The Spectator, 26 September 2009
Michael Tanner
Don Carlo, Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera has revived the 2008 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo, and the performance was a considerable improvement on last year’s. That is almost entirely due to the presence of Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, the vastly improved form of Simon Keenlyside as Posa, and the broad, detailed conducting of Semyon Bychkov. The production itself needs to be written off as a dead loss. How can so gifted a director as Nicholas Hytner be responsible for so inert an affair as this, in which every dramatic punch is pulled, unnecessary and cheap effects are added, and Bob Crowley’s designs are tolerated, in all their unatmospheric ineptitude? The one thing that can be said for them is that one scene can follow another without a pause, and that is something to be relieved about. A grid is lowered as scenes end, suggesting that Spain is a prison or asylum, and when it rises one sees an assortment of unevocative sets pitched somewhere between the diagrammatic and the naturalistic. Ineptitudes abound, the worst being the scene where Carlos mistakes Eboli for Elisabetta, an awkward moment but one which I have only seen draw guffaws in this production. Yet against the odds, thanks to the overwhelming power of Verdi’s grandest, deepest operatic score, and the passionate participation of the male principals, and the sweep of the magnificent orchestra, one is left with a series of scenes of cumulative intensity, so that the last hour and a half draws the threads of the complex drama together, and the impact survives even the wretched ending, one of Verdi’s worst, and exacerbated here.

Jonas Kaufmann hasn’t endured the rigours of record-company hype, so his greatness as an artist needs no filtering: he identifies with each role he sings, and here he actually made Carlos into a rounded character, instead of the cipher at the centre that he usually is. He also, in the last scene in particular, treated us to some of the most sustained pianissimo tenor singing I have ever heard, live or on disc. Even the wayward Marina Poplavskaya, who had failed to deliver so many of Elisabetta’s crucial phrases, rose to the occasion here. Kaufmann is one of those performers who seem to inspire his colleagues to surpass themselves. Ferruccio Furlanetto has a rough voice, but his understanding of Philip II is deep, and in his scene with Posa in particular the drama came to electrifying life. Keenlyside delivered a noble, even exalted performance. All that’s needed now is a couple of female leads to match up to this impressive trio.

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