The Observer, 20 September 2009
Fiona Maddocks
[Le Grand Macabre, La traviata,] Don Carlo
La traviata creates its own world out of a private drama. Don Carlo, or Don Carlos in the original French version, gathers an entire political landscape into its embrace, at the heart of which is a love triangle of the utmost intimacy. This reworking of Schiller ranks as one of Verdi's finest operatic achievements though some groan at its length and scale, and at the uncertainty of two of its central characters, the jejune Carlo himself and his compromised blood-brother, Rodrigo, sung with febrile intelligence by Simon Keenlyside.

But in this exciting first revival of Nicholas Hytner's 2008 production, dramaturgical snags receded. Designed by Bob Crowley and lit by Mark Henderson, it looks magnificent, with its ingenious flourish of Spanish baroque sobriety and gaudy, gilded splendour. Chorus and orchestra responded vividly to Semyon Bychkov's sweeping, expansive tempi. The cast was exceptional, led by Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. This remarkable Munich-born tenor, seemingly faultless in every musical decision he makes, has just released a solo disc of German repertoire. Yet his handling of Italian opera shows his versatility, with none of the usual puffed-up tenor show-off tendencies.

The Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto returns as a spellbinding, agonised Philip II. Reprising the role of Elisabetta, Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya compensates for bumpiness mid-range with a mesmerising performance of queenly hauteur and inner torment. She looks like a movie star, which helps. John Tomlinson, himself a bit of a matinee idol grise, had been kohl-ed up like a sunken-cheeked el Greco prelate, grotesque in authority as the Inquisitor. Verdi may inhabit an older operatic tradition of precisely the kind Ligeti wanted to challenge. Yet here he shows us the grand macabre, bodied forth on an all too human scale.
Photo: © Robbie Jack/Corbis

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