Don Carlo - Royal Opera House, 15 September 2009
It’s little more than a year since the Royal Opera House premiered this production, but already the temperature has dropped a few degrees.
The main reason is Semyon Bychkov. Pappano was all heart; Bychkov is all head. Where Pappano offered untrammelled passion, Bychkov’s Don Carlo is thoughtfully structured, scrupulously detailed and immaculately performed (the last time the ROH played this well was in Lohengrin for – Semyon Bychkov). His weighty attentions serve the music well, the drama less so. The issue isn't the idiosyncratic tempos – sometimes super attenuated, sometimes dangerously pacy. At least these make you listen in a new way.The real problem is a lack of flexibility and dramatic response. The music feels superimposed on the drama, when it should be the other way round. The great Carlos/Posa freedom duet was more dutiful than ardent; Philip’s ruminative Act 4 monologue had the air of a prepared speech. There is much to admire – and to think about - but I rarely felt drawn in.
The other big change is in the title role. Rolando Villazon’s Carlos was an impetuous boy; Jonas Kaufmann’s is brooding, serious and totally grown-up. Kaufmann’s Carlos has no hesitation in placing his duty to Flanders above his personal desires. But this is the five act version, whose first act narrates the brief meeting of Carlos and Elisabetta. The first act does so much more than contextualise Carlos’s later moping. It changes the story. His joy (Elisabetta's too) is seen as real, but his later obsession as delusory, while her acceptance of her duty is the only pragmatic solution. Playing out the love story diminishes it. We see it ourselves for what it is, a moment of happiness, and not as Carlos presents it, the pivot of his destiny. And then we see the discrepancy between our view and his, and Carlos too is diminished in our eyes. He is merely evading his responsibilities, even if he doesn't realise it.
Jonas Kaufmann has chosen to emphasise the political and idealistic side of Carlos, and while that's right for the four act version, I don't think it works here (for one thing, it makes the first act into a tacked-on appendage). But having said that, and first act simpering aside, he follows through brilliantly. He is every inch the rebel prince, and his singing was out of this world. His ravishingly beautiful mezza voce was used to great effect, but he could turn up the power too. And who else could look that hawt in puffball shorts and pixie boots?
Inevitably this Carlos has more chemistry with Posa than with Marina Poplavskaya’s Elisabetta. She is much improved from last year's outing. Perhaps she really was indisposed all those times she claimed. Her steel-coated power was complemented this time round by smooth grained tone and accurate (if hard earned) top notes, lending Elisabetta's dutiful sacrifice a noble cast.
Simon Keenlyside sounded better than I have heard him for some time. Evidently a summer's rest has done him good. He is not and never will be a Verdi baritone - the heft and depth simply aren't there. Pairing him with the baritonal tenor of Jonas Kaufmann unfortunately emphasises this. But he compensates intelligently and with unquestionable commitment.
Marianne Cornetti is definitely a Verdi singer, but I doubt if Eboli is her best role. She wobbled gamely through the Veil Song, but her voice is simply too weighty to navigate it with the required agility. O don fatale was quite lovely though, and she has the warmth to generate sympathy. Couldn't the make up department have glammed her up a bit more though? - the revelation that Carlos has mistaken her for Elisabetta raised an understandable laugh from the audience.
The most satisfying performance came of course from Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip. Near-perfect. Every note, every gesture conveys absolute authority. He perhaps more than anyone suffered from Bychkov's counter-intuitive pacing though. Unable to linger or rush where the emotions demanded, he was sometimes less convincing than I know he can be. And his showdown with John Tomlinson's unscary Grand Inquisitor didn't pack the wallop it should have done.
Amongst the smaller parts, Robert Anthony Gardiner as the Conte di Lerma really stood out. His singing, most of it terrifyingly exposed, was bright, accurate and rock-solid, and his presence aristocratically relaxed.
I'm going to see a couple more performances, and I'll write more about the production itself then. But suffice to say for now I was surprised at the stagey gesticulation of some of the principals, and at how much fussy micro-managed movement had been imposed on crowd scenes (the auto-da-fé scene was the most egregious example of extraneous chat, clatter and fidgeting). A case of the director working with what was available perhaps, but not quite what you'd expect from Nicholas Hytner.
***** more photos over page *****