The Telegraph, 24 September 2009
Rupert Christiansen
Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, review
While some details still need sharpening, Nicholas Hytner's Don Carlo shows the Royal Opera at its best. Rating: * * * *
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Don Carlo, sung in Verdi’s final 5-act Italian version, drew mixed reviews when it was unveiled last year. I liked it more than most, but felt that it would benefit from tweaking.

Although Hytner has returned to Covent Garden to supervise the revival (and tone down some incidental excesses), that remains my feeling.

The story-line and the conflicts between the characters are lucidly drawn and Bob Crowley’s sets powerfully convey the oppressive atmosphere of Counter-Reformation gloom. But the treatment of the auto-da-fe remains garishly vulgar and ineffectual, and details still needs sharpening.

Finally, Hytner doesn’t offer anything to match either of the opera’s two previous Covent Garden stagings - Visconti’s, with its sheer visual beauty, or Bondy’s, with its imaginative psychological insight.

Yet this shortfall doesn’t detract from a tremendous performance, the musical quality of which outstrips last year’s premiere.

Semyon Bychkov may not be a glamorous or sensational conductor, but he is the genuine article, honouring the gravitas of the score with wisely measured tempi and a mature sense of Verdian architecture. The orchestra played beautifully for him, and the singers floated some delicately expressive soft passages under his supportive cushion.

The refinement was particularly evident among the three male principals, whom you’d be hard pushed to surpass. As Posa, a rejuvenated Simon Keenlyside produced warm, fluent tone and nobly shaped phrasing. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Filippo was magnificently implcable in public, profoundly pitiable in private. And that dream of a tenor Jonas Kaufmann made Carlo for once the drama’s centre - a boyishly impulsive and introspective Hamlet, doomed to failure, who sang his Act I aria with a spine-tingling loveliness and still sounded as good come Act 5.

The ladies weren’t quite in their league. As Elisabetta, Marina Poplavskaya was in much steadier voice than she’d been in 2008 and rose to the challenge of her Act 5 aria, but crisper Italian would enrich her interpretation. I wasn’t mad on the prosaic Eboli of Marianne Cornetti, but she went bravely at ’O don fatale’, all guns firing.

With a scarey Grand Inquisitor from John Tomlinson, a charming Tebaldo from Pumeza Matshikiza, a nicely blended quintet of Flemish deputies and a fresh-sounding chorus, this was the Royal Opera at its best, as the rapt audience enthusiastically acknowledged.

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