Opera Britannia, 16 September 2009
Stephen Jay-Taylor
Don Carlo: The Royal Opera, 15th September 2009
Photos: Catherine Ashmore
Following on from the concert performances of Linda di Chamounix, this Don Carlo constituted the first staged opera to open the 2009/10 season, and, just as when the production was new in the summer of last year, there was quite a high level of expectations attaching to the event, some of them even my own. I may as well say immediately that this time, just as last, most of these were summarily dashed well before the middle of Act II, scene ii – the cloisters of the monastery of San Yuste – in which the truly dreadful, lurid kiddo-Lego pasteboard set, cardboard cypresses and amateurish direction of what one would have thought foolproof theatrical encounters rendered the whole powerful drama on about the level of a poorly mounted school play. Quite what Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theatre, could be thought to have brought to this staging other than Bob Crowley’s hideous, unatmospheric, cheap-looking designs, God alone knows – barely acceptable as a £10 Travelex show in the Olivier, and I’d still want a 50% refund - because it certainly isn’t any profound engagement with the drama at the level of individual Personenregie (there isn’t any) much less any sense of the extraordinary work’s sheer scale and scope. The Royal Opera House itself in its promotional puffs has variously described the staging as “spacious and stylized” and most recently (and preposterously) “sumptuous”. This is the merest spinful thinking. The opening Fontainebleau act is certainly “stylised” all right: with its already tatty and poorly-laid, ruched-up floor-cloth representing “snow” – over the front edge of which everybody tonight tripped at some point or other – which has to be hauled upstage so as not to stick out under the descending “fourth wall” that acts as an act-and scene- change cover, and with two white tree trunks conveniently acting as practicable props to sit on around the miraculously self-lighting gas bonfire, we’re back in a world of tawdry theatrical illusion that looks considerably older than the opera itself, and scarcely credible as the work of a respected theatre director in 2008. The fifty-year old Visconti show never looked this rubbishy, even after thirty years’ long hard service.

The “sumptuous” staging of the Auto-da-fé is so inept as to beggar belief, a dinky 1:10 scale model of the mighty façade of Valladolid Cathedral about fifty feet upstage, some weird Turin shroud-type cylindrical cloth obscuring most of stage right, and a spavined procession of heretics all of which gives the impression that at some point Covent Garden has had the bailiffs in. This will be laughed off the stage at the Metropolitan Opera when the show – it’s a co-pro, so surely somebody had some money to put into it – debuts there next year. And if the flabby staging weren’t bad enough – the choral blocking is heroically dreadful, and the shocking, stand-off climax between father and son pathetically muffed – Hytner has been allowed to continue his wretched practice of having a priest noisily harangue all the heretics by individual name in yelled Latin dialogue (translated on the surtitle screen, though neither Verdi nor his librettists included any such material) that is considerably louder than, and obscures, the music. O, someone needs burning alright….

All of which might have mattered a little less if, as last year, in the general sea of scenic slovenliness, there was a blinding performance of Verdi’s score going on. No such luck. To my amazement, the conductor who has given us such thrilling accounts of Elektra and Lohengrin in the house, Semyon Bychkov, here gave us easily the most unidiomatic, leaden trudge through the score I recall hearing across both decades and continents, killing Eboli’s "Veil song" stone dead, plodding through the Auto-da-fé like a bored bandmaster, but engaging in sudden little bursts of unwritten accelerandi when he felt the dramatic temperature was in danger of falling below zero. Not a climax was properly placed, and the overall dramatic structure felt flat and interminable, with much artificial highlighting of detail that fought against Verdi’s carefully calculated jet-black tinta. It said much for the orchestra’s professionalism that they actually played very well indeed, and with a deal of both refinement and virtuosity, but I haven’t personally heard the score go for less in the House since Solti, more years ago than I care either to admit or even remember. I was also much put out that, far from expanding upon the overly cautious approach to the performing text that Pappano permitted himself last year – adding nothing of the myriad discoveries made in the Paris archives over the past thirty-odd years save the very welcome “Lacrymosa” duet for father and son in Act IV – Bychkov even decided to cut that. I want to hear the opening prelude, the woodcutter’s chorus, the starving peasantry’s plea (dear God, even the snip-happy Metropolitan perform these) and the two duets for Elisabetta and Eboli in Act III and IV. The ballet you can keep.

The intention with this revival was to replicate the original cast from last year with the exception of recasting the eponymous “hero” in the shape of Jonas Kaufmann. In the event, Sonia Ganassi – the Eboli – withdrew due to childbearing duties, leaving us with Messrs. Keenlyside and Furlanetto, and Ms. Poplavskaya as before, and Marianne Cornetti as Eboli. Keenlyside’s Posa remains dignified, intelligent and sung with scrupulous musicianship, within an evenly-produced, warmly lyrical line ("Per me giunto" was exemplary in this respect): but it is hard to escape the feeling that the voice is at the very least one size too small for the role; and that smooth, suave and subtle is all very well, but ultimately underwhelming. Furlanetto’s voice is not perhaps ideally steady – though up against John Tomlinson’s way-past-bedtime Inquisitor he sounded firmer than a rock – but the fact is that he alone in this staging has the authentic Italian manner, rides the orchestra with ease, commands the stage, and now invests his Act IV aria with much more evident feeling than he managed last year. Considered as a single piece of singing, his account of "Ella giammai m’amò!" was in many respects the highlight of the performance.

I thought Marianne Cornetti quite woeful in the "Veil song", though as I have suggested above, possibly not all the blame for that can be laid at her door. On the other hand, the spread, blowsy tone is all her own, and would probably have done for it whatever the accompaniment. Hytner’s staging is also responsible for the poor woman’s mistaken midnight tryst with Carlo – who’s expecting Elisabetta – getting the loudest and most widespread round of upfront guffawing I’ve ever heard at this point from an audience who by this time clearly regarded the drama as so much pasteboard (like the sets). Unforgivable to expose the poor woman in this way, and in yet another avenue of flat cardboard cypresses lit like Blade Runner. Of course, it doesn’t help that Cornetti is a foot shorter and wider than the woman she’s mistaken for, but that is what directors are there to help circumnavigate, not treat as a throwaway joke. In fact, she rallied for "O don fatale", and though it was neither subtle nor suave – the high C flat went on for what felt like hours, throbbing like a car on a cold morning, but undeniably there – she certainly has the grand manner, and rather unexpectedly I found myself warming to her.

No chance, alas, of warming to Marina Poplavskaya’s utterly miscast Elisabetta, a chilly impersonation for all the very evident dramatic commitment, and a voice not remotely suited to Verdi. Treading on eggshells when trying to sing softly and still retain some semblance of technical control over the voice – "Non pianger, mia compagna" in Act II – she ran into real problems with Act V’s "Tu che le vanità", which emerged as a disconnected series of bumps and jolts, bereft of proper Italian(ate) legato, with phrasing compromised by endemic short-windedness; and though she manifests a laudable tendency to try to sing softly, she rapidly swells to a more controllable fortissimo and then dives into the following note with what I can only describe as a “yowl” (you hear a lot of it, alas, in late-period Leontyne Price). That certainly scuppered “Francia!”, which I have known draw tears when properly sung like a caress against the cheek rather than the ugly glottal gulp we got here. There are passages in the voice that still lead me to believe that her future is in Wagner: I certainly think she should be singing Senta and Elsa right now rather than this completely unItalianate Elisabetta, steely and lacking in any vocal warmth or colour.

Which really only leaves us with Don Carlo himself. If only a great Don Carlo a great Don Carlo made, then this would have been the greatest since Vickers. As it is, rather like Don Giovanni, the opera can carry a less than first-rate protagonist: but a first-rate protagonist cannot carry the opera. Kaufmann was truly magnificent, beyond expectation in the role, and actually completely confuted two of my preconceptions: one, that he would sing a gung-ho performance; and two, that he would sound, as he always has here so far, strongly baritonal. In the event, the tenor sounded more or less entirely tenorial all night, with little or no trace of the tremendous black bark he has at his command. And so far from gung-ho, this was the very subtlest, exquisitely shaded account of the role I’m prepared to wager it has ever been given, anywhere. For once I found myself cursing the original tenor, Morère, against whom Verdi took so violently during the nearly 300 – that is not a misprint, by the way - rehearsals the piece had in Paris in 1866/67 that he stripped him of his aria at the start of Act V and gave it, rewritten, to the soprano instead. To hear Kaufmann sing whatever Verdi had originally planned instead of "Tu che le vanità" I think I’d offer up at least an arm, and quite possibly both legs.

The truly remarkable thing is that Kaufmann’s barely whispered "Io vengo a domandar" in Act II and his share of the Act V duet were so completely audible, though sung on the merest thread of voice, and never once – as undeniably used to happen with Vickers – lapsing into crooning. To retain so much characteristic, and properly coloured and supported tone in an instrument the sheer size of Kaufmann’s, when singing right at the top of his range but in considerably less than half-voice, is little short of miraculous, and I was often metaphorically rubbing my ears in disbelief at the technical prodigy we were experiencing live. I‘ve not heard the like since Caballé’s legendary days, and never really expected to again, least of all from a natural heldentenor. Of course, where heft was required, it was handsomely forthcoming – why doesn’t this man just get on with it and sing Otello, for which he lacks nothing? – but he is a good colleague and rarely lets himself go in the ensemble numbers that constitute the bulk of his part. For him alone, this revival is a pearl beyond price, and indeed the men are all good (sterling support work from Robert Anthony Gardiner’s Lerma, too, though Robert Lloyd is in truth now too unsteady for Carlo Quinto/Mysterious Monk). But most of the rest is alas something of a trial.

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