The Operacritic
by Colin Anderson
Bychkov finds the Russian in Verdi
Performance 18 September 2009
This first revival of Nicholas Hytner's production of Verdi's Don Carlo (performed in the 1886 five-act Italian language version) is now conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Antonio Pappano led the original run in June last year. Bychkov brings urgency, naked dynamism and heart to the work, securing fine and weighty playing but sometimes choosing tempos that are too fast, notably in the 'oath of allegiance' duet for Don Carlos (Jonas Kaufmann) and Rodrigo (Simon Keenlyside) that was here under pressure rather than opening out gloriously. But there's an edge, too, that is welcome, Bychkov bringing out a Russian side to this score (Mussorgsky in particular) that is convincing and, towards the end of this epic setting, finding a Tchaikovskian soul that is very affecting.

The mention of Keenlyside confirms that many singers retain their previous roles. As Rodrigo, Keenlyside has deepened his portrayal and commands the stage; as Elizabeth of Valois, Marina Poplavskaya remains noble and humane; and as Philip II, Ferruccio Furlanetto brings anger and despair in equal measure, nothing forced, yet palpable, and ringing to all corners of the auditorium.

Of the newcomers, Jonas Kaufmann as Carlos is heroic, somewhat deliberately naive, and his voice wonderfully expansive; in contrast, and even for his relatively brief appearance, John Tomlinson makes an awesome, terrifying Grand Inquisitor; and as Princess Eboli, Marianne Cornetti is a somewhat shadowy figure, vocally assured and in charge of the character's volatile range of emotions as she stalks Carlos and loses.

Bob Crowley's designs continue to inspire in both the striking visuals and that little distracts. From the story-book opening, in which Carlos and Elizabeth (already contracted to marry) meet and fall in love, we know the outcome will be tragic, and the snowy happiness of that opening winter scene is in abrupt contrast to what unfolds. Come the close, Bychkov really clinches the denouement, hammering home the ultimate hopelessness. He brings vividness to the scenes of public tumult, grace to idyllic moments and sustains the tension of the private interior of the characters, despite the solos in the orchestra quite having the personality they require, and which may account for a lack of tension at times.

Don Carlo is an epic and complex opera; on this occasion, it seems a little too long, but the liaisons (Carlos and Elizabeth, Carlos and Rodrigo) and confrontations (Philip II and Grand Inquisitor) proved gripping. Don Carlos is one of Verdi's great achievements and the Royal Opera's continued advocacy of it is to be welcomed. It is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 17 October.

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