced the paranoia that runs through this opera. Instead, the image lies inert, like a weak joke endlessly repeated. In the scene where the ladies of the court listen to the Veil Song, there's a wall of red plastic cubes which look like they've descended from Legoland for no obvious reason.

The greatest weakness of this Don Carlo was that the staging missed the deeper, more challenging levels of the opera. The monastery of Yuste is depicted by the tomb of Charles V with the name "Carlos" engraved in huge letters so they can't possibly be missed. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor renounced his power and retreated into the monastery where he died ten years before the Revolt of the Netherlands.

Opera isn't history. But when a composer like Verdi adapts history for art, there is a reason. In this production, the political aspects of the story are downplayed. Even the asceticism of Charles V and Philip II is sacrificed to decorative imperative, although the words "addio, bei sogni d'or, illusion perduta!" pertain to more than Elisabetta. This is the kind of production that gives modern staging a bad reputation. Yet because it's comic book cute, it's probably popular. Staging is much more than decor. Like every other element in a production, it should contribute to meaning and drama, rather than distract. A cast of this exceptional quality deserved better.

Anne Ozorio

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