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2009, ROH London, Don Carlo

Don Carlo

(Five act version in Italian)


Photos by Caroline Ashmore

Broadcast on BBC Radio 3, 17 October 2009

Simon Keenlyside’s Rodrigo once again enlivens every scene in which he appears” Financial Times

“Simon Keenlyside, one of the UK’s finest and most intelligent singers took the role of Rodrigo with true confidence” Musicweb International

Composer: Guiseppe Verdi
Librettist: Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle after Schiller’s drama, Cormon’s drama and Prescott’s history. Revised in 4 acts by du Locle, translated into Italian by Angelo Zanardini based on Achile de Lauziéres’ original version
Venue and Dates: Royal Opera House, London
15, 18, 21, 23, 27 September and 1 October 2009
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Designs: Bob Crowley
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Director – movement: Scarlett Mackmin
Director – fight: Terry King
Don Carlo: Jonas Kaufmann
Elizabeth of Valois: Marina Poplavskaya
Rodrigo: Simon Keenlyside
Philip II: Ferruccio Furlanetto
Princess Eboli: Marianne Cornetti
Carlos V: Robert Lloyd
Grand Inquisitor: John Tomlinson
Tebaldo: Pumeza Matshikiza
Count of Lerma: Robert Anthony Gardiner
Voice from Heaven: Eri Nakamura
Flemish Deputies:
Daniel Grice
Changhan Lim
David Stout
Dawid Kimberg
Lukas Jakobski
John Cunningham
Notes: Revival of the 2008 production.
Performance of 23.9. was radio broadcast by BBC

Click below to see a trailer from the ROH for this production of Don Carlo


Photo gallery


Colin Clarke, Seen & Heard, 17 September 2009


This is the first revival of the 2008 staging reviewed by Jim Pritchard for Seen and Heard. Cardboard cut-out trees and “health-and-safety” flames for the burning of the heretics hardly draw the audience into Verdi’s fiery masterpiece (the dark scenes at the tomb or in the prison were by far the most effective, thanks especially to Mark Henderson’s lighting). The job of drawing the audience into much of the piece, then, goes to the performers themselves. It is a testament to their dedication, if not uniform success, that Don Carlo emerged as one of the jewels in Verdi’s crown. There was the occasional staging faux pas, too: the trees of which the ladies sing in Act I Scene 2 (a garden outside the monastery gates) were nowhere to be seen: instead we had a black wall with back-lit red squares.

Of all Verdi’s well-known operas, it is Don Carlo(s) that suffers from a largest multitude of versions. The Royal Opera laudably decided to give us Verdi’s last thoughts, from 1886 (the score given in Modena that year). Christopher Wintle, in an essay in the booklet entitled, “Don Carlos to Don Carlo (and back)” traces the story of the score’s various transformations. The Modena version is in five acts and so includes the so-called “Fontainebleau” act.

The 2008 performances of this opera had the advantage of Antonio Pappano at the helm. This time, it was Semyon Bychkov, currently Principal Conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester in charge and perhaps better known in mainland Europe. The ROH orchestra played well for him and he certainly has a sure hand in the pit, interacting well with his singers. There was only one real tempo miscalculation, that for King Philip’s great aria, “Ella giammai m’amò” : Bychkov seemed intent on forcing his way through, not leaving the excellent Furlanetto enough space to express his anguish, neither in the opening lines nor in the section beginning “Dormirò sol nal mento regal”. The resulting superficiality seemed entirely Bychkov’s fault although he seemed better in the grander moments, shepherding the choruses superbly in the auto-da-fé. His way with the drama of the preceding scene (Act III Scene 1, the meeting of Carlos and Eboli in the Queen’s Gardens in Madrid) was likewise masterly, as was the co-ordination of on-stage and off-stage instrumentalists in Act 1. There were beautiful moments too – the darkening of the orchestra at the announcement that Elisabetta is to be married to the King himself rather than Carlos (therefore becoming Queen) in Act I being just one of them.

The male voices were almost uniformly excellent. This is a fairly male-dominated opera, and particular care seemed to have been invested in this aspect of the casting. Jonas Kaufmann’s voice is justifiably lauded, fairly well universally, and right from his first entrance his expertise was in evidence. He acts well, his legato is magnificent and the slight edge to his burnished voice enables him to convey the ardent aspect of Carlo’s character perfectly. As far as chemistry between Kaufmann and the other singers is concerned, it is perhaps telling that there was significantly more of it between him and his Rodrigo than between Carlos and Elisabetta. Marina Poplavskaya sang this and despite some lovely moments failed to portray much of its greatness. She came closest to truly living the part in the final act, where it seemed as if Kaufmann was inspiring her to give her best. Even there, though, “Tu che la vanità” lacked the stamp of authority that it so urgently needs. There was more of a spark between Kaufman and Poplavskaya in Act II Scene 2, but even there one’s ear – and eye – were continually pulled to Kaufmann.

Simon Keenlyside, one of the UK’s finest and most intelligent singers, took the role of Rodrigo with true confidence, bolstering up his friend in the freedom duet (“Dio, che nell’alma infondere”) and truly superb in his scene with Philip (Keenlyside’s pitching was preternaturally accurate here). The concentration in this latter scene was palpable. Keenlyside’s aria, “Per me giunto”, was a model of excellence and carefully considered projection. Ferrucio Furlanetto (who returns in June 2010 to sing Fiesco in Boccanegra) was possessed of a huge voice that he deployed with real authority although it is probably true to state that his singing carried more conviction than his stage presence.

What a privilege it was to experience Robert Lloyd in action again, here as Carlos V, his voice carrying the full weight of a world of experience. As did John Tomlinson, a magnificently physically shaky Grand Inquisitor. The duet between Tomlinson and and Furlanetto was another highlight of the evening.

As Eboli, Marianne Cornetti seemed miscast in physical terms (she looked awkward) yet delivered her “Song of the Veil” very well, with laudable vocal agility. South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza was a splendid Tebaldo, full of energy throughout. The Voice from Heaven was beautifully sung by Eri Nakamura, a Cardiff Singer of the World finalist in 2009 and member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme since September 2008

The chorus operated on an axis that began at excellent and moved up to awe-inspiring. If the whole performance was not quite the sum of its parts, that is mostly down to Bychkov and some reservations about staging do not help. Even so , one must acknowledge fully that the darker side of this opera was more than honoured. It is always a privilege to experience this great work, and it would he a hard heart indeed that left the Royal Opera House unaffected.

Neil Fisher, The Times, 17 September 2009


Rating: Four out of five stars

A significant smattering of doubts clustered around Nicholas Hytner’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlo when it was new last year. Did Bob Crowley’s prison-like sets, trapping the denizens of the Spanish royal court in their dark cells, keep too much emotion behind bars as well? Did the spectacle veer too closely to window-dressing in a piece that taps the big issues (the power of State against Church, of idealism versus expediency) with such directness? And, most importantly, could Covent Garden field a cast to deliver all the nuances as imposingly as Verdi demands?

If these question marks can be discarded, there is one crucial reason. The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is now the eponymous Prince, whose search both for love (hopelessly misdirected towards his stepmother, Queen Elisabeth) and a vocation (haplessly exploited by his much cannier chum, the Marquis of Posa), is destined to end in disaster. And it is Kaufmann’s achievement not just to sing with such a thrilling range of vocal colour and pliancy but to give this double tragedy such a personal slant.

Right from the start Kaufmann’s Carlos is a delicate flower: he’s touchingly naive, almost schoolboyish, when first wooing Marina Poplavskaya’s Elisabeth in Act I. Only when forced to give her updoes an introvert’s natural shyness gradually warp. His attempts at rebellion look increasingly unhinged; cipher Carlos may be by the time he is sobbing over Posa’s corpse and awaiting the Inquisition, but Kaufmann never stops being anything other than raptly compelling.

That this triumph is scored alongside a dramatic and vocal masterclass from Ferruccio Furlanetto’s magisterial Philip II only attests to the skilfulness of both performances. Coming from the opposite extreme of stiff-backed authority, Furlanetto ends up in much the same plight, opening his lonely Act IV lament with all the anguish of a wounded animal. In the face of John Tomlinson’s terrifyingly implacable Grand Inquisitor, suddenly he seems hauntingly vulnerable.

It is not just their show. Conducting, Semyon Bychkov has big shoes to fill in following Antonio Pappano. At first I wondered if his approach was too weighty, almost Wagnerian, but the dramatic momentum is inexorably and thrillingly built up, and the playing is tremendous.

Hytner, too, perhaps because he has more grateful support, has focused a show that now makes its central point — the suffocating embrace of religion — less dogmatically. There is still a sense of self-consciousness to the grand ceremony, and it’s odd that a director so immersed in theatre can’t find a more imaginative way of presenting the lusty chorus than lining them up in a row.

And the rest? Poplavskaya sings with feeling and commitment, and pulls out all the stops for her big Act V aria, but her tone is on the thin side and she needs to work on her tuning. Simon Keenlyside’s Posa is deft and charismatic enough to project his light baritone a notch farther than it probably should be. And Marianne Cornetti’s old-school powerhouse of an Eboli is too unremitting a sing in this company. Those quibbles aside, this revival is the Royal Opera at its best.

Edward Seckerson, The Independent, 16 September 2009


Rated: Four stars out of Five

The heat generated by this scorching revival of Verdi’s Don Carlo had little to do with burning heretics or indeed any aspect of Nicholas Hytner’s lucid if rather passive staging but rather the conducting of Semyon Bychkov whose drive and patience ensured that both the urgency and weight of history defining this great score were magnificently served.

Bychkov’s triumph was fully to reconcile the sweep and intimacy of Don Carlo. Fine detailing was as significant as grand gesturing in Bychkov’s scheme of things. Verdi’s simplest colourings, like the bare unison horns carrying us into the vaults of the San Yuste Monastery, were rich in atmosphere and subtext, the musical embodiment of lines like “the sorrows of the world follow us into the cloister”. At the other extreme Bychkov brought electrifying immediacy to key climacterics in the drama. In the scene where Rodrigo takes on the King, Philip II, the fury of his accusation that Philip will rule over “the peace of the grave” unleashes an awesome welter of sound from the depths of Verdi’s orchestra. In Bychkov’s hands it was as if a huge fissure had opened up in the fabric of the piece. Dramatically speaking, it had, of course.

That great scene was wonderfully played by Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Philip II). Furlanetto is that special breed of singing actor for whom gravitas is inbred. We see a broken man disintegrate before our eyes in his great act four aria; we feel his anger and defiance in the encounter with John Tomlinson’s craggy Grand Inquisitor who manages to turn the word “Sire” into a condescending growl. These are credible portrayals. Less so Marianne Cornetti’s indomitable Eboli, a voice of considerable fire-power but hopelessly woolly in the lacy coloratura of her folksy Veil aria.

One of the most effective devices in Hytner’s staging – and I still find the garish pop-up aspects of Bob Crowley’s design alienating – is Carlo’s isolation, the descending front cloth of ancestral tombs a constant reminder of his grandfather’s weighty legacy. Jonas Kaufmann carried this romantic idealism magnificently, thrilling in his full-throated anguish, tender in his love for Elizabeth de Valois with mezza voce phrases literally melting in the singing of them.

Marina Poplavskaya (Elizabeth), beautiful and intense on stage, is not a natural Verdian, the voice too white and unyielding, the lack of through-phrasing conspicuously unidiomatic. But in the perfect symmetry of their first and last encounters there was a real frisson between she and Kaufmann. The numbing pianissimo of their final moments together carried such regret and resignation as to unlock the very heart of a great piece.

Dominic McHugh, Musicalcriticism.com, 16 September 2009


Like Schubert’s so-called ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, Verdi’s Don Carlo never reached a definitive form, and we don’t even know which language to perform it in or whether to call it Carlo or Carlos. Four acts or five acts? With or without the ballet? It’s anyone’s guess.

So I suppose it’s also a matter of opinion how it should be played and staged, and if the audience reaction at the first revival of Nicholas Hytner’s production of the piece at Covent Garden is anything to go by, both his direction and Semyon Bychkov’s conducting are a public success. For me, though, the production’s problematic elements are no better on this second outing, while Bychkov’s reading was a vast disappointment.

The first problem with the production is that it’s not scenically coherent. Bob Crowley’s designs veer between literal representation and complete symbolism. The forest of Fontainebleau is shown with its bare trees and snow on the floor (the latter created by a piece of white material which was tripped over twice), but when Carlo is left alone at the end of the act, the camp fire and snow are dragged to the back of the stage while a prison-like wall symbolically moves down to show how he’s been trapped by his position into being separated from his lover. It’s so awkwardly done that the point loses its power. Then we have the cloiser at San Yuste, which is once again made risible by the sight of the tomb of Charles V whizzing about the stage electronically.

Eboli’s Veil Song is backed by a Lego-brick wall and a field of poppies painted onto the backcloth, while the King’s study is implausibly bare. Worst of all, perhaps, is the auto-da-fe, which has some kind of blood-stained image of Christ projected onto a curved wall, while the back shows a golden edifice with three doors, which is spoilt by the presence of a jarring red backdrop behind it. The best scene, I find, is the prison where Posa is kept locked away: the massive walls which have lurked at the sides until now suddenly come into their own. It’s still rather odd to have a line of armed soldiers across the extent of the stage watching Posa, however, and it undermines the intimacy of the all-important final encounter between Posa and Carlo.

The other issue I have with the production is that the direction has not had the necessary effect on the cast. Several of the key monologues – most notably Philip’s and Elizabeth’s – go by with almost no noticeable directorial imagination coming into play, even though these are some of the most psychologically-probing moments in opera. There’s a general lack of passion and fervour, too, which is crucial in an opera whose story, to be frank, doesn’t always make much logical sense if emotion isn’t the key motivator. After all, clarification of the story and its impetuses was the key reason for Verdi’s revisions.

What surprised me more about the performance, though, was Bychkov’s conducting. A sensitive interpreter of Boris Godunov, The Queen of Spades and Lohengrin at the house in recent years, Bychkov is now firmly established on the London opera scene, and I confess that I had taken his success in Don Carlo for granted. Many of the same characteristics of the earlier operas were present: in particular, it was obvious that every gesture was deliberate and carefully calculated, and the degree to which markings of articulation in the score were performed was astounding.

But I’m afraid that on this showing, his feeling for the Italian repertoire is not yet instinctive. There was a metronomic precision to his speeds, but taking so much of the score at a slow tempo was absolutely detrimental to the performance, in my experience. I’ve never heard the opening of the auto-da-fe taken so slowly, even on record, and most of the big numbers, including ‘Tu che le vanita’ and Rodrigo’s death scene, dragged on without nuance. One aspect of the problem was inflexibility towards phrasing: often the singers needed to expand or move in and out of a phrase with a fluctuation of tempo, as is characteristic of this style of music, but Bychkov was almost metronomic in his beat, causing singers to struggle with long or high phrases (such as the King’s line in the Act 4 quartet). Life and energy were seriously lacking as a result of this, which is a huge shame: few conductors can get so much colour out of an orchestra as Bychkov can, but what’s needed now is a more visceral approach.

The cast was also sadly uneven in many respects, but with a lifelessness in the conducting and unfocussed staging it was difficult to be convinced by the performance in its entirety. For many, the main draw of the evening was Jonas Kaufmann’s Carlo, and after a strained cavatina he was indeed excellent. Both physically perfect for Carlo and intelligent towards the text, Kaufmann contributed heavily to the evening’s successful aspects.

Returning from the original production, both Marina Poplavskaya (Elisabetta) and Simon Keenlyside (Posa) gave similar performances. Poplavskaya has grown as an actress and her control over her voice has likewise improved so that she now fills the house impressively, but her tone is still thin at the top where strong money notes would have greater impact, and for me she could still be more impassioned and less cold. Keenlyside is no natural Verdian, either: one could not even slightly criticise his commitment, musicality or intelligence – he deservedly won loud applause at the curtain call – but compared to someone like Cappuccilli his vocal performance is too small and lacking in the golden edge and heft of the great Verdi baritones. It’s also curious that he didn’t have as much dramatic impact as Kaufmann in this performance, so he almost seemed more suited to the character of Carlo than the strong revolutionary Rodrigo.

Ferruccio Furlanetto is back, too, as Philip II, but at this performance he didn’t always sound at ease with Bychkov’s tempos. One of the conductor’s quirks was to have the opening line of ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ sung very quickly, in rhythm, rather than drawn out with the sobbing emphasis that is usually given to it (not least in Furlanetto’s performance last time around). I’m not sure it works, and although the bass looks great in the part, his overall performance was less imposing than last time. Marianne Cornetti made a strong debut as Eboli, slicing through the orchestra easily with her hefty instrument and commanding the stage easily. The Veil Song requires too much flexibility from her – she had a slightly wide vibrato – and it didn’t have the effortless feel that’s needed, but ‘O don fatale’ had the requisite thrilling effect.

In smaller roles, Robert Lloyd was once again an excellent Monk, and this time Sir John Tomlinson played the Grand Inquisitor. Tomlinson’s stage presence and expressivity are always a wonder to behold and he was perfect as the corrupt master of religion, but the role lies rather high for him in places, which was a shame. Young Artist Eri Nakamura was absolutely superb as the Voice from Heaven, and Pumeza Matshikiza put in a good performance as Tebaldo, too.

The problem, perhaps, is that Covent Garden’s seen quite a few stunning Don Carlos in its time, and even in my relatively short opera-going lifetime the ROH performance of the piece at the Proms with Haitink, Hvorostovsky and Borodina and the Luc Bondy production with Mattila, Alagna, Hampson and Urmana were both far more memorable than the current revival. To perform this piece is always a great achievement, and the chance to see Don Carlo is rare enough in Britain to make it worth seeing; however, on the basis of this showing it would seem that neither Bychkov nor Hytner can yet compete with their forbears.

Keith McDonnell, MusicOMH, 16 September 2009


Verdi’s grand French opera, Don Carlos, is his greatest achievement as it contains not only some of his finest music, but great drama as well.

It is unique in his operatic output as it deals with issues of church and state, duty and honour and fidelity and friendship within an epic canvas.

The original version which Verdi intended to be performed never fails to pack a theatrical punch yet is rarely performed these days.

Why opera companies, as the Royal Opera do here, choose to present this work in an Italian translation has never ceased to baffle me as Don Carlos is a French opera, and works best in its full Five Act version, in French. Since Andrew Porter discovered much ‘missing’ music in Paris in the 70s, it has been possible to piece together the opera as Verdi intended and the Royal Opera came close to a full version in 1996 in the memorable Luc Bondy staging, conducted by Bernard Haitink. It wasn’t as full a version as the ENO presented in the early 90s in a brilliant Poutney/Lazaridis staging (alas never revived) but that, like this Royal Opera performance, was performed in translation (albeit in English).

As Jonas Kaufmann (the Royal Opera’s Don Carlos) said in his interview with us: “Of course it was written in French and it fits perfectly in French. In Italian you can see that it’s sort of made to fit. It’s pasted on at times.” Respected opera guru Rodney Milnes has often stated that Verdi didn’t set a single word of the Italian translation to music, and it shows. So why not perform it in the original French?

It seemed an especially missed opportunity as Jonas Kaufmann sings faultlessly idiomatic French but he is at equally at home in Italian as he showed here with his wonderful singing in the title role. A vast improvement on his predecessor, not only is he capable of exquisite mezza voce singing but he has enough vocal reserves to ride the ensembles when required. He’s untouchable in this repertoire at the moment and his singing was a joy from start to finish, although the baritonal quality to his voice may not be to everyone’s taste. In the duets with Posa it was at times hard to distinguish his voice from Simon Keenlyside’s, but that’s a small price to pay for the pleasure in hearing such a thrilling voice.

Keenlyside was reliable as Posa, but his voice lacked the required heft at times and he was often dramatically blank, but he wasn’t alone there. Furlanetto was an imposing presence as Philip II but dramatic sparks only began to fly in his scene with John Tomlinson’s oleaginous Grand Inquisitor. Marina Poplavskaya was far more vocally resplendent as Elisabeth this time round, yet she still doesn’t know how to float enough pianissimo top notes which would give her interpretation true regal bearing. Marianne Cornetti needed more light and shade as Eboli, and a little less thunder, whilst all the smaller roles were adequately filled.

So why did this performance fail to move? Despite the fact Nicholas Hytner was on hand to direct this first revival it was hard to fathom exactly what direction he had given the singers – which is strange as he has theatricality coursing through his veins. Of course Bob Crowley’s garish, hideous designs don’t help, but for most of the evening the cast seemed dramatically at sea so the drama, tension and epoch-making issues that Verdi has laid bare in this opera failed to cross the footlights. Semyon Bychkov’s over indulgent conducting didn’t help either as it was at times too sluggish or too fast, but the orchestra played like heroes.

Financial Times, 16 September 2009


Italian opera has never been more popular. It has also never been in greater need of Italian voices. No matter how good the alternatives, a home-grown voice, properly schooled, transforms the sound of Verdi. It is not just the diction or timbre. It is the tradition, and Ferruccio Furlanetto embodies it as well as any singer today. That is what makes his King Philip in the Royal Opera’s Don Carlo so compelling.

Furlanetto never used to have this sort of stature. He has grown into it, to the point where he can act and sing everyone off the stage. It wouldn’t matter what kind of costume or production he was in. Thanks to his vocal authority and histrionic command, none of it self-serving, he lets us see behind the façade of kingly power to the anguish and vulnerability beneath. It is called humanity – a three-dimensional quality that seamlessly harmonises voice and movement, sound and style, foreground and background.

As in 2008, when the production was new, Furlanetto is the reason to catch this first revival. Marina Poplavskaya repeats her Elizabeth, more confident now, but also more susceptible to vocal swooning, and Simon Keenlyside’s Rodrigo once again enlivens every scene in which he appears. Neither is identifiably Italianate in style or timbre. Nor is the Carlo of handsome newcomer Jonas Kaufmann, whose singing – technically refined and musicianly – never reveals a beating heart beneath the cultured surface. John Tomlinson contributes a patriarchal Grand Inquisitor, Marianne Cornetti a ballsy, blunt Eboli.

The most successful newcomer is Semyon Bychkov, whose conducting of Lohengrin was one of last season’s outstanding memories. He stamps his authority over every bar: the inner orchestral parts, especially Verdi’s flute and harp decorations, are a constant joy. He is equally considerate of the singers, but it may take a couple of performances for his steady tempi to take wing in the way he intends.

The chorus makes a good start to the season, but Nicholas Hytner’s staging of the five-act version, dressed in garish prefab sets and museum-piece costumes, remains earthbound. Why is it that successive National Theatre directors, upon entering the Royal Opera House, automatically capitulate to operatic convention?

Simon Thomas, Whats on Stage, 16 September 2009


Nicholas Hytner’s production of the five act Italian version of Verdi’s Don Carlo was new last June and, strange as it may sound, hasn’t aged well. There’s a blandness and perfunctoriness about the staging and direction that resembles an umpteenth revival in the hands of a much less-inspired director.

The cast is a mix of returning and new artists. Marina Poplavskaya’s Elisabetta has grown in the intervening time and Ferruccio Furlanetto’s King Philip is as strong as ever. Replacing Rolando Villazón as Carlo, Jonas Kaufmann swaps manic, boyish bewilderment for an ardent sensitivity, with some thrilling high points. There’s not a lot going on between this Carlo and Simon Keenlyside’s low-key Posa, though, with the latter only coming to life, ironically, during his death scene.

New also are John Tomlinson, singing his first Grand Inquisitor in the house, and American mezzo Marianne Cornetti, a late replacement as Eboli. Tomlinson is as reliable as we’d expect, his big scene with the king a fascinating sparring between veterans.

Cornetti is a formidable love-rival, enough to send Carlo sprawling on her first entrance. It is a matronly interpretation, with a matching plumminess and vibrato, better suited to Trovatore’s Azucena or Ulrica from Ballo.

Eboli revealing herself to Carlo in the garden scene raised a huge and widespread laugh from the audience on the first night, not the reaction one expects. There is unintentional comedy elsewhere – Kaufmann makes a strange lunge for Elisabeth in an early scene and all but double-takes when he meets her at the tomb for the final encounter – small flaws that Hytner really should have ironed out.

Semyon Bychkov conducts an emotionally-distant account of the score, lacking the Italianate heat and nuance of Antonio Pappano’s last year. After a magnificent Lohengrin earlier in the year, it’s something of a disappointment. Tempi are all over the place with some sections whizzing along and others dragging terribly slowly. The Veil Song lacks any sparkle.

How much you enjoy the performance will depend on your feelings about individual singers and your response to Bychkov’s precise but passionless conducting. Any enjoyment derived is likely to be in spite of Bob Crowley’s sparse and ugly designs, with the auto-da-fe scene in particular (garish gold church façade and plastic burning bodies) poised uncomfortably between realism and stylisation.

Barry Millington, This is London, 16 September 2009


Don Carlo is saved by soaring harmony

When Nicholas Hytner’s Royal Opera staging of Don Carlo was new in 2008, some felt it fell short of the classic production Verdi’s finest grand opera demands.

There have been a few cast changes this time round, sometimes to good effect, though it’s still possible to feel shortchanged.

The new Carlo, Jonas Kaufmann, is certainly not a disappointment: his ringing, ardent tone and rugged good looks win all hearts. Marianne Cornetti as the new Princess Eboli brings tonal weight if a slightly measured delivery to her great aria “O don fatale”.

Also new is John Tomlinson: a baleful, formidable presence as the Grand Inquisitor. Marina Poplavskaya, though familiar with the production, took time fully to inhabit the role of Elizabeth of Valois, but she rose magnificently to her big Act 5 aria: impassioned but with a hint of vulnerability.

Simon Keenlyside similarly won a deserved ovation for his intense, animated reprise of the role of Rodrigo, as did Ferruccio Furlanetto for his Philip II.

No Verdi opera has more soaring melodies or stirring harmonies, and Semyon Bychkov, new in the pit, was superb both in his highlighting of detail and in his heart-swelling delivery of the many passages of high-flown nobility.
Hytner’s production, though closely observed, rarely lifts one out of one’s seat in the same way. Bob Crowley’s ill-conceived designs do not help. The auto-da-fe, with its fanatical, bloodthirsty crowd of onlookers, is chilling but played out in front of a vulgar, impossibly gleaming, gold-encrusted cathedral façade. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition to have such a tacky home base.

Fiona Maddocks, The Observer, Sunday 20 September 2009


[This review also covered Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre at ENO, and La Traviata in Cardiff]

Don Carlo, or Don Carlos in the original French version, gathers an entire political landscape into its embrace, at the heart of which is a love triangle of the utmost intimacy. This reworking of Schiller ranks as one of Verdi’s finest operatic achievements though some groan at its length and scale, and at the uncertainty of two of its central characters, the jejune Carlo himself and his compromised blood-brother, Rodrigo, sung with febrile intelligence by Simon Keenlyside.

But in this exciting first revival of Nicholas Hytner’s 2008 production, dramaturgical snags receded. Designed by Bob Crowley and lit by Mark Henderson, it looks magnificent, with its ingenious flourish of Spanish baroque sobriety and gaudy, gilded splendour. Chorus and orchestra responded vividly to Semyon Bychkov’s sweeping, expansive tempi. The cast was exceptional, led by Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. This remarkable Munich-born tenor, seemingly faultless in every musical decision he makes, has just released a solo disc of German repertoire. Yet his handling of Italian opera shows his versatility, with none of the usual puffed-up tenor show-off tendencies.

The Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto returns as a spellbinding, agonised Philip II. Reprising the role of Elisabetta, Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya compensates for bumpiness mid-range with a mesmerising performance of queenly hauteur and inner torment. She looks like a movie star, which helps. John Tomlinson, himself a bit of a matinee idol grise, had been kohl-ed up like a sunken-cheeked el Greco prelate, grotesque in authority as the Inquisitor. Verdi may inhabit an older operatic tradition of precisely the kind Ligeti wanted to challenge. Yet here he shows us the grand macabre, bodied forth on an all too human scale.

Personal review for SK.info from Terence Dawson

Performance; Thursday 1st October 2009

This was the last night of this first revival run of the 2008 production of Verdi’s 1886 version of “Don Carlo” and what a difference a year makes. Now with a new tenor as the eponymous hero (?), a new Princess Eboli, a new Grand Inquisitor and most importantly a new maestro in the pit.

This was not, however, all good news. Let’s start with the bad, so we can finish on a high.

Although the Eboli of Marianne Cornetti was a vast improvement vocally on her predecessor, she made a real mark with her “Saracen Veil Song”, in the first act and was even better in her fourth act aria “O don fatale”, she could not quite make one forget that, visually, this was not a good piece of casting. When in the third act Eboli has Carlo meet her in the Queens garden, (Carlo initially thinking it is his lost love Elizabeth) and because of the physical difference between Cornetti and the sylphlike Elizabeth of Marina Poplavskaya the audience laughs, one knows something is amiss. This is a dramatic moment which drives the story to its tragic conclusion! To their credit the artists admirably played the scene with a great deal of humorous charm.

Sadly, that fine British bass, John Tomlinson, was unable to bring enough menace to the role of the Grand Inquisitor, which is crucial to the success of the confrontation with King Philip II in act four. This is surprising when one remembers his Claggert in “Billy Budd”.

Maestro Pappano was replaced in the pit by Semyon Bychkov and was sadly missed. With the exception of the electrifying “auto-da-fe” scene his handling of the score left a lot to be desired, loose, with some strange tempi in the first act. I have never heard a conductor hooted in this House before, I know it is usual at La Scala and even sometimes at The Met but I do hope it doesn’t start here. It is so rude, if you do not approve just keep quiet!

Now what about the good? Well in short the four principals; Marina Poplavskaya returns as Elizabeth of Valois and although I still think she lacks a stage personality her voice has bloomed in the past year and gave a wonderful vocal account of the role. The taxing aria “tu che le vanita” was memorable and her acting in act one was delightful; girlish and playful, yet shy when realising she is speaking to her (temporary) betrothed Don Carlo.

New to this production the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann played Carlo. This rising young tenor has surely arrived. The real deal; tall, dark and handsome with a voice that to me had something of the young Domingo in it, a stage presence and craft that gave the ever brilliant Keenlyside a run for his money. This is the almost perfect Don Carlo, thrilling and pathetic by turn, he brought this weak yet ultimately heroic, doomed character to life.

Ferruccio Furlanetto, the Italian bass, again played Philip II and although not quite able to replicate the astonishing sonority in the voice that he gave us last year, he did give us an even deeper psychological and more finely drawn portrayal. The study scene when he sings “Ella giammai m’amo”; “She never loved me”, was heartbreakingly good.

And finally Simon Keenlyside’s Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa; the truly heroic figure of the piece. After this performance let no one say that he is not a Verdian baritone! His voice has got darker and fuller and richer, his stage craft is second to none, he is able to take on any role and bring to it an intelligence that few can match. In this production his scenes with Furlanetto’s Philip were electric and with Kaufmann’s Carlo deeply affecting. It makes one shiver to think what he will bring to “Rigoletto” with the WNO next year. Book now, I have!

Richard Nicholson, Classicalsource.com


Performance on Tuesday, September 15, 2009

This production is already taking on the appearance of a classic as early as its first revival. A great deal of artistic, particularly musical endeavour has been invested , which for a successful performance of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” arguably needs more than the four greatest singers in the world as stipulated by Caruso for “Il trovatore”: five or six if you include the Grand Inquisitor would be nearer the mark, not to mention the substantial role of the chorus and the fact that, as a French grand opera, scenic spectacle and a wide variety of musical styles have to be embraced and it is clear the heights to which the Royal Opera is aspiring; no routine repertory opera this. This is only the third production of this great but enigmatic work in fifty years at Covent Garden. The legendary 1958 staging marked the centenary of the present house and represented a collaboration between the designer/director Luchino Visconti and the equally fastidious conductor Carlo Maria Giulini. It was regularly revived for over forty years, by which time the original trompe l’oeil sets had long lost their freshness. The 1996 Luc Bondy staging using the French text, originally displayed at the Châtelet in Paris, was minimalist in scenic terms and that great bass-baritone José van Dam was miscast as Philippe.

This revival of Nicholas Hytner’s production benefited from an outstanding cast, even if a degree or two short of the highest level. Most significantly, the switch to a more reliable exponent of the title role made the relationships at the heart of the work more absorbing and not sidetracked by vocal anxieties. The main attraction among the 2008 cast was Rolando Villazón, who could be counted on to bring pathos to the role. He, as is well known, has been going through a period of shaky vocal health, with cancellations and spells of convalescence. A broadcast from the initial run shows a portrayal of maximum intensity, with tone swollen by emotional energy transmitted through vocal equipment perilously weak for it to bear, something which tenor-watchers had feared and predicted since he came upon the scene.

His successor Jonas Kaufmann has had a career roughly contemporary with Villazón’s but has appeared to own a more robust instrument which allowed him to sing within his resources. A couple of rusty high notes in his Act One aria could easily be excused; an exquisite use of mezza voce announced the singer had engaged with the sensibility of the character. For the heroic declamation of the Act Three public scene he found sufficient weight of tone to hold his own against his raging father, while the long, high lamenting lines of the trio earlier in the Act rang out in powerful confirmation that he realised a turning point had been reached in his life. He retained plenty of stamina for the farewell duet at San Yuste.

Another newcomer to the production is the American Marianne Cornetti. The original Eboli, Sonia Ganassi, basically a Rossini mezzo, though nimble enough in the ‘Veil Song’, was stretched by the heavy dramatic writing elsewhere. Heavy, dramatic mezzos are currently in short supply but Cornetti is of the right sort, an Azucena and an Amneris. She was comfortable at both extremes of the range in the ‘Veil Song’, which was a little restrained vocally. Her jealous fury on discovering that Carlos’s affections lay elsewhere was delivered in tone as impenetrable as teak. Conversely, her remorse before the Queen was movingly conveyed and she offered a rip-roaring ‘O don fatale’. Marina Poplavskaya is a most promising lyrico-spinto soprano with a glowing ruby-red middle and a hauntingly expressive chest register. If her top notes do not yet always burst into flame she is probably right to develop that sort of vocal excitement slowly.

Arguably Posa was the character for whom Verdi wrote his least progressive music in the opera. Though the duet with King Philip in the Second Act embodies the flexible form of evolving dialogue unconstrained by formal rules that is characteristic of the mature Verdi, Posa has three other solos, an elegant romanza in the monastery garden scene and two, one after the other, in his death scene which are conventional. The big duet with Carlo famously ends with a crude C major passage in thirds and sixths which has long been held as a black mark against the composer, at least outside Italy. I did not feel that the role particularly suits Simon Keenlyside, who has made a distinguished career mostly in parts which are physically active and in bold characterisations. Here he has to portray a resigned figure in the prison scene, even if he did achieve the feat of singing most of ‘Io morro’ lying with one cheek on the stage floor!

The central theme of the opera, to which the love interest is really subordinate, is the battle between church and state. Ferruccio Furlanetto dominated every scene except one in which he appears as King Philip. He wants control and asserts it most obviously in his cruel dismissal of the Queen’s lady-in-waiting. Even during his wife’s farewell to her he can be seen casting sideways glances in her direction, looking for confirmation of his suspicions about her. In the auto-da-fé scene his response to Carlos’s appeals is withering. The cry of “Insensato” had me cowering in fright. His colossal bass voice was firmly focused and his enunciation of the text consistently lucid.

I do not remember Christoff, Ghiaurov or Ramey producing greater torrents of sound than this. The scene with Posa had found him stalking the Marquis, getting right in his face when accused of resembling Nero but the first signs of insecurity were present as his confided his fears to him. The great aria, for which Semyon Bychkov set tempos noticeably faster than usual, came from a nervy man rather than from a tragic figure and only the final utterances were forcefully sung, The king’s weakness was underlined by the following duet with the Grand Inquisitor, which he began meekly kneeling. Then, when the Inquisitor went on the attack Furlanetto’s tyrant was left completely trounced. He even met his match for vocal power in this inspired piece of casting: The thunder of John Tomlinson’s Wotan voice only faltered on a very few cloudy high notes. The third bass role of the Monk was sung by Robert Lloyd in a voice imperceptibly changed from his heyday. Whether this was a living human being on his final appearance or an apparition was unclear. Pumeza Matshikiza was a chirpy Tebaldo, prominent in every scene in which she appeared, while the clean sound of tenor Robert Anthony Gardiner contains promise of a career in the lyric repertoire to come. He and Eri Nakamura, a bell-like Voice from Heaven, are members of the Jette Parker Young Artists Scheme. The Flemish deputies made a positive effect vocally as well as dramatically.

Bychkov’s conducting matched that of his predecessor Antonio Pappano. His handling of the orchestral commentary which Verdi writes, especially for the duets in which the work abounds, was telling. The dramatic moments were thrillingly done yet there was subtlety also. In the introduction to the first scene of Act Three statements of the theme of Carlos’s opening aria overlap; his encouragement of each group of players to produce a distinctive colour in these sequences was a memorable moment in the performance. The Chorus excelled itself to an exceptionally high level of vocal standard and musicianship, which Choral Director Roberto Balsadonna is nurturing and managing admirably. These singers’ ability to move smartly into position before attacking their music impeccably was particularly noticeable in the auto-da-fé scene, where the mob had to be corralled against the side wall at the appearance of the monarch. Nicholas Hytner’s production avoids the excesses of a ‘concept’ staging and characterisations are incisively drawn. The central portrayal of Don Carlos as immature is established in the first scene. He initially approaches Elisabetta, then withdraws bashfully. They indulge in a playful chase with the portrait. Yet there is an erotic daring about him, as he edges closer to her off the two tree-stumps on which they are seated. It comes as no surprise when his libido overflows in the Act Two duet. He stalks her; even when the physical approach is repulsed he crawls over the ground, attempting to trap her train. In the garden scene, expecting her arrival for an assignation, he lies supine in an overtly sexual pose.

I was perturbed by his treatment of Posa’s visit to Carlos in jail, however: they pawed each other in a way which suggested that the two men had more than a platonic friendship. Can this have been intentional? Hytner’s handling of all such encounters is responsive to the rhythms of the musical development and his blocking of choral groups such as the ladies-in-waiting during the ‘Veil Song’ thoughtful. The one big mistake is to add sound effects to the scene in the square in Valladolid. The crowd’s shouts of enthusiasm drowned out the stage band (its co-ordination with the orchestra in the pit was extremely well-disciplined) while gratuitously abusing the heretics, each of whom was offered the opportunity to repent by a supernumerary priest not envisioned by the work’s creators

Bob Crowley’s scenery has elements that are clearly symbolic, such as the portcullis wall which descends repeatedly, cutting off Carlos and emphasising his isolation. Mark Henderson’s lighting is less contentious, the shafts of light piercing the gloom of the monastery highly evocative, as is the lighting of Philip’s study, which left us wondering what might be there in the murky depths of that large space. While appreciating that The Royal Opera wanted to choose a complete version of this score as approved by Verdi, rather than creating its own jigsaw of the best bits from miscellaneous versions, I would have liked to see the 1866 introduction to Act One (cut before the première the following year), in which the hardship suffered by the peasantry and Elisabetta’s compassion are more strongly drawn (and in fine music), unlike the perfunctory treatment they receive in the shortened version. The quiet ending of Act Five with monks chanting which Verdi originally wrote also seems to me preferable. As it stands, however, this is a triumph.

Stephen Jay-Taylor, Opera Britannia, 16 September 2009


Performance on 15 September 2009

Following on from the concert performances of Linda di Chamounix, this Don Carlo constituted the first staged opera to open the 2009/10 season, and, just as when the production was new in the summer of last year, there was quite a high level of expectations attaching to the event, some of them even my own. I may as well say immediately that this time, just as last, most of these were summarily dashed well before the middle of Act II, scene ii – the cloisters of the monastery of San Yuste – in which the truly dreadful, lurid red, kiddie-Lego set, cardboard cypresses and amateurish direction of what one would have thought foolproof theatrical encounters rendered the whole powerful drama on about the level of a poorly mounted school play. Quite what Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theatre, could be thought to have brought to this staging other than Bob Crowley’s hideous, unatmospheric, cheap-looking designs, God alone knows – barely acceptable as a £10 Travelex show in the Olivier, and I’d still want a 50% refund – because it certainly isn’t any profound engagement with the drama at the level of individual Personenregie (there isn’t any) much less any sense of the extraordinary work’s sheer scale and scope. The Royal Opera House itself in its promotional puffs has variously described the staging as “spacious and stylized” and most recently (and preposterously) “sumptuous”. This is the merest spinful thinking. The opening Fontainebleau act is certainly “stylised” all right: with its already tatty and poorly-laid, ruched-up floor-cloth representing “snow” – over the front edge of which everybody tonight tripped at some point or other – which has to be hauled upstage so as not to stick out under the descending “fourth wall” that acts as an act-and scene- change cover, and with two white tree trunks conveniently acting as practicable props to sit on around the miraculously self-lighting gas bonfire, we’re back in a world of tawdry theatrical illusion that looks considerably older than the opera itself, and scarcely credible as the work of a respected theatre director in 2008. The fifty-year old Visconti show never looked this rubbishy, even after thirty years’ long hard service.

The “sumptuous” staging of the Auto-da-fé is so inept as to beggar belief, a dinky 1:10 scale model of the mighty façade of Valladolid Cathedral about fifty feet upstage, some weird Turin shroud-type cylindrical cloth obscuring most of stage right, and a spavined procession of heretics all of which gives the impression that at some point Covent Garden has had the bailiffs in. This will be laughed off the stage at the Metropolitan Opera when the show – it’s a co-pro, so surely somebody had some money to put into it – debuts there next year. And if the flabby staging weren’t bad enough – the choral blocking is heroically dreadful, and the shocking, stand-off climax between father and son pathetically muffed – Hytner has been allowed to continue his wretched practice of having a priest noisily harangue all the heretics by individual name in yelled Italian dialogue (translated on the surtitle screen, though neither Verdi nor his librettists included any such material) that is considerably louder than, and obscures, the music. O, someone needs burning alright….

All of which might have mattered a little less if, as last year, in the general sea of scenic slovenliness, there was a blinding performance of Verdi’s score going on. No such luck. To my amazement, the conductor who has given us such thrilling accounts of Elektra and Lohengrin in the house, Semyon Bychkov, here gave us easily the most unidiomatic, leaden trudge through the score I recall hearing across both decades and continents, killing Eboli’s “Veil song” stone dead, plodding through the Auto-da-fé like a bored bandmaster, but engaging in sudden little bursts of unwritten accelerandi when he felt the dramatic temperature was in danger of falling below zero. Not a climax was properly placed, and the overall dramatic structure felt flat and interminable, with much artificial highlighting of detail that fought against Verdi’s carefully calculated jet-black tinta. It said much for the orchestra’s professionalism that they actually played very well indeed, and with a deal of both refinement and virtuosity, but I haven’t personally heard the score go for less in the House since Solti, more years ago than I care either to admit or even remember. I was also much put out that, far from expanding upon the overly cautious approach to the performing text that Pappano permitted himself last year – adding nothing of the myriad discoveries made in the Paris archives over the past forty years save the very welcome “Lacrymosa” duet for father and son in Act IV – Bychkov even decided to cut that. I want to hear the opening prelude, the woodcutter’s chorus, the starving peasantry’s plea (dear God, even the snip-happy Metropolitan perform these) and the two duets for Elisabetta and Eboli in Act III and IV. The ballet you can keep.

The intention with this revival was to replicate the original cast from last year with the exception of recasting the eponymous “hero” in the shape of Jonas Kaufmann. In the event, Sonia Ganassi – the Eboli – withdrew due to childbearing duties, leaving us with Messrs. Keenlyside and Furlanetto, and Ms. Poplavskaya as before, and Marianne Cornetti as Eboli. Keenlyside’s Posa remains dignified, intelligent and sung with scrupulous musicianship, within an evenly-produced, warmly lyrical line (“Per me giunto” was exemplary in this respect): but it is hard to escape the feeling that the voice is at the very least one size too small for the role; and that smooth, suave and subtle is all very well, but ultimately underwhelming. Furlanetto’s voice is not perhaps ideally steady – though up against John Tomlinson’s way-past-bedtime Inquisitor he sounded firmer than a rock – but the fact is that he alone in this staging has the authentic Italian manner, rides the orchestra with ease, commands the stage, and now invests his Act IV aria with much more evident feeling than he managed last year. Considered as a single piece of singing, his account of “Ella giammai m’amò!” was in many respects the highlight of the performance.

I thought Marianne Cornetti quite woeful in the “Veil song”, though as I have suggested above, possibly not all the blame for that can be laid at her door. On the other hand, the spread, blowsy tone is all her own, and would probably have done for it whatever the accompaniment. Hytner’s staging is also responsible for the poor woman’s mistaken midnight tryst with Carlo – who’s expecting Elisabetta – getting the loudest and most widespread round of upfront guffawing I’ve ever heard at this point from an audience who by this time clearly regarded the drama as so much pasteboard (like the sets). Unforgivable to expose the poor woman in this way, and in yet another avenue of flat cardboard cypresses lit like Blade Runner. Of course, it doesn’t help that Cornetti is a foot shorter and wider than the woman she’s mistaken for, but that is what directors are there to help circumnavigate, not treat as a throwaway joke. In fact, she rallied for “O don fatale”, and though it was neither subtle nor suave – the high C flat went on for what felt like hours, throbbing like a car on a cold morning, but undeniably there – she certainly has the grand manner, and rather unexpectedly I found myself warming to her.

No chance, alas, of warming to Marina Poplavskaya’s utterly miscast Elisabetta, a chilly impersonation for all the very images/stories/marina poplavskaya and elizabeth woods by c. ashmore.bmpevident dramatic commitment, and a voice not remotely suited to Verdi. Treading on eggshells when trying to sing softly and still retain some semblance of technical control over the voice – “Non pianger, mia compagna” in Act II – she ran into real problems with Act V’s “Tu che le vanità”, which emerged as a disconnected series of bumps and jolts, bereft of proper Italian(ate) legato, with phrasing compromised by endemic short-windedness; and though she manifests a laudable tendency to try to sing softly, she rapidly swells to a more controllable fortissimo and then dives into the following note with what I can only describe as a “yowl” (you hear a lot of it, alas, in late-period Leontyne Price). That certainly scuppered “Francia!”, which I have known draw tears when properly sung like a caress against the cheek rather than the ugly glottal gulp we got here. There are passages in the voice that still lead me to believe that her future is in Wagner: I certainly think she should be singing Senta and Elsa right now rather than this completely unItalianate Elisabetta, steely and lacking in any vocal warmth or colour.

Which really only leaves us with Don Carlo himself. If only a great Don Carlo a great Don Carlo made, then this would have been the greatest since the palmy days of Vickers. As it is, rather like Don Giovanni, the opera can carry a less than first-rate protagonist: but a first-rate protagonist cannot carry the opera. Kaufmann was truly magnificent, beyond expectation in the role, and actually completely confuted two of my preconceptions: one, that he would sing a gung-ho performance; and two, that he would sound, as he always has here so far, strongly baritonal. In the event, the tenor sounded more or less entirely tenorial all night, with little or no trace of the tremendous black bark he has at his command. And so far from gung-ho, this was the very subtlest, exquisitely shaded account of the role I’m prepared to wager it has ever been given, anywhere. For once I found myself cursing the original tenor, Morère, against whom Verdi took so violently during the nearly 300 – that is not a misprint, by the way – rehearsals the piece had in Paris in 1866/67 that he stripped him of his aria at the start of Act V and gave it, rewritten, to the soprano instead. To hear Kaufmann sing whatever Verdi had originally planned instead of “Tu che le vanità” I think I’d offer up at least an arm, and quite possibly both legs.

The truly remarkable thing is that Kaufmann’s barely whispered “Io vengo a domandar” in Act II and his share of the Act V duet were so completely audible, though sung on the merest thread of voice, and never once – as undeniably used to happen with Vickers – lapsing into crooning. To retain so much characteristic, and properly coloured and supported tone in an instrument the sheer size of Kaufmann’s, when singing right at the top of his range but in considerably less than half-voice, is little short of miraculous, and I was often metaphorically rubbing my ears in disbelief at the technical prodigy we were experiencing live. I‘ve not heard the like since Caballé’s legendary days, and never really expected to again, least of all from a natural heldentenor. Of course, where heft was required, it was handsomely forthcoming – why doesn’t this man just get on with it and sing Otello, for which he lacks nothing? – but he is a good colleague and rarely lets himself go in the ensemble numbers that constitute the bulk of his part. For him alone, this revival is a pearl beyond price, and indeed the men are all good (sterling support work from Robert Anthony Gardiner’s Lerma, too, though Robert Lloyd is in truth now too unsteady for Carlo Quinto/Mysterious Monk). But most of the rest is alas something of a trial.

Frank Cadenhead, Playbillarts.com, 23 September 2009


London’s Royal Opera House opened its 2009-2010 at Covent Garden with Verdi’s daunting five-act dramatic opera Don Carlo. Frank Cadenhead was on hand for a performance of the Nicholas Hytner-staged

The ROH makes staging Don Carlo look so easy. This challenging and complex music drama, in the five-act 1886 “final” version, runs nearly as long as Wagner operas and can often seem longer. But this inspired production, returning from last year and so luxuriously sung, was totally seductive from the start. September 15 was a triumphant opening night to Covent Garden’s 2009-2010 season.

Munich-born Jonas Kaufmann was recruited and agreed to sing his first five-act Don Carlo in the spotlight. While lacking the sunny Italian sound, he more than makes up for this with extraordinary vocal intelligence and skillful dramatic thrust. Handsome and possessing a rich and powerful instrument, it is no wonder his appearances create a media frenzy. Also warmly received was Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya whose performance suggests a major diva has arrived. Clearly comfortable portraying the conflicted Elizabeth of Vadois, her voice had exciting energy and lushness.

Posa is sung by returning baritone star Simon Keenlyside with bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as an unapproachably perfect Philip II – a truly noble portrait. His nemesis, the Grand Inquisitor, was sung by that grand Wotan, John Tomlinson, taking on this role for the first time. The few lines of Carlos V were sung by no less than bass Robert Lloyd. American mezzo Marianne Cornetti was effective as Princess Eboli and could be more so if there were less “operatic” gesturing.

Returning from the success of the previous year, Nicholas Hytner’s sometimes angry, sometimes elegant, sometimes playful staging puts the drama center stage. The political emphasis on the idea of freedom closely tracks the Schiller’s drama and Verdi himself. With Hytner, the mutual rejection of absolutism between blood brothers Carlos and Posa has rarely been so carefully drawn.

The quibbles were few. The carpet of snow in the First Act will likely be better tacked down in subsequent performances and hopefully the Voice from Heaven (Eri Nakamura) will be a little less far off stage. Having the expansive baton of Semyon Bychkov in the pit gave the evening a special glow and excitement. That, along with the luxurious casting, makes this a revival of an operatic masterpiece that should not be missed.

Colin Anderson, Theoperacritic.com, 18 September 2009


Bychkov finds the Russian in Verdi

This first revival of Nicholas Hytner’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlo (performed in the 1886 five-act Italian language version) is now conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Antonio Pappano led the original run in June last year. Bychkov brings urgency, naked dynamism and heart to the work, securing fine and weighty playing but sometimes choosing tempos that are too fast, notably in the ‘oath of allegiance’ duet for Don Carlos (Jonas Kaufmann) and Rodrigo (Simon Keenlyside) that was here under pressure rather than opening out gloriously. But there’s an edge, too, that is welcome, Bychkov bringing out a Russian side to this score (Mussorgsky in particular) that is convincing and, towards the end of this epic setting, finding a Tchaikovskian soul that is very affecting.

The mention of Keenlyside confirms that many singers retain their previous roles. As Rodrigo, Keenlyside has deepened his portrayal and commands the stage; as Elizabeth of Valois, Marina Poplavskaya remains noble and humane; and as Philip II, Ferruccio Furlanetto brings anger and despair in equal measure, nothing forced, yet palpable, and ringing to all corners of the auditorium.

Of the newcomers, Jonas Kaufmann as Carlos is heroic, somewhat deliberately naive, and his voice wonderfully expansive; in contrast, and even for his relatively brief appearance, John Tomlinson makes an awesome, terrifying Grand Inquisitor; and as Princess Eboli, Marianne Cornetti is a somewhat shadowy figure, vocally assured and in charge of the character’s volatile range of emotions as she stalks Carlos and loses.

Bob Crowley’s designs continue to inspire in both the striking visuals and that little distracts. From the story-book opening, in which Carlos and Elizabeth (already contracted to marry) meet and fall in love, we know the outcome will be tragic, and the snowy happiness of that opening winter scene is in abrupt contrast to what unfolds. Come the close, Bychkov really clinches the denouement, hammering home the ultimate hopelessness. He brings vividness to the scenes of public tumult, grace to idyllic moments and sustains the tension of the private interior of the characters, despite the solos in the orchestra quite having the personality they require, and which may account for a lack of tension at times.

Don Carlo is an epic and complex opera; on this occasion, it seems a little too long, but the liaisons (Carlos and Elizabeth, Carlos and Rodrigo) and confrontations (Philip II and Grand Inquisitor) proved gripping. Don Carlos is one of Verdi’s great achievements and the Royal Opera’s continued advocacy of it is to be welcomed. It is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 17 October.

Hugh Canning, Sunday Times, 20 September 2009


A revival of Nicholas Hytner’s 2008 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo raised the curtain on staged opera proper.

Hytner returned to revive his disappointingly stolid staging of Verdi’s magnificent Schiller-based opera, but he hasn’t, alas, improved it. I am still at a loss to fathom how a designer as talented as Bob Crowley managed to conceive such ugly, unatmospheric settings for the Act III Garden and Auto de fe scenes — the tormenting of the heretics suggests Blackadder-style parody rather than the most serious grand opera ever written. The cast appear uncomfortable in their period costumes and the entire show looks undisciplined, a Don Carlo-themed fancy-dress party, instead of a great political drama.

With his expansive yet tautly dramatic conducting, Semyon Bychkov restores the dignity and grandeur lacking in Hytner’s staging to Verdi’s magnificent score. He revels in the evocation of a romantic moonlit night in Carlo’s botched nocturnal tryst with his stepmother. This is a darker, gloomier reading of the score than Antonio Pappano’s volatile, more Italianate account last year, but equally rewarding. He has the advantage over Pappano of not having to nurture a struggling Rolando Villazon as Carlo and an Elisabetta, Marina Poplavskaya, who ran out of vocal steam in time for her big final act solo. The Russian soprano, strikingly blonde and elegant, if vocally glacial, has improved out of recognition this time round, even if her pitch sagged at the end of her aria. Villazon’s replacement, the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, attempts something I have never heard before in a Don Carlo, a fundamentally introverted, poetic soul, capable of heroic heft when needed. His mezza voce in the closing bars of the final duet were spellbinding. Both he and Simon Keenlyside’s elegant Posa would probably be happier singing in the original French. Marianne Cornetti’s busty and gutsy Eboli unbalances the lyricism of the youthful leads, but she matches up to the lung power of the three star basses the Royal Opera luxuriously casts as Philip II (Ferruccio Furlanetto), the Inquisitor (John Tomlinson) and the Emperor Charles V disguised as a monk (Robert Lloyd). For Bychkov and these singers the revival is unmissable.

Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph, 24 Sep 2009


While some details still need sharpening, Nicholas Hytner’s Don Carlo shows the Royal Opera at its best.

Rating: Four out of Five stars

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Don Carlo, sung in Verdi’s final 5-act Italian version, drew mixed reviews when it was unveiled last year. I liked it more than most, but felt that it would benefit from tweaking.

Although Hytner has returned to Covent Garden to supervise the revival (and tone down some incidental excesses), that remains my feeling.

The story-line and the conflicts between the characters are lucidly drawn and Bob Crowley’s sets powerfully convey the oppressive atmosphere of Counter-Reformation gloom. But the treatment of the auto-da-fe remains garishly vulgar and ineffectual, and details still needs sharpening.

Finally, Hytner doesn’t offer anything to match either of the opera’s two previous Covent Garden stagings – Visconti’s, with its sheer visual beauty, or Bondy’s, with its imaginative psychological insight.

Yet this shortfall doesn’t detract from a tremendous performance, the musical quality of which outstrips last year’s premiere.

Semyon Bychkov may not be a glamorous or sensational conductor, but he is the genuine article, honouring the gravitas of the score with wisely measured tempi and a mature sense of Verdian architecture. The orchestra played beautifully for him, and the singers floated some delicately expressive soft passages under his supportive cushion.

The refinement was particularly evident among the three male principals, whom you’d be hard pushed to surpass. As Posa, a rejuvenated Simon Keenlyside produced warm, fluent tone and nobly shaped phrasing. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Filippo was magnificently implcable in public, profoundly pitiable in private. And that dream of a tenor Jonas Kaufmann made Carlo for once the drama’s centre – a boyishly impulsive and introspective Hamlet, doomed to failure, who sang his Act I aria with a spine-tingling loveliness and still sounded as good come Act 5.

The ladies weren’t quite in their league. As Elisabetta, Marina Poplavskaya was in much steadier voice than she’d been in 2008 and rose to the challenge of her Act 5 aria, but crisper Italian would enrich her interpretation. I wasn’t mad on the prosaic Eboli of Marianne Cornetti, but she went bravely at ’O don fatale’, all guns firing.

With a scarey Grand Inquisitor from John Tomlinson, a charming Tebaldo from Pumeza Matshikiza, a nicely blended quintet of Flemish deputies and a fresh-sounding chorus, this was the Royal Opera at its best, as the rapt audience enthusiastically acknowledged.

Ditlev Rindom, mundoclasico.com


The Ridiculous and the Sublime

Performance on 27/09/2009

One of the most striking aspects of this season’s programme at Covent Garden is the number of revivals of earlier productions, reuniting more-or-less the original cast for what is presumably expected to be a sure-fire popular success. Later on in the year is La Fille du Régiment with Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay; before that there is Il Turco in Italia with most of the 2005 team; and here opening the season proper is Verdi’s Don Carlo, which took the summer out with a bang in June 2008. That earlier performance was marred by Rolando Villazon’s recurrent vocal problems, and the introduction now of Jonas Kaufmann raised hopes that previous inconsistencies would have been ironed out. In the event, the revival has proved to be something of a mixed bag, with its constituent elements ranging from the sublime, the stolidly professional to the downright preposterous.

Nicholas Hytner’s production unfortunately bears the blame for much of this. The lack of aesthetic consistency results in several jarring transitions, most notably when a prison wall descends upon Carlos as he moves from the symbolic forest of Fontainebleau in Act One. Scenically, the staging moves between minimalist settings such as Philip’s study to absurdly extravagant moments in the Auto-da-Fé, where a blood-stained image of Christ is later illuminated to reveal the burning bodies of several heretics. This constant shifting between theatrical styles fatally undermines any sense of dramatic coherence, just as the apparent cheapness of some of Bob Crowley’s sets makes a mockery of the supposed grandeur of Inquisitorial Spain. There were several moments in the production when one actually had to suppress laughter, and one only wonders how someone of Hytner’s theatrical pedigree could come up with an idea as ill-conceived as this.

Musically, things were more varied. With Kaufmann cancelling due to a severe cold, Alfred Kim gave a truly commendable, guns-blazing performance which in a different time and place might have made him a star. His ringing, virile voice was equal to every one of Verdi’s challenges and there were moments – admittedly at the more heroic end of the spectrum – when his singing was positively thrilling. Alongside him, Marina Poplavskaya gave what is probably the best performance I have seen from her as Elisabetta, the slight steeliness in her voice confidently cutting through the more dense elements in Verdi’s orchestration. Her normally unwieldy top register was here much more secure and she proved genuinely affecting in her farewell to the Countess of Aremberg. At the same time, none of this was enough substantially to change my view that Poplavskaya is simply not good enough yet to be performing roles consistently at this level of profile. In the past few seasons, she has been offered principal parts alongside such stars as Gerald Finley, Joyce DiDonato, Rolando Villazon and later in the year, most impressively, Placido Domingo – surely the most prestigious gig in the business. But why? At present her singing evidently lacks the range of colour, charisma or technical security to make her an A-class opera house celebrity, and it seems odd that Covent Garden so persistently seeks to promote her in this way. Poplavskaya is undoubtedly a talented performer, but I can’t help feeling that her merits would shine more brightly in slightly less illustrious company.

In the role of Eboli, Marianne Cornetti gave a slightly brash, not exactly seductive but nonetheless enjoyable performance, in a repertoire which suits her voice like a glove. If she didn’t quite have the ideal flexibility for the Veil song, her ‘o don fatale’ more than compensated with stonking high notes and a sense of authority to match.

That tricky top register proved to be a little too much for John Tomlinson, whose singing these days is unfortunately a shadow of what it used to be. That said, he acts with so much conviction and verve that I was still grateful to have him on stage, and the scenes with him in certainly raised the theatrical temperature a few notches. In the three smaller parts, Robert Lloyd, Pumeza Matshikiza and Eri Nakamura all contributed superbly, with the latter in particular aptly taking on the role of ‘Voice from Heaven’.

This only leaves King Philip II and Posa, and I am delighted to report that both of these roles were interpreted almost to perfection. As the young Marquis, Simon Keenlyside was passionate, impetuous, and revolutionary in a way that brought to mind his famous assumption of Hamlet. Few would dispute that his is not the ‘typical’ voice for this role – a part normally taken by considerably heavier baritones – but he performs it with so much involvement and lyrical succulence that his obvious vocal pushing was really just another aspect of his character’s identity. The death scene in particular was a triumph of subtlety and he set up a remarkable dialogue with Kim given the scant rehearsal time (at most six hours). As the troubled King, Ferruccio Furlanetto was absolutely mesmeric. Hectoring and hieratic in his public scenes, he revealed a tragic eloquence in the fourth Act, when he speculated upon the woes of Elisabetta’s disinterestedness, and the rich grains of his voice were perfectly suited to portraying this noble figure’s conflicts. Coming so soon after his marvellous Don Basilio in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, it’s extraordinary to reflect upon the dramatic range of this remarkable singer.

Setting the seal on this strangely uneven performance, Semyon Bychkov offered an interpretation which revealed an unsuspected chink in his otherwise flawless armour. As with his recent performances of Lohengrin, he managed to elicit orchestral playing of peerless beauty, revealing musical lines like precious jewels and encouraging a string tone of unusual richness. The vertical dimension of his conducting – in terms of balance and shading – was absolutely perfect, but by contrast it occasionally highlighted a strange lack of rhythmic flexibility and drive in the corresponding axis. Perhaps he felt that Don Carlos, amongst the most regal of Verdi’s operas, demanded something more spacious, but in the end his stately tempi and unwillingness really to indulge the music’s throb-and-release made for a surprisingly sober experience.

All in all, then, an odd start to the new season at Covent Garden (one wonders how Kaufmann might have affected this) and one which raises questions over the choice of staging for the inauguration of the year. That said, one shouldn’t be too downcast. In a few days time, a new production of Tristan und Isolde is due to open, conducted by Antonio Pappano and featuring the dream team of Nina Stemme, Ben Heppner, and Matti Salminen. That should get things off to a more confident start, and I for one can hardly wait.

Roger Parker, Opera, November 2009

Every regular opera-goer will understand why Don Carlos is such an undertaking: its length, its dramatic and scenic complexities, its orchestral difficulties. And then of course there are the singers: six of them, indeed, with all but one (the Inquisitor) making strenuous demands on even the best international voices. One of the reasons this revival worked so well was the way in which these voices blended or contrasted with one another with such compelling variety, showing us yet again that Verdi, despite other prodigious skills, was first and foremost a master of epic vocal confrontation.

On one side of Don Carlos, the dark triangle of the Inquisitor, Posa and Philip, these confrontations are spiky and declamatory. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Philip, the fulcrum, was well-nigh perfect here, his diction razor-edged but with an ability in ‘Ella giammai’ to break into unexpected, heart-rending lyricism. In the Act 4 duet he was matched every inch of the way by John Tomlinson’s Inquisitor; the latter’s upper reaches were perilously strained but the soul of the part, its grim, unseeing, obstinate centre, was powerfully intact. Simon Keenlyside’s Posa fitted well into this ambience. His baritone is not conventionally Italianate, and in that sense contrasted strikingly-dramatically with Furlanetto in their confrontation. But he is un-Italian for all the right reasons: although more than capable of a long-spun line, he typically thinks in small-scale musical shapes and vocal contours, forever alive to the nuances of individual words and the potential for musical conversation. This triangle mostly shouts at each other, producing what Verdi liked proudly to call Dramma (always with that capital D). But there’s another, made up of Posa, Elisabeth and Carlos: one that-although with moments of violent disagreement – typically blends. Here the fulcrum is Carlos, an ultra-demanding role negotiated with remarkable skill and telling effect by Jonas Kaufmann. Again the voice is un-Italian, its baritonal edge making the Act I aria rather odd, but after that he was always strongly compelling. The ‘shoulder-to shoulder’ moments with Posa were excellent; more memorable still was the variation of tone he used in his duets with Elisabeth – his quiet singing in the final duet produced some of the most ravishing vocal sounds I’ve heard in a long time. He was ably supported here by Marina Poplavskaya, whose Elisabeth tired a little towards the end of her Act 5 aria but whose passion and beauty of tone had until then supplied all the light we needed in this fundamentally gloomy opera. The only slight disappointment came from Marianne Cometti, who contributed a melodramatic, rather squally Eboli. Semyon Bychkov coaxed some beautiful sounds from the Royal Opera House orchestra and made patient, loving sense out of the opera’s endlessly demanding instrumental palette.

Nicholas Hytner’s production divides the critics, perhaps because it is itself curiously divided moments of frank routine (the bear hugs and chest-thumps so freely exchanged by Posa and Carlos) alternate with moments of great sensitivity (the delicate choreography of that final Elisabeth-Carlos duet). Some large-scale scenes work wonderfully: the courtiers throwing down their cloaks to pave Elisabeth’s way to her marriage with Philip fits uncannily well with the musical backdrop. But why oh why does Hytner distract from Verdi’s so-carefully gradated sound-world in the auto-da-fe by having peals of Mussorgsky-like bells, a shouting chorus and (worst of all) a priest loudly calling out the inquisitorial odds? Bob Crowley’s sets are equally hit-and-miss: the prison-like cloisters, with their shafts of light suggesting constant surveillance, are tremendously evocative; but the Legoland shapes and colours that adorn most of Act 2, which just about work for the fans and skirts of Eboli’s entrance aria, seem hopelessly out of place as a setting for the stark pragmatism of the Philip-Posa duet. Of course, no directorial reading of Don Carlos is going to please everyone all the time. Dramma, as Verdi knew all too well, is a constantly shifting value. But, musically at least, this ROH revival showed the opera in something like its full glory, and for that we can be grateful indeed.

George Hall, Opera News, December  2009 , vol 74 , no.6

Jonas Kaufmann sang his first Don Carlo in the Royal Opera’s latest revival of Verdi’s great score on September 15. He showed an easy command of its difficulties and was never short of power in the many strenuous passages while founding his performance on a sweet-toned, clean-edged lyricism inflected with an intelligent response to the drama. A resourceful actor, his physicality matched his finely tuned vocalism in a traversal of the role notable for its constant engagement and consistent impact.

The current Royal Opera production plays the work as Don Carlo, using the familiar Italian translation and presenting the five-act version of the piece first staged in Modena in 1884. (In 1996, for the first time ever at this address, the company staged the work in the original French in a staging by Luc Bondy, though it has subsequently regressed from this musicologically correct position.) The present staging is by Nicholas Hytner, director of London’s Royal National Theatre, working with designer Bob Crowley, and presents a largely dark and oppressive period vision of the Spanish court while struggling to envision a convincingly spectacular auto-da-fé.

Also new to the production this time around were Marianne Cornetti’s bold and bracing Eboli, delivered in a vigorous manner and with an ample use of chest voice. John Tomlinson made his first Covent Garden appearance as the Grand Inquisitor, a character he plays, aptly, on the grandest scale, and with a rough, gruff vocalism that is his general mode these days but which works well in the context.
Simon Keenlyside repeated his Marquis of Posa, vocally an astutely scaled, elegantly sung portrayal (he was the only cast member to manage a real trill), conveyed with an attention to the detail of the character’s motivation that revealed that even this out-and-out liberal is not above using Carlo’s dependence on him for his own political ends. Marina Poplavskaya sang Elisabetta more confidently than two seasons ago, giving musical shape and purpose to her long, sculpted lines. She suggested movingly the intense self-denial that becomes the character’s way of dealing with her infinite disappointment and sense of loss.

Ferruccio Furlanetto, the only Italian in this Italian-language production, benefited from his native connection to the text and from his substantial, rounded tone to flesh out the sternness of King Philip, though there’s an overall affability to Furlanetto’s stage appearances that precluded a deeper engagement with such a dark character.

The orchestra and chorus (the latter expanded for this epic) had an outstanding evening under the baton of Semyon Bychkov. Ever a popular visitor to the Royal Opera House, he gave a reading of the piece notable for its gravity and emotional restraint, exploring the dusky colors of the score with focused attention.

Carla Finesilver, Silverfin, 9/2009

” … Simon Keenlyside’s Posa is truly a thing of beauty. He personified all the facets of the character with complete conviction (including, I am pleased to say, Posa’s love for Carlos, which in some hands can be unconvincing). I blubbed my way through his death scene – and love opera as I do, this is not something that I make a habit of. …”

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