the arts desk, 05 May 2013
by David Nice
Verdi: Don Carlo, Royal Opera House London, 4. Mai 2013
Don Carlo, Royal Opera House *****
Near-perfect cast for Verdi's epic masterpiece crowned by the stupendous Anja Harteros
Photo: Catherine Ashmore, ROH
An operatic truism still doing the rounds declares that for Verdi's Il trovatore you need four of the greatest singers in the world. For Don Carlo, his biggest opus in every way, you need six. Nicholas Hytner's Covent Garden staging hits the mark third time around with five, the exception being a very honourable replacement for what would have been an interesting piece of casting. Add to the mix the experienced command of Royal Opera music director Antonio Pappano, supportive of the singers but also attentive to every instrumental detail, and it's as near to Verdian perfection as we're probably going to get.

Even the production, revived here by Paul Higgins, seems more fine-tuned than I remember to the scope and symmetries of the drama. Schiller's Shakespearean royal epic as translated by Verdi into grand opera remains a model of its kind for the balance of the private and the public, the head and the heart, melodrama and truthfulness. There's enough material for at least three strong operas. One would be sustained by the love triangle between Elisabetta di Valois, Don Carlo - the man she loves - and his father Philip II, the king she's forced to marry, with complications added by the Princess Eboli, who loves the infante and is seduced by the king. A second could be devoted to freedom-fighter Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. And the stifling air in the scene between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor points the way to a new drama of politics versus religion.

With telling clarity, the Hytner view binds it all together and now seems to me to highlight how everyone at the Spanish court, with the exception of hapless infante Carlo, holds the key to power one minute only to be stricken the next. Swooning or dying characters held in desperate embraces embody the failure of a dream.

Seen from the balcony Bob Crowley's designs, meshing handsome period costume with more symbolic settings of oppressive black and flaming red, interact more cleary with the blocking of characters to show their closeness or their distance in relation to each other. Only one scene still falters visually - the biggest, the auto-da-fé; it's surely time to remove the obstructive semi-circular wall draped with the bloody head of Christ, but there it remains, cramping the style of the Les Mis crowd (the Royal Opera Chorus in flaming form).

Otherwise, the gripping continuity of the drama in the great scenes - the garden outside the monastery, Philip's study and the last farewell at San Yuste - depend on the principal singers' skill. As Verdi unfolds one great aria or confrontation after another, we're left weak-kneed by the achievements of this cast in terms of line, colour and feeling. Jonas Kaufmann takes some time to warm in the opening Fontainebleau act - we're talking the five-act Italian Don Carlo of 1886 - since he's hampered by that bottled backward placement which can strangulate the sound; nor are there sunshine and roses in the voice to characterise the love-hopeful innocent. Come the monastery bonding-duet with Marius Kwiecien's Rodrigo (pictured above), he's already rising to top form. Kwiecien is a singer surely at his absolute peak, musically sensitive enough to tune to his tenor but also the ideal Verdi baritone in legato line, as his usually not much noticed address to Elisabetta in the following scene limpidly demonstrates. After a rather wild Veil Song from Béatrice Uria-Monzon's Eboli, more supple of stage movement than of voice, one of the great sequences in all Verdi never falters.

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