The first Italian Don Carlo at Covent Garden in nearly two decades, Nicholas Hytner’s no-nonsense traditional staging is marked by superb singing and acting performances from an outstanding cast. Conducting the wondrous score, surely one of the most beautiful in not just the Verdi repertoire but the whole of opera, Antonio Pappano achieves a quite miraculous blend of passion and refinement.
A bigger question even than whether Rolando Villazón would make it to the first night was if Marina Poplavskaya would justify the faith the management had invested in her by handing her the role of Elisabetta. Despite her startlingly good debut as Donna Anna last season, this seemed a huge leap for a relatively inexperienced singer but the answer is unequivocally positive. She commands her every scene and sings with great beauty and a fragility that brings enormous tenderness to her scenes with Carlo. “Tu che la vanit” is stunning and it’s altogether a very impressive performance.
A few wobbles and cracked high notes early on suggest that Villazón may not quite be ready for the role of Carlo but he soon settles and produces some truly magnificent sounds. He also brings tremendous vulnerability to the part, innocent passion jostling with child-like bewilderment at the churning of fortune’s axle. Simon Keenlyside as Posa is the best I’ve ever heard him, resonant, powerful and more physically restrained than we’re used to, and all the more focused for it. Perhaps it takes the Director of the National Theatre to draw out the Horatio/Hamlet nature of the relationship between the two men, which is here both complex and very moving.
Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Philip II is a great creation of booming intensity. He stoops slightly, his tyranny born of fear, and his head-to-head with Eric Halfvarson’s excellent Grand Inquisitor, all trembling confrontation, is electrifying. Sonia Ganassi’s Eboli is slightly characterless in her early scenes but she rises to the challenges of “O don fatale” with vivid finesse.
The scenes flow seamlessly, changing with noiseless efficiency, and displaying the sort of artistry that has made the best of Hytner’s work across the river so remarkable. In his regular collaborator Bob Crowley’s designs, a frosted Fontainebleau landscape nips young love in the bud, denying it the chance to blossom. Chiaroscuro gloom follows, the darkness of the crypt pierced by an explosion of pencil-thin slashes of light.
A burst of colour accompanies Eboli but it’s not the ladies-in-waiting who glow, garbed instead in funereal black, but luscious sun-filled fields kept at an unattainable distance from the court. For the auto-da-fe scene, a huge painted Christ leaking blood competes with His Church, symbolised by the garish opulence of an all-gold cathedral façade. The grisly consequences of religious zeal are seen through Christ’s gauzy face, the clash of goodness and its corruption key to the interpretation.
Dominating all is Pappano’s magnificent reading of the score, full of both fervour and delicacy with the Royal Opera Orchestra following his bidding with brilliance and great sensitivity.
As with Zurich Opera’s recent concert Rosenkavalier at the Southbank Centre, some people might want a little more rawness round the edges, but few will fail to be won over by the stylishness of the whole package. This is an enormously impressive and enjoyable night at the opera and a production that we’ll hopefully see regularly revived.