The Observer, 12 May 2013
Fiona Maddocks
Verdi: Don Carlo, Royal Opera House London, 8. Mai 2013
Don Carlo; Gods and Heroes – review 
Photograph: Tristram Kenton
Jonas Kaufmann in Royal Opera's Don Carlo: ‘supply your own superlatives’.
In Verdi's four-and-a-half-hour opera Don Carlo, one moment captures its essence. The Grand Inquisitor, blind and venomous, totters into the study of the Spanish monarch, Philip II. Two elderly men confront the limits of their power: kingship versus faith, dogmatism, contrition and the lonely terror of old age. The music begins black and hushed – low strings, unearthly bassoons – and slowly unfurls to quaking magnificence. A depressed and loveless Philip acknowledges the dominance of this raging man of God, swathed in clerical silks and, as played by Eric Halfvarson at the Royal Opera House, hunched and monstrous like a crimson slug.

This may be the second revival of Nicholas Hytner's 2008 staging, with sumptuous designs by Bob Crowley lit by Mark Henderson, but it only gains in authority. Antonio Pappano, conducting with loving ferocity and spacious tempi, draws the classiest orchestral playing and choral work from the ROH musicians. It's worth saying that first, before we get lost in rapturous appreciation of the cast, always the talking point – even more than usually in opera, that is – in this work.

Based on Schiller's play and here performed in the Italian version, Verdi's much revised masterpiece demands world-class singers at the peak of their powers. You can't do a low-key Don Carlo. The thrill of having the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann (supply your own superlatives) in the title role is as good as it gets for opera fans. With the experienced Ferruccio Furlanetto, pensive, surly, snide and in growling, robust voice as Philip II, and Mariusz Kwiecien as Rodrigo/Posa, the balance of male voices worked beautifully. This Polish baritone has a freshness of manner and flexibility of tone which make him especially touching in his portrayal of Carlos's loyal friend.

They were deft in their celebrated duet, an almost crooning close harmony ballad in which Verdi cleverly makes the two voice types – tenor in descent, baritone rising – meet on one note, a symbol of undying friendship. Carlos is a tricky role, buffeted by circumstance, responding rather than determining events. Whereas Rolando Villazón, who sang when the staging was new, goes for febrile, almost quivering intensity, Kaufmann has a stillness and air of containment, equally compelling. This generous and serious performer rarely disappoints.

Anja Harteros, as Elizabeth of Valois, received rave reviews for her first-night performance. I missed her. By Wednesday she was out with tonsillitis, replaced by Lianna Haroutounian, due anyway to take over the role this week. So the Armenian soprano made her Royal Opera debut early to thundering applause. Petite and vulnerable in manner, she brought humanity to a part which can seem chilly. If at times her voice seemed confined, by her final outpouring as she bids farewell to her beloved Carlos, she suddenly let rip. This chimes with the demands of text and music: until that point, she is forced to repress her feelings. Haroutounian seemed to pull forth ever-increasing vocal powers until you thought her heart, or yours, would burst.

 back top