Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Don Carlo review – The Royal Opera do Verdi’s grand opera proud

30 June 2023

Verdi’s five act opera, set against the backdrop of political turmoil in 16th century Spain, is spectacularly well sung in this latest revival of Nicholas Hytner’s staging at Covent Garden.

Don Carlo

Don Carlo (Photo: Bill Cooper)

Verdi’s greatest opera, Don Carlos, is a complex work. Written for the Paris Opéra in 1867, this is grand opera at its finest. Verdi and his librettists, Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, turned to Schiller’s play, Don Carlos, as the basis for this five act work. Set in 16th century France and Spain, it tackles the conflicting emotions that exist between personal desires and duty, as well as church and state – all played out against a political backdrop of intrigue, war and sacrifice. After the premiere, Verdi made many revisions, and an Italian translation was provided for performances in Italy, as Don Carlo. It’s worth noting that Verdi never set a word of Italian to music – even when tinkering with the score after the premiere – preferring to revert back to the original French. 

The current Royal Opera staging dates back to 2008 and is performed in the five act Modena (1886) version, in the Italian translation. This is a shame, as it intrinsically sounds right when sung in French, as the music fits the words like a glove. I have fond memories of the 1996 Luc Bondy staging, conducted by Haitink, which was performed in the original language with a stellar cast including Karita Mattila, Roberto Alagna, José van Dam, Thomas Hampson and Martine Dupuy. Maybe the next time the company considers performing this work, they’ll resort to the French version. It works so much better – even David McVicar’s uneven staging at the Met, New York in 2022 revealed the original to be nothing short of a blazing masterpiece.

I realise others have different opinions, but it’s an operatic hill I’m prepared to die on. Don Carlos is a French grand opera, and nothing will convince me otherwise. Nicholas Hytner’s Covent Garden staging is 15 years old, and is beginning to show its age. Bob Crowley’s economical designs, in both senses of the word, feel undernourished, but Mark Henderson’s vivid lighting plot creates wonders with what he has to work with – for the most part, three black walls, containing numerous cut out boxes, through which shafts of light are allowed to penetrate.

Don Carlos is a French grand opera, and nothing will convince me otherwise”

Don Carlo

Lise Davidsen & Brian Jagde (Photo: Bill Cooper)

Revival director Dan Dooner does what he can within these scenic limitations, but it’s credit to his skill and artistry that he manages to draw such convincing portrayals from the principals, three of whom were making role debuts. After a tendency to oversing at the start, Brian Jagde, settled down to give a thrilling account of the title role. His muscular tenor projected easily into the house, his squillo singing was particularly impressive, and he cut a credible figure on stage – this was an auspicious role debut. 

Luca Micheletti cut a dashing figure as Rodrigo, his velvety, well-projected baritone caressing Verdi’s vocal lines to telling effect – the camaraderie between him and Carlos was perfectly etched. As Elisabeth de Valois, Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen – in her first major Verdi assignment – caused a sensation. Having heard her in three of her most celebrated roles, Ariadne (Ariadne auf Naxos), Sieglinde (Die Walküre) and Elisabeth (Tannhäuser), which are ideally suited to her huge voluminous voice, I wondered in advance how she would fare in a fach that requires more light and shade than those heavy German roles. She managed to rein in the decibels, offering plenty of delicate, poised singing whilst phrasing the melodic lines lovingly. Her Act V aria, ‘Tu che le vanità’ was radiantly voiced and was the musical highlight of the evening. Although her voice doesn’t possess the Mediterranean warmth of many other notable exponents of this role (Anja Harteros), this was still a thrilling account.

John Relyea brought gravitas to the role of King Philip II, whilst Yulia Matochkina was a vivid Eboli, singing with rich, burnished tone throughout. With a faultless line up of comprimarios, this was a satisfyingly sung and well cast revival. In the pit, Bertrand de Billy, who has conducted this opera many times, drew exceptional, idiomatic playing from his attentive musicians. And although it goes without saying these days, the Chorus sang spectacularly well.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.

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Don Carlo review – The Royal Opera do Verdi’s grand opera proud