Don Carlo - Royal Opera House, 6 June 2008
*****UPDATE*****(Go here for sound clips news)*****
I realised this was a Big Night when I spotted Anna Netrebko knocking back a jar in the Amphitheatre Bar ( - the People's bar! - Anna is one of us! ) on my way in. In a dove grey sleeveless babydoll with high silver sandals and white Chanel bag (murky-but-full-marks-for-getting-the-shot photos here) she looked perky and happy, giggling with a pair of party-frocked companions.
I don't know if she came to cheer on Rolando or just to hang out round the cake counter, but I do hope she managed to catch the show. Because the gossip was right on the ball - following hot on the heels of Salome and The Minotaur, Nicholas Hytner's take on Verdi's Don Carlo pulls off a hat trick of stunning new productions this year at Covent Garden. The musical performance, almost beyond perfect, flatters the production considerably. I'm not sure, mulling it over post-show with a glass of Bonsai Shiraz, whether it'd be quite so gasp-worthy with a different conductor and cast. But that's for co-commissioners Oslo and the Met to figure out.
Underpinning it all was Antonio Pappano's glorious conducting, lucid and measured, revealing all the beauty and tragic grandeur of the score. The ROH orchestra have rarely sounded this good, even the most exposed passages exquisitely delineated.
And it was perfectly cast vocally - and visually too, a near-impossible feat. But when you've just spent a fortune on a DVD company as the ROH have, I guess these matters get pushed to the forefront.
The pick of the cast was undoubtedly Rolando Villazón, in the title role. His very first word - "Fontainebleau" - full of the passion and yearning that suffused his entire performance - sent a shiver down my spine.
This production is less even-handed than some - it is very much Carlo's story, a tragedy on a Shakesperean scale, and Rolando, in magnificent form, provided a charismatic centre. His Carlo was a Spanish Hamlet, immature, impulsive and ruled by his passions, an interpretation lent emphasis by the comparative restraint of the other principal performances. No such restraint for Rolando, whose ardour ran unchecked whether in his unfulfilled desire for Elisabetta, his deep bond with Posa or his devotion to the cause of freedom and justice.
Marina '50p' Poplavskaya was hugely impressive as Elisabetta, more astute and wordly wise than Carlo, and here I think a bit older too. As the first act of this five-act version makes clear, she wasn't forced into marriage with Carlo's father Philip - she chose it. That same sense of duty which drove her choice explains her coolness towards Carlo.
Poplavskaya's huge steely voice wanted for nothing, save a little more tenderness in her final duet with Carlo and maybe a couple of high notes. And she has the sort of charisma that can't be manufactured or acted. To think Covent Garden originally went after Angela Gheorghiu for this role - we've had a lucky escape.
Hytner's ruthless directorial concept may have left Rolando with not much in the way of hot secksy chemistry with la Pops, but he had a firm and manly bond with Posa, an unusually restrained characterisation from Simon Keenlyside. We get so used to seeing Simon bouncing around the stage in the more physical roles that it's almost a shock to see he can turn that energy inward and produce such a contained, opaque performance. His duets with Rolando were central, dramatically, and both delivered with a heartbreaking poignancy.
The only reason Ferruccio Furlanetto didn't steal the show is that he wasn't on stage for that long. We are so lucky to have had the honour of his presence twice this season (last time as a luxurious late sub in Simon Boccanegra). Both the terrifying gravity of Philip's public facade and his pitiless self-analysis behind closed doors were displayed in riveting fashion. The difficulty with this part is to sound aged but not completely clapped-out, and FF's sonorous, chocolatey, ever-so-slightly-frayed bass is perfection itself.
Sonia Ganassi wasn't a particularly villainous Eboli. Perhaps it was Hytner's idea to avoid two-dimensional characterisations, but it robbed some of the incidental drama. Ganassi sang wonderfully though, as did the two basses Eric Halfvarson, a truly terrifying Grand Inquisitor, and Robert Lloyd, displaying his habitual gravitas and sonority as the old monk/Carlos.
All the smaller parts were without exception brilliantly sung, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse (amphitheatre seats have an advantage here) of the exquisitely crystalline Voice from Heaven, Anita Watson, as she sang from literally right on top of the auditorium, through the vent in the centre of the roof.
I had some reservations about the production design when I first saw it last month. Not the period costumes, which seemed beautiful and appropriate, and turned out to be even more so in practice. There's always a place in my heart for a thigh boot.
But the sets I then found crude and basic, though designer Bob Crowley pointed out that lighting would make a major difference. As it turned out, we were both right. Where the lighting works, so do the sets. But there are too many places where it doesn't. The best parts are undoubtedly where a bold, clean light streams through the portcullis-like grilles which surround the stage at several points, illuminating the prison in which each and every character finds themselves, a la Christopher Nolan's Batman. But as soon as the light softens, the grilles take on a distinctly flat-pack appearance.
And the forest of Fontainebleau concocted for the first act looks more like Ikea-sur-Neasden. That photo, left, is way too flattering. In the harsh light of the staging, the plastic trees and the bedsheet floor look distinctly low-budget, unworthy of the craftsmanship of the ROH techie departments.
In dramatic terms, it represents the days of Carlo's freedom, and as such it's a vital visual contrast to the prison-like theme chosen for the later acts. A good idea, but poorly executed.
I personally loved the lego-like red brick wall selected as the centrepiece of the second act garden scene, though no-one else I spoke to thought it worked. It reminded me of the steps of El Escorial, and quite irrelevantly, of the Tirolean M-Preis supermarkets, the cross in the wall symbolising the constant presence of religion. But the painted cypress backdrop was, again, horribly crude, looking like it was knocked up that afternoon by schoolkids.
The most misconceived scene though is the auto-da-fé of the third act. The busyness of the scenery is in spectacular contrast to the epic simplicity seen earlier. And the face painted scrim, when it's lit at the end to show the burned bodies of the executed heretics behind, is a real coup de théâtre.
But this, together with the unnecessarily large and noisy crowd, turns what should be the backdrop - the auto-da-fé itself - into the centre of the action. What we should be concentrating on - Carlo's pivotal showdown with his father and Posa's intervention - becomes almost a sideshow. The SFX grab all the attention and this crucial scene is diminished dramatically. I have no doubt that this is the effect Hytner is seeking - he's far too smart and experienced to make mistakes on this scale - but it beats me why.
The scenes which really work - when they're lit in F.W.Murnau style anyway - are the two set at the monastery, as represented by the tomb of the dead King Carlos, a forbidding monolithic memorial in an otherwise empty space. Here Carlo's ineluctable destiny is clearly and simply expressed.
As for the rest, it's more than saved by the wonderful cast and the amazing music, so much so that the doubtful elements of the staging pass by almost unnoticed. It takes more than giant lego and plastic trees to upstage Rolando Villazón.
***UPDATE***what everyone else thought***
(to be updated further as reviews are published)
- Michael Church in the Independent - unqualified likey - "Furlanetto commands centre stage as Hytner fulfils all expectations"
- The Teenage Theatre Critic blog - more unqualified praise - "A complete triumph."
- MusicalCriticism.com - Pappano 1, Hytner 0 - "Hytner's new staging ..... is, for me, a disappointment"
- musicOMH.com - loved it all - "an enormously impressive and enjoyable night at the opera"
- classicalsource.com - very few reservations but - "hopefully the ghosts from past performances in the Visconti production will smile happily on their successors"
- Andrew Clements in the Guardian - liked everything except Rolando's acting - "the glitzy tenor is the only disappointment"
- Fiona Maddocks in the Evening Standard - was thrilled with it all - "The ROH orchestra would have been the star, were there not already so many jostling for the title"
- Richard Morrison in the Times - it's all downhill after the second act - "one longs for the stage action to match the intensity of what Antonio Pappano delivers in the pit"
- Andrew Clark in the FT - only Poplavskaya and Furlanetto escape with butts unkicked - "Villazón puts more nervous energy into the title role than his less-than-ringing voice can sustain, that Antonio Pappano’s musical direction labours under its own weight and that Hytner’s staging, while admirably focused on text and character, looks 30 years out of date"
- Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph - forgot to take his grumpy pills? - "indisputably a magnificent account of one of opera's supreme masterpieces"
- Manuel Brug in Die Welt - Furlanetto was the star, Rolando worrying, Poplavskaya weak, and Hytner dull - "Villazóns Carlo war als wiedergewonnener Tenorliebling der am heftigsten beklatsche Sympathieträger der Londoner"
- Warwick Thompson at Bloomberg.com - patchy production, problematic star - "A tantalizing near miss"
- George Hall in The Stage - Rolando has bitten off more than he can chew, but - "a mightily impressive evening for chorus and orchestra, and Antonio Pappano once again demonstrates his mastery of Verdian musical drama"
- MusicWeb - admires a few older singers, otherwise thumbs down - "Nicholas Hytner does little else with these complex issues but recreate a standard traditional production of ‘thud and blunder’ Verdi"
- Variety - another rave - "dramatically muscular and musically exhilarating"
- Hannah Glaser in Crescendo - impressed but not touched - and "fürchtet man womöglich die homoerotische Kraft" (!)
- Michael Tanner in The Spectator - hated the production, hated the singers, hated Pappano - "Something about the production seemed to cast a lowering spell over the singers, all of whom were performing at less than their best"
- mad musings of me blog - saw the second night and wasn't impressed - "basically a concert performance in costume with cheap sets" but was much more positive on a second viewing, where Rolando was "stupendous"
- Anthony Holden in The Observer - "gratified by Nicholas Hytner's intelligently crafted staging, which shows off the company's musical assets to their very best advantage"
- George Loomis in the IHT - found Rolando stretched, Poplavskaya disappointing, but otherwise "if the results fall short of perfection, they suffice to uncover the riches of this sprawling family drama set against a political backdrop"
- On My Own blog - saw the 29 June show and was blown away by the 'magic' - especially Pappano's - "Dicen que los mejores perfumes se venden en frasquitos pequeños...quizá por eso de la batuta del pequeño Pappano sale tanta magia, tanta belleza, tanta música."
- Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover blog - saw the 29 June show, which compared well with the Visconti production seen 50 years ago - "I may have lived on bread and water for a week to pay for the tickets but it was worth every penny"
- Paris-Broadway blog - again the 29 June show. In comparison with the recent Paris and (both) Vienna productions (also critiqued) this one is superior musically and theatrically - "Sur le plan musical, c’est l’extase.....La distribution rassemblée sur scène est d’excellent niveau"