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 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.