The Times, 16 September 2009
Neil Fisher
Don Carlo at Covent Garden
A significant smattering of doubts clustered around Nicholas Hytner’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlo when it was new last year. Did Bob Crowley’s prison-like sets, trapping the denizens of the Spanish royal court in their dark cells, keep too much emotion behind bars as well? Did the spectacle veer too closely to window-dressing in a piece that taps the big issues (the power of State against Church, of idealism versus expediency) with such directness? And, most importantly, could Covent Garden field a cast to deliver all the nuances as imposingly as Verdi demands?

If these question marks can be discarded, there is one crucial reason. The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is now the eponymous Prince, whose search both for love (hopelessly misdirected towards his stepmother, Queen Elisabeth) and a vocation (haplessly exploited by his much cannier chum, the Marquis of Posa), is destined to end in disaster. And it is Kaufmann’s achievement not just to sing with such a thrilling range of vocal colour and pliancy but to give this double tragedy such a personal slant.

Right from the start Kaufmann’s Carlos is a delicate flower: he’s touchingly naive, almost schoolboyish, when first wooing Marina Poplavskaya’s Elisabeth in Act I. Only when forced to give her updoes an introvert’s natural shyness gradually warp. His attempts at rebellion look increasingly unhinged; cipher Carlos may be by the time he is sobbing over Posa’s corpse and awaiting the Inquisition, but Kaufmann never stops being anything other than raptly compelling.

That this triumph is scored alongside a dramatic and vocal masterclass from Ferruccio Furlanetto’s magisterial Philip II only attests to the skilfulness of both performances. Coming from the opposite extreme of stiff-backed authority, Furlanetto ends up in much the same plight, opening his lonely Act IV lament with all the anguish of a wounded animal. In the face of John Tomlinson’s terrifyingly implacable Grand Inquisitor, suddenly he seems hauntingly vulnerable.

It is not just their show. Conducting, Semyon Bychkov has big shoes to fill in following Antonio Pappano. At first I wondered if his approach was too weighty, almost Wagnerian, but the dramatic momentum is inexorably and thrillingly built up, and the playing is tremendous.

Hytner, too, perhaps because he has more grateful support, has focused a show that now makes its central point — the suffocating embrace of religion — less dogmatically. There is still a sense of self-consciousness to the grand ceremony, and it’s odd that a director so immersed in theatre can’t find a more imaginative way of presenting the lusty chorus than lining them up in a row.

And the rest? Poplavskaya sings with feeling and commitment, and pulls out all the stops for her big Act V aria, but her tone is on the thin side and she needs to work on her tuning. Simon Keenlyside’s Posa is deft and charismatic enough to project his light baritone a notch farther than it probably should be. And Marianne Cornetti’s old-school powerhouse of an Eboli is too unremitting a sing in this company. Those quibbles aside, this revival is the Royal Opera at its best.

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