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2008, ROH London, Don Carlo

Don Carlo

(Five act version in Italian)


“Simon Keenlyside as Posa is the best I’ve ever heard him…” MusicOMH

“Simon Keenlyside’s dauntlessly hyper-energetic Posa raises the dramatic temperature onstage whenever he appears” The Guardian

“Simon Keenlyside is almost beyond praise in the excellence of his singing and concentrated acting…” The Stage

Composer: Guiseppe Verdi
Librettist: Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle after Schiller’s drama, Cormon’s drama and Prescott’s history. Revised in 4 acts by du Locle, translated into Italian by Angelo Zanardini based on Achile de Lauziéres’ original version
Venue and Dates:
Royal Opera House, London
6, 11, 14, 17, 20, 26, 29 June, 3 July 2008
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Designs: Bob Crowley
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Don Carlo: Rolando Villazón (except 20 June) / Alfred Kim (20 June)
Elisabetta di Valois: Marina Poplavskaya (except 26 June) / Victoria Nava (26 June)
Rodrigo: Simon Keenlyside (except 17 June due to illness) /
Dmitri Tiliakos (17 June)
Philip II: Ferruccio Furlanetto
Princess Eboli: Sonia Ganassi
Tebaldo: Pumeza Matshikiza (except 17 June) / Paula Murrihy (17 June)
Conte di Lerma: Nikola Matišic
Flemish Deputies:
Jacques Imbrailo
Krzysztof Szumanski
Kostas Smoriginas
Daniel Grice
Darren Jeffery
Vuyani Mlinde
Grand Inquisitor: Eric Halfvarson
Monk: Robert Lloyd
Voice from Heaven: Anita Watson

Notes: July 3’s performance will be broadcast live on screens in Trafalgar Square and Canary Wharf in London, and Clayton Square in Liverpool. It was broadcast by BBC TV in November 2009, and will be released as a DVD on 13 September 2010. Click below for details…

Verdi Don Carlo DVD

Rehearsal shots




Interview with Nicholas Hytner, The Guardian, Friday May 30, 2008

Between the lines

Twenty years ago Nicholas Hytner directed Schiller’s Don Carlos. As he takes on Verdi’s opera, he finds the play transformed by the passion, yearning and fury of the music

The received wisdom that stage adaptations of movies are bad things that reveal the imaginative poverty of their creators took a battering recently with Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter. Who’d want to see a West End knock-off of an acknowledged cinematic masterpiece? Why not write your own story instead of plundering the genius of others? To these questions, Kneehigh provided the answers in the form first of an exhilaratingly theatrical celebration of all the film’s virtues: its sincerity, sense of place and throbbing undertow of frustrated longing. To all this the show added a mischievous wit, and a captivating dialogue between stage and screen made possible by video technology that would have been beyond the imagination of the original film-makers. It is as complete a reinvention of the film as the film was a reinvention of the one-act play, Still Life, that Noel Coward cannibalised for his screenplay.

If there is today widespread confusion about what constitutes originality, past dramatists would barely have recognised the problem. The shock of the new lay for them largely in the telling of the story, not in the story itself: audiences delighted in the unfamiliar presentation of familiar material. When Shakespeare opened Henry V at the Globe, his was at least the fourth Henry V play to run in London in 10 years. He probably borrowed from all of them; and he lifted scenes wholesale from the only other Henry V play, besides his own, to have survived. He would certainly have been run out of town by the modern plagiarism police.

Nearly all his plays are adaptations, and the quickest way to the core of any of them is to contrast the play with its source. In the difference is the energy, even the essence of the play. In the translation of historical reportage into verse drama is the thing itself.

Just as verse transforms a story, so music transfigures it; and the musical theatre has always been drawn more to the adaptation of old stories than to the invention of new ones. Musical dramatists have always looked for stories that can be remade with a musical motor. Their primary concern has rarely been for narrative novelty, more often for the excitement that is to be found in the acquiescence of a story to the musical form.

Wagner aside, it’s hard to think of many successful operas with original librettos. There are nearly 300 operas based on Shakespeare. Puccini set a couple of Broadway hits by David Belasco – Madame Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West. Mozart, with the Marriage of Figaro, seized on the previous year’s succès de scandale in Paris. Figaro, on the face of it, is as faithful a musical adaptation of a play as has ever been composed. Much of its libretto is simply the Beaumarchais text translated into rhyming Italian by Lorenzo da Ponte. Da Ponte’s chief conceptual contribution was to placate the authorities by cutting from the play, as he put it, “anything that might offend good taste and public decency.” He need barely have bothered. Mozart’s interests were far more in sexual politics than in the pre-revolutionary sentiments of the original. The emotional life of the members of Count Almaviva’s household is in the music they sing. You might even say it is because the Countess sings that she can plumb as deeply as she does her heartsick nostalgia for the days when her husband loved her; that it is because the adolescent page Cherubino can sing that he is so febrile with the need to get his hands on a woman, any woman. The opera throbs with an erotic tension that is directly identifiable with its musical tension. It is erotic because it is musical.

I am in rehearsal as I write for Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House. Verdi plundered the theatrical repertoire more rapaciously than the modern popular musical theatre plunders the movie catalogue. He repeatedly set Shakespeare and Victor Hugo as well as Schiller, who wrote the play on which the opera is based. Twenty years ago, I directed Schiller’s Don Carlos at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. I came to the play because I knew the opera; and in this country, at least, the opera had entirely supplanted the play, which hadn’t been produced professionally for decades. The play turned out to be a gripping political thriller, and has been successfully revived at least three times since 1987. Returning to the opera, I’m struck once again by the transfiguration wrought by a musical score.

Schiller, needless to say, didn’t conjure up his play from thin air. There had been Don Carlos plays before his, including one by our own Thomas Otway, which is more or less unreadable. All of them dealt with the Spanish Infante, heir to Philip II, who was in reality unstable, violent and prone to harming himself as well as others.

According to Protestant legend however (and it was the Protestants who wrote the history), he was an idealistic ally of the Flemish freedom fighters who were the mid-16th century victims of Spanish colonial oppression. For this crime, so rumour had it in Protestant northern Europe, he was assassinated by the Spanish Inquisition under the direction of his tyrant father. Out of this material, Schiller fashioned in 1787 an Enlightenment melodrama that vibrates with the excitement of the age of revolution. In the play’s final scene, the king hands Carlos to the Inquisition for execution, but the playwright leaves the audience in no doubt that his ideals survive his death. “I am a citizen of times to come,” says Carlos’s revolutionary friend the Marquis of Posa, who dares to preach freedom of thought to the tyrant king himself. And though both Posa and Carlos end up dead, the play is confident that two centuries later their ideas are poised to sweep Europe.

Eighty years after Schiller, Verdi can still give stirring musical life to the confrontation between the king and the young idealist, and he writes one of his most famous tunes for Carlos and Posa’s hymn to liberty. But it is a striking irony that a musical dramatist who was himself more politically engaged than any of his peers (he was heavily involved in the Risorgimento and sat for a time in the Italian Senate) seemed in his mature operas profoundly pessimistic about the possibility of political progress. The ultimate failure of all human endeavour is a given: it is the furious and impassioned struggle against the inevitability of misery and failure that drives Verdi’s operas.

Schiller’s Carlos is gripped by hopeless love for his stepmother Elizabeth, the young French princess to whom he was betrothed before his father decided to marry her himself. Verdi and his librettists add an entire act to the start of the opera that brings the two young lovers together for a short evening of cloudless ecstasy. They look forward to a life of unalloyed bliss, and Verdi, whose love duets are generally about passion snatched hungrily from the jaws of disaster, walks them through the paradise garden before the agents of political necessity arrive and carry the princess off to the old king’s bed.

The memory of a happiness that might have been pulses through Verdi’s Don Carlo. “Miserly Heaven gave me a single day, then stole it from me!” says Carlos, and in Verdi’s setting it becomes a primal scream of despair. But despair is never where Verdi leaves it: in all his operas, and in Don Carlo above all, he writes about people who, knowing of the insuperable odds stacked against them, struggle ceaselessly for love, for justice, for life. So Carlos fights on, plunging into a musical world that swings wildly from delirium to rage, from romantic infatuation to violent revolution. Every chord in him vibrates with the will to live. Even the king (where Schiller’s king, more conventionally, worries that he may not be the father of his baby daughter) longs for the love of his young wife, aware though he is that he is doomed to the solitude of the grave.

Schiller’s soaring rhetoric and political optimism probably found its closest musical equivalent in Beethoven’s setting of the Ode to Joy. Verdi would not have dissented from the idea of Universal Brotherhood, but his opera Don Carlo sees it happening nowhere soon. His catchy hymn to liberty comes back repeatedly, but each time with less conviction, crushed eventually by the full-throated roar of the crowd at a public burning of heretics. The strangest character in the opera is a doom-laden monk who insists that misery pursues us everywhere and ends only in heaven. This monk may or may not be the Emperor Carlos V, the abdicated father of Philip II (Verdi could never decide), but it seems appropriate that he is. In a world where man hands on misery to man, only the very oldest has accepted the vanity of human wishes and retired to a monastery, and even he seems not to be going gently into that good night. The rest, in music of unparalleled passion, fury and yearning, refuse to bow to the inevitable.

Verdi wrote Don Carlo for the Paris Opéra in 1867; he tinkered with it repeatedly for nearly 20 years, finishing with it only in 1886 (in the Italian version that is being performed by the Royal Opera). You feel that he could barely let it go: in no other opera is his profound spiritual and political pessimism in such dramatic tension with his determination that to be human is never to give in. And it is in his music that the refusal to surrender finds expression. It is in the very act of adaptation that Don Carlo becomes itself.


Michael Church, The Independent, 7 June 2008

Rating: 5/ 5

Furlanetto commands centre stage as Hytner fulfils all expectations

Nicholas Hytner worked box-office magic for ENO with his endlessly revived productions of Handel’s Xerxes and Mozart’s Flute. Covent Garden must be praying that he’ll do the same for them with his long-awaited Don Carlo. On last night’s showing, I think he may.

Supported by designer Bob Crowley’s dazzling coups de thêatre, and by Antonio Pappano’s band in scintillating form, he directs with such vivid forcefulness – and such psychological acuity – that Verdi’s great rumination on theocracy, and on the battle between patriarchy and the brotherhood of man, emerges in its full beauty and menace.

Taking a few liberties with the historical truth, Verdi’s opera, based on Schiller’s play, focuses on the fatal father-son relationship between King Philip II of Spain and his emotionally deranged son Don Carlo. But Carlo’s derangement has a Hamlet-like cause in that Elisabetta, the young woman he loves, is forced to marry his father.

Playing opposite Marina Poplavskaya as Elisabetta – regal in voice and bearing – Rolando Villazon’s febrile Don Carlo is the utterly believable protagonist. Spinning out his lines with soaring grace in the cloudlessly happy opening scenes, he seems to shrink and freeze as fate’s hammer-blow falls and his Oedipal plight is revealed: he then switches convulsively from crazy elation to pleading, head-banging despair.

But the other side of Carlo is the crusader for freedom, shoulder to shoulder with his blood-brother Rodrigo, the revolutionary Marquis of Posa, sung here with vibrant passion by Simon Keenlyside. Their rousing hymn to liberty reverberates through the evening.

But the drama’s centre of gravity is Ferruccio Furlanetto’s King Philip, a commanding presence conveying as much by his stillness as by his gloriously resonant voice. Presented here as a bookish prince of darkness surrounded by the coffins of his ancestors, he is one of Verdi’s most convincingly complex characters, more than half in love with death, but also locked in a hopeless battle with his deceased father, the Emperor Charles V. As Furlanetto sings it, underscored by its lovely cello solo, the tortured but exquisite soliloquy in which he faces up to his political and sexual impotence becomes the majestic performance we have all been hoping for.

But what gives this work its dialectical power is how Verdi balances and contrasts voices. Rodrigo’s baritone becomes the ideological foil to Philip’s deep bass, while the death-dealing Grand Inquisitor (the excellent Eric Halfvarson) and the monk who welcomes Carlo into heaven are basses of highly contrasting stripes. Meanwhile Elisabetta’s radiant soprano is offset by mezzo Princess Eboli, sung by Sonia Ganassi with all the fury of a woman scorned.

This full five-act version is a long evening, but time flies thanks to transcendent performances by Poplavskaya and Villazon, and to the beauty emanating from the pit.

Meanwhile, Hytner’s dark world full of extraordinary visions feels uncomfortably modern, now that religion and politics are once more poisonously intertwined.


Dominic McHugh for musicalcriticism.com, 7 June 2008

Rating: four stars out of five

Since the Italian version has not been performed by the company since 1989, it’s about time that Don Carlo returned to the repertory of the Royal Opera. Considered in some quarters to be Verdi’s supreme achievement, the piece juxtaposes the inner turmoil of the heart with the external dual dominating forces of the Church and the Monarchy: this is chiaroscuro on a grand scale.

The occasion is distinguished thanks to Antonio Pappano’s absolutely magnificent conducting of the score: he’s never done finer work here. But Nicholas Hytner’s new staging – a costly co-production with the Metropolitan Opera and the Norwegian National Opera – is, for me, a disappointment. Many years in the planning, and a rare venture back into opera direction by the National Theatre’s current Director, the production satisfies few of Verdi’s more interesting dramaturgical ideas, says nothing new about most of the themes elaborated in the libretto and strikes me as rather limited in its stagecraft.

Almost without exception, the big arias and monologues were delivered with no attempt at expressing of the text, be it Elisabetta’s ‘Tu che le vanita’ or the King’s great soliloquy. The fourth-act quartet is more effective, with Filippo supporting his wife while she lies on the floor in distress, and elsewhere there is some exploration of Carlo’s epilepsy and fits of madness. The opening tableau is arresting enough – Elisabetta and her companions are seen hunting in the forest – and it’s relatively effective to have a huge wall come down before the end of Act I to divide Carlo from Elisabetta and literally imprison him at the moment when his true love is cruelly taken away from him. The same wall will literally become his prison wall later in the opera and it comes down in other scenes to remind us of his aching heart.

But for an opera which has such potential for beauty and grandeur, Bob Crowley’s designs are curiously lacking in inspiration. Act I shows us white plastic trees, two white tree stumps and a piece of white sheeting on the ground to represent snow; the cloister of San Yuste is represented by a pitifully basic tomb with ‘Carlos’ written on the side; the wall in Act II, Part 2 looks as if it’s been made out of giant Lego bricks with a cross-shaped hole in the middle; and the King’s Study scene has rarely been so emptily or dully staged in my experience. All the symbolism has been too broadly painted – religion and the loneliness of power are represented but not explored to their full potential – and on the other hand, the loud shouting and jeering of the chorus during the condemnation of the heretics in Act III is wildly excessive. Some of Verdi’s most sinister and beautifully crafted music here is drowned out by an unnecessary pantomime, which adds nothing and is at the same time less effective than the more exciting burning of the heretics found in the previous Luc Bondy staging of the French version of the work, which was seen at Covent Garden in 1996.

And yet, the musical performance was so refined, especially from the orchestra, that the opening night was still a noteworthy event. The most complete and impressive performance came from Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II. Vocally, he was as intense and powerful as you could possibly want, while his stage presence and complex understanding of the role helped lift the production to another level during his scenes. The highlight of the evening for me was the sensational duet between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, who was played in an even more sinister way than I’ve found before by Eric Halfvarson in magnificent voice. His red papal costume and dramatic make-up gave his portrayal a rare edge of terror that reminded us of what the production lacked elsewhere.

Without doubt, the most classy, arresting singing came from Rolando Villazón in the title role. A couple of cracked top notes and hints of strain at the top end notwithstanding (it sounded as if he was slightly unwell, though no announcement was made), Villazón’s voice was on display in all its beautiful glory from the word go. The opening aria was delivered with an elegance of line; the friendship duet with Posa was less successful, but the final duet in Act V was sung with classical nuance and was deeply moving. Villazón was occasionally a little too neurotic in terms of acting, but this may have been either a conceit of the production or an understandable attempt to give the production life, and it by no means took anything away from the performance.

Carlo’s relationship with Posa – here sung with customary commitment and lavish vocal resources by Simon Keenlyside, even if it’s not his most imaginative dramatic interpretation – was more emotionally drawn than that with Elisabetta, to the detriment of the production. If we don’t believe in the inexorable attraction Elisabetta and Carlo feel for one another, where is the central tension of Don Carlo? Here, I found that Marina Poplavskaya’s relationship with her husband was instead unusually, and fascinatingly, intense. Her performance throughout was more than respectable, and in Act IV, Part 1 her singing was extraordinarily secure whilst she had to lie down during the taxing passage where Elisabetta’s line is an octave apart from Eboli’s and the two run in parallel motion. Whenever she had dramatic lines to deliver, Poplavskaya did so with a fiery spirit and strong tone. Less wholly successful for me was the performance of the Act V aria and duet, which require ease and a more cantabile line in the top register, and there was strain during the latter part of Act I, too, but Poplavskaya did extremely well in a very taxing part.

Sonia Ganassi’s Eboli was just too nice a person for my taste. The vocal performances of the Veil Song and ‘O don fatale’ were excellently controlled and executed with finesse, but for my taste the character needs to be portrayed with more vigour and feistiness in order for us to believe she has enough venom to concoct her fatal plot (isn’t she meant to have seduced the King and incriminated the Queen?). Robert Lloyd was an excellent Monk – at 68 his vocal powers seem scarcely diminished, if at all – and in Jacques Imbrailo, Krzysztof Szumanski, Kostas Smoriginas, Daniel Grice, Darren Jeffery and Vuyani Mlinde, the company has an above-average team of Flemish Deputies. Anita Watson also makes a very good Voice from Heaven, while Nikola Matisic is a confident Count of Lerma.

Yet the reason why it all gels together so well is Antonio Pappano’s inspired leadership. Truly, I’ve rarely seen him so comfortably in control of his forces: the expanded chorus really raises the roof, the Spanish colours in Eboli’s first aria are genuinely sultry, the offstage banda is well coordinated, the chamber music-like passages in the King’s Study scene are finely projected, the solo arias are sensitively accompanied but the hand of fate is always allowed to emerge in the climactic passages. The production is to be broadcast on Radio 3 and on the big screens around the country: it’s unmissable for the music making.


Simon Thomas, musicOMH, 8 June 2008

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The first Italian Don Carlo at Covent Garden in nearly two decades, Nicholas Hytner’s no-nonsense traditional staging is marked by superb singing and acting performances from an outstanding cast.

Conducting the wondrous score, surely one of the most beautiful in not just the Verdi repertoire but the whole of opera, Antonio Pappano achieves a quite miraculous blend of passion and refinement.

A bigger question even than whether Rolando Villazón would make it to the first night was if Marina Poplavskaya would justify the faith the management had invested in her by handing her the role of Elisabeth de Valois. Despite her startlingly good debut as Donna Anna last season, this seemed a huge leap for a relatively inexperienced singer but the answer is unequivocally positive. She commands her every scene and sings with great beauty and a fragility that brings enormous tenderness to her scenes with Carlo. “Tu che la vanità” is stunning and it’s altogether a very impressive performance.

A few wobbles and cracked high notes early on suggest that Villazón may not quite be ready for the role of Carlo but he soon settles and produces some truly magnificent sounds. He also brings tremendous vulnerability to the part, innocent passion jostling with child-like bewilderment at the churning of fortune’s axle. Simon Keenlyside as Posa is the best I’ve ever heard him, resonant, powerful and more physically restrained than we’re used to, and all the more focused for it. Perhaps it takes the Director of the National Theatre to draw out the Horatio/Hamlet nature of the relationship between the two men, which is here both complex and very moving.

Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Philip II is a great creation of booming intensity. He stoops slightly, his tyranny born of fear, and his head-to-head with Eric Halfvarson’s excellent Grand Inquisitor, all trembling confrontation, is electrifying. Sonia Ganassi’s Eboli is slightly characterless in her early scenes but she rises to the challenges of “O don fatale” with vivid finesse.

The scenes flow seamlessly, changing with noiseless efficiency, and displaying the sort of artistry that has made the best of Hytner’s work across the river so remarkable. In his regular collaborator Bob Crowley’s designs, a frosted Fontainebleau landscape nips young love in the bud, denying it the chance to blossom. Chiaroscuro gloom follows, the darkness of the crypt pierced by an explosion of pencil-thin slashes of light.

A burst of colour accompanies Eboli but it’s not the ladies-in-waiting who glow, garbed instead in funereal black, but luscious sun-filled fields kept at an unattainable distance from the court. For the auto-da-fe scene, a huge painted Christ leaking blood competes with His Church, symbolised by the garish opulence of an all-gold cathedral façade. The grisly consequences of religious zeal are seen through Christ’s gauzy face, the clash of goodness and its corruption key to the interpretation.

Dominating all is Pappano’s magnificent reading of the score, full of both fervour and delicacy with the Royal Opera Orchestra following his bidding with brilliance and great sensitivity.

As with Zurich Opera’s recent concert Rosenkavalier on the South Bank, some people might want a little more rawness round the edges but few will fail to be won over by the stylishness of the whole package. This is an enormously impressive and enjoyable night at the opera and a production that we’ll hopefully see regularly revived.

Richard Morrison, The Times, 9 June 2008

Rating: Three out of five stars

An epic political tragedy that starts well then somehow fizzles out, after problems with two central characters

Like the bold scheme for liberating the Flemish masses planned by the excitable Don Carlo and his steadfast chum Rodrigo, the Royal Opera’s new production of Verdi’s epic political tragedy starts well, then somehow fizzles out.

After two acts, with Nicholas Hytner’s staging unfolding this Habsburg power-struggle so cogently in Bob Crowley’s handsome, uncluttered period sets, I thought this might be one of the great nights in the theatre. But after five acts (for Covent Garden has opted for Verdi’s five-act 1886 revision in Italian) I could hardly wait for Robert Lloyd’s baleful ghost of Charles V to come and put Rolando Villazón’s broken Carlo out of his misery.

What goes wrong? Very obviously, two of the central characters.

Villazón and his adored Elizabeth, Marina Poplavskaya, perform stunningly in their heartstopping Act I meeting, where they find instant mutual love in a magical, silver-tinted Fontainebleau. They have chemistry, ardour, spirit, sensuality.

That, however, turns out to be the zenith of their evening.

Villazón certainly radiates the aura of unstable volatility that Carlo needs, but his grainy voice sounds more and more pressurised. And as Poplavskaya tires in Acts IV and V, her tuning problems and threadbare top register aren’t pretty to hear. The role is beyond her at present, as the Royal Opera hierarchy should have realised.

But Hytner’s production must also shoulder some blame. He elicits wonderfully assured acting in intimate scenes. You can really feel the shuddering clash of ideologies, for example, when Ferruccio Furlanetto’s brooding, sinister and repressive Philip II confronts Simon Keenlyside’s magnificently forthright, clean-cut Rodrigo – “the only true man in this swarm of humanity”, as Philip rightly says. Or when Philip finds himself, doubtless to his surprise, speaking up for idealism and kindness in his verbal punch-up with Eric Halfvarson’s splendidly grotesque, palsied Grand Inquisitor. Or when Sonia Ganassi’s forceful Eboli is bewailing her own treachery in a hail of knockout top notes.

Yet as the opera progresses, and the chorus – the mob – should increasingly make their disruptive presence felt, Hytner’s staging seems bland and tokenistic. The sudden, lurid lighting of the burning heretics at the end of auto-da-fé scene is more akin to one of those comically gruesome waxworks in the London Dungeon than convincing theatre. And there’s no sense of menace or impending anarchy about the mob’s intrusion in the last act. They seem a docile bunch.

That’s a pity, because one longs for the stage action to match the intensity of what Antonio Pappano delivers in the pit. The orchestral playing is superb, from the offstage hunting horns at the opening and the beautifully gauged ebb and flow of the love music to the sepulchral creepiness of the slithery sounds conjured up for the Grand Inquisitor.

Not for the first time, Pappano delivers a Verdi masterclass. That’s worth catching on Radio 3 on June 28.

Andrew Clark, Financial Times, 8 June 2008 17:11

Opera: An inquisition devoid of opinion

There are two ways of reading the Royal Opera’s new Don Carlo. The first goes something like this: tenor-of-the-moment Rolando Villazón returns to the stage after months of indisposition and crowns a front-rank cast in a subtly delineated version of Verdi’s Spanish drama, masterminded by “the most influential arts figure in the UK” – Nicholas Hytner of London’s National Theatre.

The alternative reading submits that Villazón puts more nervous energy into the title role than his less-than-ringing voice can sustain, that Antonio Pappano’s musical direction labours under its own weight and that Hytner’s staging, while admirably focused on text and character, looks 30 years out of date.

I tend to the latter view. Covent Garden has ended up with another of its eminently consumable department-store productions, devoid of grist or opinion. The best of it lies in a few isolated moments when the principals break free of collateral constraints and show flashes of Verdian temperament. The two most notable examples at Friday’s opening night were Marina Poplavskaya’s Elizabeth de Valois in the achingly arched phrases of her opening duet with Carlo, and Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Philip in his epic confrontation with the Grand Inquisitor.

But they have to contend with a conductor who adopts leaden tempi, who fusses over the score’s inner workings and refuses to let go. Don Carlo – heard here in Verdi’s five-act version in Italian (1887) – should bristle with lyricism and drama; here it sounds cramped, subdued. Some of the most touching moments in this wonderfully touching score are not touching at all. It is as if Pappano, previously a reliable Verdian, is losing confidence in himself and his colleagues – a contagious disease that needs addressing.

Hytner does what most theatre-trained Englishmen do when handed a budget: he works on creating credible stage characters while leaving his interpretative intelligence outside the stage door. Bob Crowley’s period costumes (black tunics, Spanish ruffs) and pictorial sets tell us nothing beyond when and where the historical drama takes place. We get a whiff of the imprisoning aura of the Spanish throne through the walled enclosures of Acts Two and Four (lighting by Mark Henderson), but the cathedral façade for the auto-da-fé and the tomb in the finale are stage-bound reproductions that stifle the imagination. Does Hytner, who has previously directed the Schiller play on which the opera is based, have any opinions about this piece? You do not need to have seen the Royal Opera’s memorable previous productions to realise how unambitious his staging is.

Villazón’s Carlo is a whelping hothead who showers intensity and elegance on a role that really demands a top-voice of burnished ardour – which the Mexican tenor cannot supply. Sonia Ganassi’s Eboli sounds like a Rossinian trying to move up a notch: the vocal decorations come across well, but for all Ganassi’s spunky acting, she is too lightweight to set the heart racing. Eric Halfvarson’s well-fed Inquisitor is properly chilling and Simon Keenlyside’s Rodrigo – more French than Italian baritone – offers a beautifully fresh-off-the-page portrait.

Furlanetto’s handsomely intoned, intelligently acted Philip emerges as a complex figure who, beneath the trappings of power, yearns to love and be loved. Poplavskaya, girlish in the Fontainebleau scene, regal thereafter, is blossoming into a true lirico spinto. Thanks to these two we catch occasional glimpses of the great Verdian conflict – between public duty and private longing – at the core of Don Carlo.

Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph, 9 June 2008

Don Carlo: measured masterpiece

Verdi’s Don Carlo has special resonance at Covent Garden. It was here, 50 years ago, that a legendary production, directed by Visconti and conducted by Giulini, both vindicated a then little known work and brought the presentation of opera in London to a new level of splendour.

In the mid 1990s, we saw another fine staging, directed by Bondy and conducted by Haitink, which reverted to Verdi’s earlier French versions of the score (he fiddled with it for nearly 20 years) and featured revelatory performances by Karita Mattila and Roberto Alagna as the unhappy lovers.

So expectations ran high for this new production, with a strikingly strong cast conducted by Antonio Pappano and directed by Nicholas Hytner. The audience was not, I think, disappointed. Whatever one’s reservations and some first-night blips, this was indisputably a magnificent account of one of opera’s supreme masterpieces.

Hytner’s interpretation isn’t greatly different from Bondy’s in either visual or spiritual approach. Bob Crowley’s starkly stylised and sometimes rather ugly sets portray counter-Reformation Spain as a sort of prison, its high black walls studded with tiny windows.

Scenes move fluently, the confrontational duets that propel the action are sensitively staged, and thoughtful characterisation makes the dilemmas emotionally compelling.

There are, however, some lapses of taste – the auto-da-fé, for example, set in front of a solid gold cathedral façade, with the inauthentic addition of a Jesuit ranting at the whimpering heretics, goes way over the top.

And even the canny Hytner is defeated by the opera’s intractably bizarre denouement, sung here in Verdi’s final version.

It is Antonio Pappano’s wise conducting that holds the performance together most decisively. The Royal Opera’s music director has a tendency to whip up superficial excitement by taking things too fast and loud, but here he chose measured, mature authority over hysterical frenzy, drawing excellent playing from the orchestra and instilling confidence in the singers.

Centre of attention was Rolando Villazón, making a welcome reappearance after a period of withdrawal from the stage.

Some nasty cracks at climactic moments suggested that he wasn’t in best vocal health, but they seemed a small price to pay for the passion and musicality of his singing and his moving embodiment of Carlo’s boyish naïveté, vulnerability and ardour.

As his beloved Elisabetta, Marina Poplavskaya was rich in timbre, subtle in phrasing and lovely to look at, floating gorgeously above the stave and easily dominating the ensembles. Murky enunciation was the drawback.

Simon Keenlyside isn’t a born Verdi baritone, but his Posa radiated nobility and virility; as Eboli, Sonia Ganassi pulled the stops out for a thrilling O don fatale; and Ferruccio Furlanetto was a haunted, fearsome Filippo, locked in the misery of his supreme power. A beautifully blended sextet of Flemish deputies was among the evening’s several minor pleasures.

The booing of Villazón and the production team was cruel but isolated, and far outstripped by the general warmth of the reception. An exceptionally fine achievement overall, which further performances will surely enrich.

Colin Anderson, theoperacritic.com

Covent Garden’s new Don Carlo is impressive both musically and dramatically

This has long been a standout date in the Royal Opera’s diary; we were not disappointed. True, most interest was focussed on Rolando Villazón, and not just because he took the title role. He did well on this first night; well-acted and well characterised, his golden sound and easy phrasing in place as early as his first appearance – and Don Carlo is the first personality we meet, here in a snow-clad forest. True, Villazón’s voice did prove to be a little gruff at times and his pitching wasn’t always exact, and he was not quite as secure as Simon Keenlyside when Don Carlo and Rodrigo swear an oath of allegiance. If anyone was flat or slightly behind it was Villazón – ironic then that immediately after this duet he is left alone on the stage and Rodrigo has departed. The audience gave Villazón a long ovation but the more-deserving singer had departed! But, then, applauding in mid-act does not do the long line of an opera any favours.

And Verdi’s operas are thought-through; Don Carlo may be an editorial minefield, but it deserves to be heard uninterrupted. Antonio Pappano links Acts I and II, and Acts IV and V, the two intervals framing Act III. It’s a long evening by the clock (something like four and a half hours, including intervals), and you will now know that Pappano conducts the five-act Italian version (1886 Modena) – there are quite a few editions of the opera (in four acts, and five, in Italian and in French). It is however a short evening, dramatically riveting and notable for a strong cast working well together. It isn’t just about Villazón (he portrays an suave, gallant and impassioned Don Carlo – well befriended by Keenlyside’s Rodrigo) and bonded by Pappano’s exacting and dramatic conducting that is rewarded by some superb brass playing, which, indefinably, has the right sound and rhythmic guile that is echt-Verdi. The clarinet and cello principals were stars, too. The strings produced some wonderfully moonlit timbres.

The first act is the one that can be dropped; but it was needed here – but only in retrospect, for the unfolding tragedy really makes its mark when one remembers the almost-idyllic circumstances of the first and love-at-first-sight meeting between Don Carlo and Elisabetta. Marina Poplavskaya plays her, and is regal of stature and of tone. Don Carlo’s father, Philip II, is taken by Ferruccio Furlanetto – very impressively. He rather than Don Carlo marries Elisabetta and is a troubled figure, such emotions seeping out, not least when discussing grave problems with the Grand Inquisitor such as the proposed execution of Don Carlo (his own son, that is). Eric Halfvarson gives the all-powerful Inquisitor – despite him being blind and requiring the company of two helpers – significant presence.

Nicholas Hytner directs and Bob Crowley provides the designs; it’s a good team – there is little that doesn’t seem to belong to the drama while the scene-setting (whether garden, town or cathedral) have both a storybook look and also a potent sense of presence and significance; Valladolid Cathedral is a striking scene, with heretics and golden spectacle – Boris Godunov is not far away. This is an epic and complex opera – these qualities are retained here but the narrative (both historical and revealing about human emotions) is an absorbing one and the dimensions of the work never seem overlong or verbose; even those (few) moments that seem too much a diversion (albeit pleasing ones) make their points eventually when a moment of drama is the inevitable follow-through.

There is much to admire in the pit – from subtlety to power – and the singers have come together to form an ensemble that serves the story. A curiosity is that the singers’ dynamic range changes dramatically if they move very close to the front of the stage in a manner that is more to do with the acoustic rather than considered changes of volume. A small point this; and I also wondered about Sonia Ganassi as Princess Eboli; but not when she had ‘grown’ into her part and really established herself and her character.

All in all, this is a Don Carlo that reminds as to Verdi’s great achievement and that The Royal Opera has assembled a stellar cast and, in Tony Pappano, has a conductor really appreciative of Verdi’s genius for characterisation and dramatic impulse. Performances are until 3 July (and should you be in London, or Liverpool, on the evening of the final performance, this is screened to Trafalgar Square, Canary Wharf, and Clayton Square (Liverpool), both live and free, and BBC Radio 3 broadcasts the opera on 28 June.

Don Carlo is a relative rarity – it has been absent from Covent Garden for 20 years (although the French-language version was performed in 1996, under Bernard Haitink, although he went on to record the Italian five-act version), and its ‘rehabilitation’ is found here to be well-timed and thoroughly impressive in both performance and staging.

Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 9 June 2008

Rating: Four out of five stars

Any production of Verdi’s most monumental work that reminds you it is one of the very greatest of all operas has to be accounted a success. The Royal Opera’s new production sees director Nicholas Hytner return to Covent Garden after 20 years, and it’s almost that long too since Don Carlo (sung in Italian) has been seen at the ROH rather than the original French version of the score, Don Carlos. Antonio Pappano conducts the five-act version that Verdi himself approved for a performance in Modena in 1886, and delivers an implacably powerful, mordant drama.

The casting of Rolando Villazón in the title role attracted much of the advance publicity, but the glitzy tenor is the only disappointment. Some of his singing is outstanding but there’s never a hint of emotional engagement and with an acting style that begins and ends at his eyebrows, mixing in a few semaphore-like flailing arms for good measure, Villazón reduces the character of Carlo to little more than a stroppy, lovesick adolescent, hardly hinting that there is also a political dimension to his personal tragedy. The object of his obsession, Marina Poplavskaya’s Elisabetta, is sometimes beautifully sung too, but she projects such a permafrost-like froideur that the attraction between Carlo and his stepmother is hard to believe.

Paradoxically, that vacuum at the romantic heart of the work makes the dramatic balance far more interesting. The unresolved struggle between church and state in Philip II’s Spain, which is embodied in the king’s crucial confrontations, first with Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, and then with the Grand Inquisitor, is the engine that drives Hytner’s intelligent, unshowy production. It helps immeasurably too that those three roles, like Sonia Ganassi’s unusually sympathetic Eboli, are so superbly sung. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s profoundly troubled Philip dominates. Simon Keenlyside’s dauntlessly hyper-energetic Posa raises the dramatic temperature onstage whenever he appears, and Eric Halfvarson’s black-toned Inquisitor is the perfect incarnation of evil masquerading as divine truth.

The visual framework is generally a naturalistic, 16th-century one, though Bob Crowley’s spare sets occasionally shift into something more stylised.

Pappano has always conducted Don Carlos with tremendous sweep and an almost Wagnerian intensity; it’s the power of Verdi’s astonishing score, driven by his withering critique of the evils of organised religion, that one takes from this production, and it’s no disgrace to any of the performers that that is how it should be.

Fiona Maddocks, Evening Standard, 9 June 2008


Rating: Five out of Five stars

Passion unlocked in Don Carlo

Moments into Covent Garden’s new Don Carlo, the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon takes centre stage for his first urgent outpouring of love for a woman he’s barely met. It sets the tone for an impassioned evening in this absorbing staging by National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner, superbly designed by Bob Crowley and conducted with tender intensity by Antonio Pappano.

Hytner first directed Schiller’s verse drama 20 years ago. In Verdi’s hands, this dark account of the Infante Carlo — whose betrothed, Elizabeth of Valois, instead marries his father Philip II of Spain — becomes a magnificent grand opera demanding top voices, including three deep, dark bass roles. Verdi reworked the piece over two decades and this was the later, Italian version. The bitter politics of 16th century Flanders and Spain, expressed through the outpourings of the (excellent) chorus, provide a backdrop to the individual agonies of king, queen and son.

Thoughts of these intrigues call up a shadowy Spanish baroque world spiked with glints of gold. So it proved here: Mark Henderson’s glittering Zurburanesque lighting pierced the darkness.

Crowley has updated doublet-and-hose tradition with a deft twist of redsplashed Japanese modernity.

From the opening, a frost-crystallised Fontainebleau forest, to the gloomy monastery and the fantastic gilded spectacle of Vallodolid Cathedral, all was of a piece. Casting was impeccable. Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya, so statuesque and cool yet trembling with pent-up agitation, looked stunning as Elisabetta. She has a smooth, ivory vocal tone, a little scuffed at the top but gleaming in mid and low register. Her stillness is the counterpoise to her lover’s febrile vehemence, as expressed by Villazon.

Ferruccio Furlanetto’s proud Philip II mesmerised with his intelligence and vocal beauty. As Eboli, Sonia Garnassi’s had gutsty vitality. Winning extra thunderous applause, Simon Keenlyside’s Rodrigo showed customary perception and verve. Robert Lloyd, Eric Halfvarson and Jette Parker Young Artist Pumeza Matshikiza gave excellent support. The production team attracted a few incomprehensible boos amid cheers.

Holding all together, with a fine handling of the score’s own chiaroscuro display of darkness and light, was Antonio Pappano. He unlocked the compassionate heart of this work, while steering Verdi’s monumental edifice forward with drive. The ROH orchestra would have been the star, were there not already so many jostling for the title.

George Hall, The Stage, Monday 9 June 2008


The Royal Opera might have earned more brownie points for performing Verdi’s grandest opera in its original French. But here, using the edition he made for Modena in 1886, when it was sung in Italian, they score on everything else.

Designed by Bob Crowley, Nicholas Hytner’s production is cogent and detailed, a succession of close-ups of the central characters within the grander panorama of religious conflict and political intransigence centred on the court of Philip II of Spain. The Catholic Church, responsible for the brutality of the Inquisition, comes off particularly badly, as Verdi meant it to, but the people, whooping on the burning of the heretics, don’t escape either.

All the main performers distinguish themselves, though Rolando Villazon’s Carlos sometimes sounds stressed and even out of tune. It’s a role too big for his lyric tenor. Simon Keenlyside is almost beyond praise in the excellence of his singing and concentrated acting, even revealing that Posa’s idealism leads him to exploit the vulnerable prince. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Philip is a complex, secretly lonely tyrant. Sonia Ganassi is a flamboyantly intelligent Eboli. Eric Halfvarson’s Grand Inquisitor is a combination of decrepitude and malevolence. Artfully sung though Marina Poplavskaya’s Elisabeth is, the top of her voice lacks bloom and her portrayal remains cold.

Still, it’s a mightily impressive evening for chorus and orchestra, and Antonio Pappano once again demonstrates his mastery of Verdian musical drama.

Warwick Thompson, Bloomberg, 9 June 2008


Tickets were changing hands for 900 pounds ($1,777) on the Internet. The Royal Opera foyers crackled with anticipation. Nicholas Hytner’s new production of “Don Carlo” was clearly going to be the highlight of the London music season.

Partly this was because star tenor Rolando Villazon (Don Carlo) was returning to the house after a break in his career due to exhaustion. Partly it was because Verdi’s spectacular opera demands huge stage resources, and it had been 50 years since Covent Garden had created a new production of the five-act version.

Partly it was also because the piece deals with political oppression and religious differences, two subjects which seem more pressingly relevant now than they have in a long time.

The result? A tantalizing near miss.

Hytner’s production, in 16th-century costumes, started wonderfully in a frosty forest with wisps of mist. Here Carlo met his beautiful bride-to-be Elizabeth (Marina Poplavskaya), only to find out that she was now promised to his own father, Philip II of Spain.

Fire and Ice

Villazon’s stirring, beautiful sound caught one’s breath, and he acted with gripping intensity. Poplavskaya revealed a powerful voice which mixed fire and ice in equal measure. In the pit, Antonio Pappano was in top form. There was thrilled applause.

Then we were in a gloomy, dungeon-like space. The Marquis of Posa (baritone Simon Keenlyside) urged his friend Carlo to help liberate Flanders, where Protestants suffered under Philip II’s oppressive Catholic rule.

There was more superb singing, with Verdian panache.

Then the problems started. Villazon began to wobble on his top notes, and a little catch appeared in his voice. The anxiety in the audience was palpable.

The production, too, seemed to lose its way. A cloister garden was created from a high wall of red panels. It looked more like a flashy contemporary restaurant.

Princess Eboli appeared and revealed her love for Carlo. Mezzo Sonia Ganassi’s voice, though attractive, was too light for this dark, weighty role and her chest notes got lost under the orchestra.

It took the arrival of the supremely authoritative bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II to bring the production back on track. A lavish crowd scene of the public burning of heretics was thrilling.

Vocal Blips

Villazon only fully recovered his confidence in the final scenes of the opera, but by then his vocal blips seemed to have made Poplavskaya nervous. Her final great aria “Tu che la vanita” lacked a lilting, polished legato. The sets, too, came to seem static.

The acting was always detailed and convincing. Hytner’s production was clear, and conceived on a grand scale. There was plenty of superb singing, and the chorus and orchestra were never less than spectacular.

For all this, the parts still didn’t quite make the overwhelming whole we had all been hoping for.

Jim Pritchard, Seen & Heard, 6 June 2008


Act I

As the more than usually interesting Covent Garden programme noted at length, Verdi’s 1867 Don Carlos (subsequently Don Carlo)  had a chequered history involving a certain amount of neglect until the middle of the twentieth century. Using a libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle based on Schiller’s 1787 dramatic poem,  Verdi produced a long five-act work in French à la Meyerbeer,  set in mid-sixteenth century Spain. The plot issues were basically religion and love and involved a first act preface in the forest at Fontainebleau, the San Yuste monastery cloister of Carlos V’s tomb, the monastery garden, the city square in Valladolid outside the cathedral complete with a site for burning heretics, and the Queen’s gardens in Madrid where women could be entertained. But there was more: the plot’s tragedy was built up with other scenes in the King’s gloomy study, a dark dungeon where Don Carlos is imprisoned and a return to the cloister for the denouément.

The opera was exactly as long as it sounds – and still is – and during its original 270 rehearsals it needed substantial cuts: the opening of Act I was dropped and some duets were either cut completely or were shortened. Further changes were made after the Paris première on 11th March 1867 after which the libretto was translated into Italian as Don Carlo, for further performances in Naples (1872), Milan (1884) and Modena (1886) with Verdi working on them every step of the way. Initially, he continued to concentrate on the duets but by the time the work reached Milan, the whole of Act I had been excised. There were yet further changes in Modena to produce the version now presented at Covent Garden where the shortened Act I given in Paris in 1867 and the original start of Act II are both restored. These are believed to be Verdi’s last thoughts on the opera. It was only after the famous Luchino Visconti production in 1958 at Covent Garden that Don Carlo became more regularly performed and recorded, after decades of indifference.

Since we are dealing with a presumed masterpiece however, I am always surprised how it took seventy years to be recognised as such but then such was the fate that befell Mahler, whose works also deserve that epithet. But the tale that Don Carlo tells is still extended beyond its natural length and strangely enough in a production like this one, it is the auto-da-fé ‘celebration’ at the end of Act I which becomes superfluous – although perversely the crowd scenes and the humiliation of the heretics provided most of the dramatic fireworks in the whole long evening, because elsewhere the chorus is just asked to sing where it stands.

The crux of my complaint about this work however, is that the managements of our two major London opera houses are beginning to play safe with crowd-pleasing productions.  Nicholas Hytner has done that with his long-running Xerxes and Magic Flute productions at ENO and has come up with a staging here that could run and run. Although Verdi and his librettists play fast and loose with historical truths there are undoubtedly some important issues in Don Carlo, relevant to the twenty-first century; King Philip II says at one point that he can bring peace to the world ‘with blood’ and there is the conflict with church and state – and more precisely the issue of religious fundamentalism – which indeed makes the auto-da-fé the ‘heart of the opera’ as Andrew Porter puts it. However, as Nicholas Hytner seemed to be concentrating on the doomed love story in this production, that scene seemed – as I hint at above – almost irrelevant. Here, Don Carlo is an unrealistic and love-sick freedom fighter and Posa the idealist, while other aspects of the story become almost over-familiar: like the ‘living death’ of Elizabeth, a young woman packed off to the bed of an unloved old man – anyone here think of Diana and Charles? There are also the timeless tales of a father versus son and  wife versus the mistress to deal with; a lot for a director to work on before also coping with the ludicrous apparitions visiting Carlos V – what are they all about?

Nicholas Hytner does little else with these complex issues but recreate a standard traditional production of ‘thud and blunder’ Verdi, but he makes the absolute best job he can  with the little money he seems to have been given to work with. Bob Crowley’s sets seem to have been influenced by those for Klaus Michael Grüber’s Covent Garden Parsifal with their very similar toy theatre appearance. There are cut-outs of conifer trees for Act I with a snowy carpet and zigzag path, the cloister has only impressions of columns plus a massive monument to Carlos V and nothing more, the monastery garden is represented by a long red table, the hint of a slanting wall, a large cross and bell with more ‘fake’ conifers and some red poppies behind.

The Queen’s garden has a large cylinder of  hedge stage right, with yet more conifers and the city square has the cathedral in gold at the back with  the cylinder now covered by a large face of Christ, later  ‘illuminated’ to reveal just four heretics burning on stakes with tiny ‘Health and Safety’ flames. Act IV has a basically a bare stage, the King’s study furnished with only a table and chairs and a large gold reliquary, and Carlos’s prison is completely empty. The cloister columns and the Carlos V tomb return for Act V and that’s about it really. Yet saying all this ignores the important part played by Mark Henderson’s atmospheric lighting slanting in through several small squares in the three walls of the set, shadows and fog often establishing a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere. The costumes, mostly blacks and reds, seem authentic for mid-sixteenth century Spain and are sumptuous: this  is where most of the budget seems to have been spent, apart from the cast of course.


Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Philip must be one of the great operatic interpretations of the modern age. He seamlessly integrates words, music and gestures to create a believable character. He began ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ hand on head in reverie, moulding a fine legato and followed this up with a potent confrontation with Eric Halvarson’s Grand Inquisitor whose firm, stentorian voice belied his hateful characterisation of a stooping Parkinson Disease-riddled prelate, possibly based on John Paul II. Philip’s last line with the Inquisitor was exciting, both voice and words redolent with despair and bitterness as he concedes that the throne must defer to the Altar.

Simon Keenlyside was a rare British singer in a multi-national cast and was an eager, earnest and musically intelligent Posa with true Verdian style, sadly something not the case with all of his colleagues. Notably, his ardent lyricism easily eclipsed Don Carlo in their fist clenching, chest thumping duet ‘Dio che nell’alma infondere’ at the end of Act II.

Sonia Ganassi’s Princess Eboli displayed tremendous vocal agility, secure high notes and warm chest tones. Hers was typically a larger than life Verdian mezzo villainess not far removed from Amneris. Her ‘O don fatale’ was one of the highlights of the evening and the equal of Agnes Baltsa, who I saw at Covent Garden in 1989.

‘Senior Artist’ Robert Lloyd, a former Philip for Royal Opera when I was there in 1983, had a suitably sepulchral voice as Carlos V and a number of smaller roles were well cast from Jette Parker Young Artists, although none of these were British either. Where do young British opera singers get their experience? The enhanced chorus sang powerfully throughout the evening given the limited opportunities that Verdi provides them in this opera. In Acts IV and V particularly, the piece becomes a succession of lengthy ‘numbers’ for the principals.

I will be probably in a minority when I write that I was disappointed by both Rolando Villazón as Don Carlo and former Jette Parker Young Artist, Marina Poplavskaya as Elizabeth;  I was not convinced by their singing much or  by their acting. Poplavskaya alternated occasional moments of vocal beauty – as in her response to her compatriots who are tired of war in Act I – with unpleasant hootings from a chest voice elsewhere, which clearly suggests that she may be a more natural Eboli than Elizabeth. Her best singing though came in the Act III and IV ensembles. Throughout she was adequately regal, defiant and passionate and perhaps there is no more to do with her character, but her ‘Tu che le vanità’ was not the showstopper it should be for a Verdian Diva because she lacks a radiant top to her voice. Perhaps this was a case of too much too soon and something that will come together with more experience.

Rolando Villazón had a few good moments but he oversings and with such a heavy role as Don Carlo this fact must have long-term implications for his career. While I am certain that many who have not heard better will be thrilled by his singing – louder than loud throughout the evening at maximum intensity – I found it grating on the ears. From time to time he did reveal that he can sing softly however, and then he was very much better. Worst of all though, was that for me at least, his Don Carlo was never a 3D characterisation. In an overeager, almost adolescent-like fashion, he appeared to be craving love from his Elizabeth and then with his full-frontal singing, he demanded it from his audience.

Antonio Pappano is undoubtedly completely at home in this music and mostly it all flowed well. He highlighted with conspicuous detail the contrasts between the braggadocio of Don Carlo’s public music and the opera’s troubled undercurrents. He was supported by his exemplary orchestra with some highlights being those weird wind figures (redolent of Tristan Act III) that seem to be a motif associated with Carlo’s guilty love for Elizabeth rippling through the score, and there was the wonderful cello solo for the Act IV prelude leading to Philip’s monologue. Still for me, like Mr Villazón’s singing, it was all a bit too loud, too insistent and in Act I particularly, there was some rhythmic flabbiness such that Pappano could have been accused of being a little over indulgent to his principal singers.

Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times, 15 June 2008


Villazon makes a poor comeback at Covent Garden

The young tenor is not, never has been and never will be the “new Domingo”

After the opening night of Covent Garden’s new Don Carlo just over a week ago, the world of opera — managements, agents, record companies, audiences and, yes, even critics — will have to get used to a couple of inconvenient truths: Rolando Villazon’s comeback, after five months of rest and regrouping last year, that greeted his curtain call. I don’t want to give too much credence to an isolated protester, but this is something I never expected to hear for such a popular star at the ROH.

It should be clear by now that Villazon is not, never has been and never will be the “new Domingo”. Don Carlo was one of Domingo’s greatest roles — one that he sang on almost every major stage except, alas, Covent Garden — but at Villazon’s age, 36, the Spanish tenor was already singing Verdi’s Otello, the weightiest assignment in the Italian repertoire, and had most of the big Puccini and verismo roles under his belt.

With hindsight, it is easy to see how we have all been seduced by the sound of Villazon’s voice. When I first heard it on disc, in a small role on Daniel Barenboim’s recording of The Flying Dutchman, I thought the timbre reminiscent of Domingo in his prime, but I revised my opinion when I first heard him in the theatre, as Rodolfo in La bohème at Glyndebourne in 2003. His is a much smaller voice than Domingo’s, but its dark, almost baritonal sound is deceptive. Dark-sounding tenors are usually heroic tenors, but Villazon is the exception, a dark, super-lyric tenor — a unique voice in my experience. Some serious repertoire rethinking is now urgent. Otherwise audiences will be bravoing Villazon into oblivion or the amplified arena-concert circuit.

Both Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera’s music director, and Nicholas Hytner, the stage director of Don Carlo, do their utmost to minimise Villazon’s shortcomings in Verdi’s demanding title role by keeping the orchestra down for his big dramatic outbursts and keeping him close to the front of the stage. Whenever Villazon sang upstage, his voice almost disappeared, but it was his strangulated assaults on the high notes, and the look of sheer panic he gave Pappano in the garden scene, when his pitching went horribly awry, that gave the game away. Despite some lovely mezza voce (half-voice) phrases — Villazon is one of the most musical young singers around right now — the vocal fire power required for Don Carlo is really beyond him.

With one exception, Covent Garden has surrounded a feather-weight protagonist with equally lyrical singers, a risk that pays off only in Simon Keenlyside’s handsome, athletic, sturdily sung Marquis de Posa. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the young principals have been cast for their looks: Marina Poplavskaya, only a year after leaving the RO’s young artists programme, is a blonde vision, especially as the youthful Elisabeth de Valois, scampering around the forest of Fontainebleau and shooting with the hunt. Physically, the Russian soprano and Villazon are ideally matched, but the role takes an even heavier toll on her big-sounding but bleached-toned soprano. By the time she gets to her big moment in Act V, at the tomb of the emperor Charles V, she is all but sung out, snatching for notes at either end of the vocal compass and woefully out of tune. Poplavskaya has been fast-tracked to the front line of opera stars, but she hasn’t fulfilled the huge promise of her Rachel in Halévy’s La Juive in concert two seasons ago.

Sonia Ganassi’s Princess of Eboli is another case of wishful thinking on her and the RO management’s part: a superb heroine in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, she manages the filigree turns of Eboli’s Saracen Song with detailed aplomb, but she lacks the vocal guns for the garden scene trio and her barnstorming envoi, O don fatale (O fatal gift).

For much of the evening, Pappano seemed to be nursing these relatively fragile Verdi-lite voices, robbing the score of its essential drama. Things looked up at the beginning of Act IV, when Ferruccio Furlanetto’s majestic Philip II held the house spellbound for his gloomy interior monologue of self-recrimination. Finally, the music had found a near-ideal interpreter — a voice of stature and a charismatic actor deeply inside the psychology of his role. His confrontation with Eric Halfvarson’s booming Grand Inquisitor, a poisonous toad in cardinal’s scarlet, bristled with theatricality as the all-powerful king crumbles before the might of the Church in the form of the blind nonagenarian cleric.

This was one of the few moments when Hytner’s production rose superbly to the challenge of Verdi’s sprawling masterpiece. Elsewhere, the National Theatre director’s response to Verdi’s epic theatre looked anodyne and lacklustre, although, typically, he gets memorable physical performances from Villazon, Poplavskaya and Keenlyside. Bob Crowley’s designs are part of the problem: his imprisoning walls serve well an opera that juxtaposes stifling claustrophobia and religious repression, but the auto-da-fé scene, with screaming heretics, a baying populace, is pure kitsch, and the orange wall of the convent garden scene is both hideous and baffling. When faced with an international opera budget — and this is a co-production with Oslo and New York’s Met — theatre directors and designers think they have to do spectacle, but the Hytner-Crowley Don Carlo is a half-and-half mishmash of traditional representationalism and postmodern symbolism. Expectation ran high — too high, perhaps — for this Don Carlo, so this may explain my disappointment.

The first night was a predictably glitzy affair with Hytner supporters Alex Jennings, Frances de la Tour and her History Boys co-star Dominic Cooper prominent among occupants of the stalls. Also in attendance was an evidently pregnant Anna Netrebko, who had popped over from Paris, where she had been making her Opéra-Bastille debut as Giulietta in Bellini’s Romeo and Juliet opera, The Capulets and the Montagues, to cheer on her friend and stage partner, Rolando. At the weekend, I caught her last performance before her baby is due, and she was in more radiant voice than I have ever heard her, duetting gloriously with Joyce DiDonato’s velvet-toned Romeo. Netrebko is to sing Giulietta at Covent Garden next season — alas, without DiDonato — so Royal Opera audiences are in for a treat. Giulietta is as near-perfect a fit for Netrebko as anything I have heard her sing, and she looks as good as she sounds. Only when she was laid out in her tomb was one aware of her happy forthcoming event in September

Anna Picard, The Independent, 15 June 2008


Thrillingly sung and impressively staged, Verdi’s tragedy is an object lesson in musical theatre

It’s not a perfect production. It’s not a perfect cast. But in some scenes of Nicholas Hytner’s Royal Opera House staging of Verdi’s Don Carlo, orchestra, voices, design and movement unite so powerfully that you can almost believe that it is. Take the Act IV confrontation between Philip II (Ferruccio Furlanetto) and the Grand Inquisitor (Eric Halfvarson): one poisoned by doubt, the other made monstrous by certainty. From the bitter complaints of the two old men to the jet black walls of Bob Crowley’s set, the corrosive seam of contrabassoon and low brass, and the yearning oboe figures previously heard in the duet between Philip’s son Don Carlo (Rolando Villazon) and Philip’s wife, Elizabeth of Valois (Marina Poplavskaya), this is as good as live opera gets.

If Antonio Pappano’s genius as a conductor is in his subtlety, Hytner’s genius is in the calibration of gestures: the slight delay before Elizabeth takes the hand extended to her by Philip II, the ease of touch between her and her lady-in-waiting, the acute contrast between Don Carlo’s impetuous energy and the watchful reticence of Posa (Simon Keenlyside). Don Carlo is as much about powerlessness as it is about power, and the characterisation in this production seems as centred in the small of the actors’ backs as it is in their voices.

You can feel the weight of the 16th-century costumes, the burden of dynastic duty, the rigidity of royal protocol, the terror of the Inquisition. When the façade splinters, a gasp of despair is as seditious as a raised sword. Less impressive, alas, are those scenes where swords are actually raised: the Pythonesque prelude to the burning of the heretics, the giant shower curtain that conceals the stakes, and a cathedral built to the scale of department store changing rooms.

Limp stage fights and charred latex aside, this is a sumptuously detailed, thoughtful reading with exquisite work from the solo cello and off-stage brass. The chorus has never sounded better, with crisp diction and glowing blend. The sextet of Flemish Deputies is excellent, Halfvarson’s malevolent toad of an Inquisitor is utterly repellent, Furlanetto’s Philip is faultlessly sung and fascinating to watch even when still and silent. As Tebaldo, Pumeza Matshikiza is touchingly uninhibited, while Sonia Ganassi’s Eboli, too generic in Acts II and III, intensifies as the drama progresses.

Poplavskaya’s icy Elizabeth, though painfully drab and wan above the stave, is a moving study of repression and misery. Keenlyside and Villazon struggle to adapt their light, lean voices to roles that are too heavy, but sing with sensitivity and intelligence.

I can’t imagine what ran through the heads of the people who booed Villazon, but I wish they’d been at Stephen Langridge’s production of Bluebeard instead…

Anthony Holden, The Observer, 16 June 2008

Sing it loud – the maestro’s Don brilliant

Don Carlo comes alive with an all-star cast…

It was as if Antonio Pappano’s six distinguished seasons as music director of the Royal Opera had been building up to this moment: the master Verdian conducting one of the noblest works in the repertoire, sung by a stellar international cast, in a new production by one of the most accomplished directors of the day. Expectation of the first night of Covent Garden’s new Don Carlo has been running high for months and it is largely gratified by Nicholas Hytner’s intelligently crafted staging, which shows off the company’s musical assets to their very best advantage.

How to trump Visconti’s celebrated version, which brought this mighty work back into the mainstream repertoire 50 years ago? Covent Garden pinned its hopes on the return from a five-month sabbatical of the star Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón. In the title role of the impassioned, confused, Hamlet-like prince whose beloved marries his father, Villazón signals his intentions right away, with a fervent opening aria free of the stress that begins to appear in his voice as the long evening progresses.

Theatrically, he is upstaged by British baritone Simon Keenlyside as Carlo’s friend Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, who brings an urgency and veracity to the proceedings beyond Villazón’s operatic ken.

Young Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya is also in imposing voice as Elisabetta, the tug-of-love French princess, then Spanish queen, as unhappy with her lot as are both her husband and her jilted fiancé. But her passive stage presence is inadequate to the demands of so doom-laden a drama. The evening derives its necessary gravitas from Italian veteran Ferruccio Furlanetto, whose wonderfully rich bass complements the noble but profoundly troubled bearing he brings to the role of King Philip II. His meetings with the chilling Grand Inquisitor of Eric Halfvarson, palsied embodiment of the religious hypocrisy that fuels this work, are truly scary.

Only the performances of Furlanetto and Halfvarson, and, to a lesser extent, Keenlyside, remind us that there are mighty political as well as personal issues at stake. Bob Crowley’s sets are suitably imposing, with the exception of a bizarre suburban wall in the royal garden of the third act, which also happens to be the longest. Hytner brings due stateliness to the proceedings, but the popular uprising fizzles out with risible abruptness and it is curious to dress the victims of the Inquisition as members of the Ku Klux Klan.

But these are quibbles. If you are lucky enough to have snagged a seat, you are in for a memorable evening, with Pappano’s fine orchestra and chorus on top Verdian form. If not, you can picture the drama for yourselves when it is broadcast on Radio 3 on 28 June.

George Loomis, International Herald Tribune, 18 June 2008


An insightful and lavish ‘Don Carlo’

The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, made history 50 years ago with its Luchino Visconti production of “Don Carlo” conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. Hopes that history might be made again turned the company’s new, lavishly cast production of Verdi’s opera by Nicholas Hytner into the hottest ticket of the season. If the results fall short of perfection, they suffice to uncover the riches of this sprawling family drama set against a political backdrop.

Hytner offers no bold new interpretation of the opera, political or otherwise. From the costumes (though not from designer Bob Crowley’s imposing abstract sets), it is clear that the setting remains 16th-century France and Spain. But Hytner appreciates the opera’s grandeur and shows insights into the relationships of characters, not least that between the stern Spanish king Philip II and his rebellious son, Don Carlo. In the auto-da-fé scene, one really senses Philip’s humiliation and rage when Carlo interrupts a public ceremony to present a delegation of Flemish freedom seekers: Philip stands motionless, glowering at his son, while Carlo shifts about the stage nervously.

And in lieu of the deus ex machina ending, in which the ghost of Emperor Charles V (Philip’s father) whisks Carlo away from the king and the Grand Inquisitor, here Carlo is killed and the ghost moves grimly toward Philip, as if to reproach him for botching his relationship with his son. Less happy touches are the addition of a “priest inquisitor,” who, during processional music, shouts out demands for heretics to repent, and the decision to keep Carlo onstage as a brooding presence during scene changes.

The star Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón, in his first appearance here after a lengthy convalescence from exhaustion, pours out handsome tone with characteristic generosity, though sometimes the sound turns grainy and the role seems a stretch for his lyrical instrument. Sonia Ganassi gives an electrifying performance as Princess Eboli, with riveting high notes. Simon Keenlyside’s ardent singing brings out the idealism of Carlo’s friend Rodrigo. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s all encompassing voice and daunting manner make for a formidable Philip, and fellow basses Eric Halfvarson (Grand Inquisitor) and Robert Lloyd (Charles V) are also first-rate. Only the Elisabetta, Marina Poplavskaya, vocally thin on top and cool in demeanor, disappoints. Antonio Pappano’s pliant tempos are expertly judged and he draws stirring performances from orchestra and chorus. Although Covent Garden performed the opera in the original French in the mid-1990s, here they revert to the familiar Italian translation, offering the five-act “Modena” version of the score, which represents Verdi’s last thoughts on his much revised opera.

David Benedict, Variety, 10 June 2008


Whichever version of “Don Carlo” one stages — Verdi tinkered with it over 20 years in different languages and lengths — the work exemplifies the term “grand opera.” But any bombast that label suggests is expunged by Covent Garden’s assured new production. Even without its topnotch cast headed by returning superstar Rolando Villazon, the marriage of Nicholas Hytner’s staging and Antonio Pappano’s conducting would be both dramatically muscular and musically exhilarating.

Hiring Hytner was a smart move, not least because he began his career in opera houses. Better yet, he made theatrical waves two decades ago directing “Don Carlos,” Friedrich von Schiller’s thriller of church, state and family loyalty upon which the opera is based, with a young Michael Grandage in the title role. It’s thus unsurprising that this production scores unusually highly as drama.

Hytner employs the five-act Italian version of the opera here (performed with two intermissions). The action opens in the forest at Fontainebleu, realized by designer Bob Crowley as a vista of flat white trees with an icy pathway zigzagging upstage against a series of white perspective frames. Contrasted by Velasquez-like period costumes, this stylized naturalism is the production’s hallmark — a succession of stark, uncluttered visual statements against which the subtleties of power plays emerge ever more strongly.

Overeager singers often mistake emoting for acting, but Hytner encourages restraint. Thus emotional peaks arrive with, rather than anticipate, the musical climaxes.

The director’s command of stage space is central to his success here. In the scene before his murder, Posa (a superbly resolute Simon Keenlyside) and Don Carlo (Villazon) argue fiercely about political loyalty. Instead of bringing the men close together, Hytner keeps them apart — and the same applies in scenes between Don Carlo and Elizabeth (Marina Poplavskaya), the woman he loves but cannot have. This approach not only charges up the vast space between them, it also brings enormous impact to their moments of actual contact.

Crowd scenes are equally impressive. Hytner lifts the dramatic temperature simply through his handling of groups of people, working with movement director Scarlett Mackmin to sculpt the chorus into one dynamic unit. When they surge forward to threaten the heretics, the menace is palpable.

The fluidity of the staging contributes to the achievement here. Dramatically inert blackouts and scene changes are replaced by a grille-like black wall that’s flown in downstage, leaving Don Carlo literally and metaphorically cut off from the world.

His sense of imprisonment is amplified by Mark Henderson’s expressive lighting. King Philip’s study, bare but for two chairs and a table, echoes with loneliness thanks to pools of chilly light pouring in through multiple apertures in the side walls to emphasize the surrounding darkness. Elsewhere, Henderson uses super-saturated colors to underscore the emotional temperature.

Drama is harnessed to musicianship throughout. In the great duet “Dio che nell’alma infondere,” in which Don Carlo and Posa swear to fight for political freedom, Pappano manipulates tempi to underline moment-by-moment detail, encouraging his singers to generate evocative tenderness and rousing excitement. He’s also consistently alert to the varied orchestral textures, pushing the resplendent brass section but also highlighting the fateful clarinet theme or plangent solo cello line.

Returning to the stage after months of recovery from burnout, Villazon started out nervously on opening night, but the more he relaxed, the stronger he sounded. It wasn’t the cleanest of vocal performances, but the undiminished exuberance of his attack, the dramatic legibility of his voice and his stage dynamism more than override occasional cracks.

Making her role debut as Elizabeth, talented Royal Opera discovery Poplavskaya showed moments of strain, but her dark, hooded tone conveys real dramatic conviction. If her airy top notes lack power, the relatively young singer’s high pianissimo singing in her final duet with Don Carlo is controlled to ravishing effect.

The one weak link is a miscast Sonia Ganassi. Shifting from the brilliant fizz of Rossini heroines to the malevolent scheming of Verdi’s bad girl, Eboli, is a tough assignment, and the effort shows.

Although the opera is called “Don Carlo,” whenever Ferruccio Furlanetto is onstage, one believes it should have been titled “Philip II.” Furlanetto brings immense status to this stern ruler of previously unshakable conviction, suddenly plunged into moral conflict. His glowering, measured physicality provides a compelling contrast with so sonorous a sound.

The last production of Verdi’s Italian version was in the Royal Opera’s repertoire for more than 30 years. This one — already en route to the Met in New York and Oslo’s new opera house — deserves as long a shelf life.


Susannah MacMillan, Daily Express 13 June 2008

A masterly Don Carlo

Nicholas Hytner’s new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo is the first time in 20 years that the five-act Italian Modena version has been staged and 50 years since Luchino Visconti’s legendary production.
Based on the play by Frederick Schiller, it is a romantic opera with a political backdrop set in France and Spain in the second half of the 16th century. The young Princess Elizabeth, daughter to the King of France, arrives with her attendants at the stark white forest of Fontainebleau.
Against the wishes of his father King Philip II, Don Carlo travels to France incognito to meet his new bride and falls in love with her on sight. His first aria, Lo la vidi, is sung by Rolando Villazón with an intensity reminiscent of a young Carreras.
When the princess and her page become lost, Don Carlo appears and offers to escort her home. She is apprehensive about her marriage to a stranger but he assures her that her intended husband will love her. Producing a miniature of himself, he reveals that he is the man she is to marry. In the tender duet, Di quale amour, di quanto ardor,
their love is sealed.
There is a great fragility and grace in the performance of Marina Poplavskaya as Elizabeth. It is a large role for such a young singer but her acting ability and focus help her sustain the performance, even if her voice tires by the fourth act.

In a volte face, Philip II marries the young Elizabeth, causing the tragedy to come. Don Carlo’s friend Rodrigo finds the wronged son hiding in his grandfather’ s tomb and tries to encourage him to think of new reform. Rodrigo, sung sublimely by Simon Keenleyside, stirs Carlo the Crusader into action and they pledge themselves to the cause of liberty and freedom.
This has to be one of Verdi’s most beautiful and delicately balanced operas and the score is arranged sensitively by music director Antonio Pappano.
Ferruccio Furlanetto’s performance as King Philip II is the finest of the evening, conveying a man crippled by conscience, saddened by a wife who never loved him and a son he has to kill.

The depictions of Christ projected on to a circular curtain next to a gold cathedral juxtaposed with columns and angels give Bob Crowley’s set a Futurist atmosphere enhanced by Mark Henderson’s lighting.

Hytner’s production has a gripping intimacy that also play on a grand scale. It is a sensational piece of work.


Enrique Sacau, mundoclasico


[Performance on 14 June 2008]

Verdi in Legoland

Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo presents a mixture of adultery, incest, homoerotic friendship, betrayal, heresy, executions en masse and mutual blackmail between the Spanish royal family and the Inquisition. Some productions stress the struggle of the individuals; some focus on the political element of the plot; others try both. Nicholas Hytner does neither. I must admit that after four hours in the theatre the meaning of the show he put on totally escaped me. First of all, there was no aesthetic coherence: some acts took place in pitch black, nondescript, minimalist sets, while others happened in a bucolic forest, a Lego-like orange monastery and an extremely kitsch (allegedly) Spanish square with a gilded Cathedral and a portrait of Jesus bleeding in the background. Hytner is indeed to blame for the idea and the final result, but not the only one responsible.

Some of these sets, especially the forest and the square, looked terribly cheap. This is down to Bob Crowley’s designs. Also to blame is Scarlett Mackmin who, according to the programme, was in charge of ‘movement’. Well, not a single time did I think that there had been any work done on this front. The singers always seemed to move around directionless. The apparition of Carlo V in act 5 was simply laughable. As I said in a recent article, it is perfectly fine that the Royal Opera avoids bold productions that might upset the audience. But I do not see how this one might enchant them either, to be honest. Its only possible salvation would be to get rid of the big canvas of Jesus and, much more importantly, to work on the ‘movement’, so the singers know when to do what and the meaning of it. As it is today, this is probably the worst new production I have ever seen at the Royal Opera House.

Musically things were infinitely much better. With the exception of Rolando Villazón’s Don Carlo, all the rest was very good, to say the least. The Mexican tenor, whose beautiful voice enchanted us four years ago when he sang Hoffmann, sounded strained and tired. His high notes came out strangulated and his acting, overtly excessive, verged on the ridicule when he started punching things (benches, trees, walls, himself, etc.). It must be said that he improved after act 2, but was still substandard. This was particularly obvious by contrast, since Don Carlo spends most of the opera on stage and has duets with everyone.

Two years ago Marina Poplavskaya was only a student at Covent Garden. Now she has sung a number of operas and counts on the enthusiasm of the audience. The main reason for her success was apparent to me while she was singing the extremely demanding aria ‘Tu che le vanità‘ in act 5. Her careful phrasing made me wonder how many hours she spent studying this role. I do not particularly like her voice, which I think lacks necessary subtle tones to sing this part, but this is only my opinion. In all, she passed her test with distinction.

Simon Keenlyside’s terrific Posa sounded virile, passionate and in love (with Don Carlo, of course). Whenever I have seen Keenlyside singing Posa I have fully realised that one of the reasons why Posa wants Don Carlo to go to Flanders with him is to be always by his side, more as a partner than as a friend. This is something that Verdi’s music makes obvious, but many directors and singers ignore.

I expected Sonia Ganassi to excel in the melismatic ‘Veil Song’ and not so much in ‘O don fatale’. It was the other way around. She did well in the former and was moving and strong in the latter, thus nailing a very difficult aria.

Equally commendable was Eric Halfvarson’s already legendary rendition of the Inquisitore, which has made him justly famous everywhere.

I have intentionally left Ferruccio Furlanetto for the end. What can I say? The unusually loud and long ovation he received after ‘Ella giammai m’amò′ says it all. At 59 he sang the best Filippo II we could dream of. This is, of course, the result of both acting and singing convincingly: his voice is simply perfect for the role, as it sounds both mature and still fresh; his acting perfectly portrayed the duality of his character, torn between his remorse and his impulses. One thousand times bravo.

Antonio Pappano’s Verdi is never quite as good as his Puccini (or his Shostakovich), but is still thrilling. Perhaps a little more nuance here and there (of the sort Sir Mark Elder gives you) would be the icing on the cake. But in all, he makes the drama happen in the pit and is an excellent accompanist. As a friend said, in spite of the production, the music triumphed and Verdi, helped by great musicians, stole the show.

George Hall, Opera News, September 2008

Verdi’s Don Carlo has held a special place in the repertory of the Royal Opera since 1958, when Carlo Maria Giulini collaborated with Luchino Visconti on a new production that set the seal on the 100th anniversary of the present theater and helped reaffirm the work’s position as one of the composer’s masterpieces. That much-revived show was considered a touchstone of the company at its best: it lapsed only in 1989. Then, in 1996, the company made the brave decision to give the work — long familiar in Italian translation — in its original French guise, with Luc Bondy’s widely-traveled staging, conducted by Bernard Haitink. Having crossed that particular Rubicon, it seems retrogressive to resume the Italian text and the title Don Carlo for Nicholas Hytner’s new production, which opened on June 7, at a time when some other houses are gingerly and belatedly adopting the French libretto. Be that as it may, it was in Italian that this particular edition of Verdi’s distinctly moveable musical feast — Modena, 1886, thus including the crucial initial Fontainebleau act — was heard under the secure, stylish baton of music director Antonio Pappano.

Director Hytner, an infrequent visitor to opera, though always a welcome one, is also the director of the National Theatre of Great Britain. His history with the Schiller play on which Verdi’s opera is based goes back to an acclaimed production he presented at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in 1987. Bob Crowley’s designs were period, with appropriately lavish costumes for the Spanish court. As lit by Mark Henderson, the vast private spaces were almost as dark as the grand public ones, the sole exception being the epic square in Valladolid where the heretics were to be burned. Here, a gigantic curtain painted with the bleeding head of Jesus occupied one side of the scene; the other was dominated by a vast, ornately decorated architectural screen from which Ferruccio Furlanetto’s King and Marina Poplavskaya’s Queen entered to join the flame-thirsty throng. As the auto-da-fé reached its grisly climax, the curtain fell to reveal the burned bodies of the heretics hanging from their charred stakes. It was gruesome, and presumably as repellent a sight as the liberal, anti-clerical Verdi would have wished.
Earlier in this scene, Hytner added to the canonical text a spoken opportunity, offered by a new character, the Priest Inquisitor (played by Alexander d’Andrea), to each of the half-dozen heretics to repent, which they all steadfastly refused. Accompanied only by Verdi’s deeply ironic jolly banda music, this seemed an unnecessary if scarcely inappropriate piece of stage business.
For the rest of this vast, complex piece of musical theater, with its pageantry, intimate soul-searching and rich tapestry of interpenetrating personal, political and religious conflicts, Hytner played things pretty straight, and with consistent intelligence and point. Each of the main characters emerged as a fully-rounded figure, while all of their interactions were gripping and involving. Handsome to look at and engrossing to watch, the staging was a fine achievement.

Much of the singing, too, was on a level consistent with an international company operating at or near the top of its form. But there was undoubtedly some concern attached to the performance of the title role by Rolando Villazón, in his first Covent Garden assignment since his self-imposed retreat from the limelight. As with everything he does, Villazón threw himself into the part heart and soul. But sometimes his over-emphatic singing was not far from shouting. Worse, a number of individual notes or phrases, particularly in the first two acts, noticeably either rose above or fell below pitch. A couple of moments came dangerously close to being mangled. On this showing, Don Carlo is not for him. A couple of unkind booers made their presence felt at his curtain call.
Marina Poplavskaya sang Elisabeth. After a remarkable success in the Royal Opera’s concert performances of La Juive in 2006, this young Russian soprano has hit the big time. She managed many beautiful things over the course of the evening, though the top of her voice lacked projection. She made up for it by fining the tone down, though not always to the advantage of Verdi’s line. As an actress, her impeccable control occasionally teetered over into a suggestion of coldness that was regrettable.
Simon Keenlyside was the Posa. Vocally and dramatically, his was the performance of the evening, spirited and imaginatively shaped down to the tiniest detail. There was even a hint that Posa’s fiery idealism had led him to exploit the vulnerable, isolated Carlo for his own ends, rather than out of concern for his welfare, pure and simple. It was an effective reading that enriched further an already marvelously human construction.

The sheer distinction of Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Filippo, a centered and diligent reading that balanced the public and private tyrant with the lonely, insecure individual, was manifested physically as well as vocally. Sonia Ganassi rose superbly to the challenges of Eboli, a character she conveyed as more intelligent than the usual vain and revengeful vamp. Eric Halfvarson offered a gripping portrayal of a Grand Inquisitor both decrepit and infinitely malevolent. Robert Lloyd returned as a gaunt, vocally sepulchral Charles V. Even with the odd blemish, this line-up was as effective in reality as it was glamorous on paper. Overall, Covent Garden can be justly proud of its new Don Carlo.

John Steane, Opera Now, September/October 2008

Fit for a king

I shall never forget the first sound of Villazon’s voice that night. As we knew (though I was not conscious of having it in mind), he had been away for some time recovering from a period of overactivity and stress. Whether it was that the rest had restored the freshness of his voice or that one had forgotten just how special those tones and the feelings he injects into them are, the beauty of his singing in those first phrases was intensely moving. In the aria that followed – ungrateful as it is, coming at the start, going without built-in applause and being the only one allotted to him in the opera that bears his name – he phrased and shaded like a master, and he ended with the tightest, most finely spun trill I have ever heard on stage from a singer of his type. Later, at the most heroic moments, he had not the cleaving power which places the role more properly within the repertoire of a dramatic tenor. He made up for much with the intensity of his singing, and ended the opera with passionately infused gentleness in the sublime ‘farewell’ duet.

This was with Marina Poplavskaya, whose lovely voice suited ideally. The role of Elisabeth de Valois is often hard to bring to life: Verdi gives every assistance, but dramatically she may seem confined within the limits of nobly borne suffering. It was a good touch of production to have us see her first as a free spirit darting between the trees in her native land. Poplavskaya’s youthful radiance here cast a retrospective glow on her passive dignity as Queen of Spain; and there comes a painful reminder as she runs across the room to the King with her cry of ‘Giustizia!’. The voice, as we know, is of most lovely quality, and in most respects (the want of a rich chest voice for ‘La pace dell’ave!’ is the most obvious exception) the great aria in Act V could have been written for it. Along with Villazon’s, it was her performance that, for me, lent to the production a royalty by which at least part of it could stand in the memory in company with the famous Visconti revival of 50 years ago.

Among the cast, I would point a reluctant finger to a couple of performances which on the night didn’t live up to my expectations (all the more reluctant because everyone performed with merit and rightly won the audience’s approval). As Eboli, Sonia Ganassi sang a triumphant ‘0 don fatale’ but was often uneven in voice production and lacked the richly sensuous quality the role requires. Simon Keenlyside’s Rodrigo was admirable in the clean definition of his singing and the intelligence of his inflections and movements, but there’s a largesse about this man that is not quite within his reach. Eric Halfvarson would make a great Inquisitor if he could hold his powerful voice steady. As it was, he still showed up (as did Keenlyside) a dullness and want of a resonant tonal centre in Ferruccio Furlanetto’s tone. He is a good actor and his singing rises to the demands made on it for range and volume, but his style lacks dignity of method, too readily overt in emotional expression.

But such limitations as there were to complete satisfaction lie much more with the production itself. They make a pig’s ear (or is it a dog’s dinner?) of the ending. If Charles V doesn’t rescue Carlo, what is the point of his being there, or of the monk in the earlier scene? It can’t be to utter platitudes about the inevitability of suffering. There is some crude ‘rubbing your face in it’ in the auto da fe scene. And if the angry red and serrated edges of the monastery wall, which so affront the eye in the first garden scene, are symbolic in intention, then that is just another example of the curse of symbolism in modern operatic production. To Nicholas Hytner and his team, congratulations are due for much else, not least for placing the chorus where we could best hear them in the auto-da fe. Finally to Antonio Pappano and the orchestra: there was not a moment during the whole five acts when things went slack and standards relaxed. Only perhaps they might not play quite so loudly next time.

Robert Hugill, Music and Vision, 6 July 2008


Highly Intelligent

Singers with good Verdi voices are in short supply at the moment, so opera houses have to be a little imaginative with their casting to make things work. With Verdi’s Don Carlo, even in the 1886 version, Verdi’s revised five-act version, the title role is long and arduous. Don Carlo and Elizabeth do not necessarily need huge dramatic voices, but they require voices which have an element of steel to them. Monsterrat Caballé was an Elizabeth par excellence, able to spin long lines but also with the underlying steel to cut over the orchestra. Similarly Don Carlo was a role which suited the young Placido Domingo who had the flexibility and stamina for the role (the Don Carlo in the 1884 première of the revised four-act version in Milan was Francesco Tamagno who would go on to create Otello).

The Royal Opera House had persuaded the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, back from his self-imposed absence, to undertake Don Carlo. This was not Villazon’s first outing in the role but his biography lists no other performances of this role, nor of any other comparably taxing role. There is no doubt that Villazon has the stamina to undertake the role, after all singing the title role in a full version of The Tales of Hoffman is hardly a light undertaking. But the role is definitely a stretch for him. We heard the final performance of Nicholas Hyntner’s new production at Covent Garden on 3 July 2008, and Villazon sounded distinctly tired by Act IV, but recovered in the final Act. What he lacked was the cushioning that a bigger voice gives you; he had to sing long passages at full stretch. Also Villazon’s voice is not the most opulent of instruments and having to sing loudly over a large orchestra for such a time tended to emphasise this fact.

His performance of Don Carlo was successful and entirely creditable. But if he wants to keep on singing Edgardo, Nemorino, Rodolfo and Hoffmann, all of which he has scheduled for the 2008/09 season, then he had better keep his run of heavy operas down to a minimum.

Villazon’s Don Carlo was involving and moving, once you got beyond the fact that Hyntner had been unable to persuade the tenor to expand his rather limited range of body movements and expressions. He had a fine sense of Verdian line and was happy to sing quietly, so there was no sense of the role being screamed constantly. Villazon’s account was shapely and intelligent, music sung with sense and in real paragraphs. It was perhaps unfortunate that in his black 16th century outfit he bore an alarming resemblance to Blackadder.

That the Royal Opera was aware of Villazon being rather light for the role is shown by the careful casting around him. His Elizabeth was Marina Poplavskaya, a previous Jette Parker Young Artist, and her heaviest roles to date have been Donna Anna and Rachel (in La Juive). First night reviews of the opera suggested that she might have been over parted, but by this final performance she seems to have got the measure of the role. Like Villazon she currently seemed a little light for the part but there was no doubt that Poplavskaya had the requisite element of steel in her voice. Currently she is young and has a brilliant voice, low on vibrato, high on a sense of line and if she does not try to do too much too fast then she will develop into a superb Elizabeth. Already she is a profoundly moving one, and had sufficient reserves to give a stunning account of Tu che la vanita in the final act. It helps of course that Poplavskaya looks good. She was rather a contained, controlled figure on stage but this is entirely apposite for Elizabeth.

Simon Keenlyside does not have a conventional Verdi baritone voice, though he is starting to increase the number of Verdi roles in his portfolio; his plans include further performances as Rodrigo along with Macbeth and Rigoletto. Keenlyside’s characterful baritone does not have the opulence of the ideal Verdi baritone, but he has reached the age where his voice has developed sufficient heft for him to be able to sing these roles in his familiar vividly intelligent fashion without them seeming to over stretch him. In fact Keenlyside made the ideal partner for Villazon, the two voices complimented each other and neither overbalanced the other. Keenlyside’s Rodrigo (Posa) was finely drawn and presented in rather subtler depth that Villazon’s Don Carlo. The two provided a moving duet in Act 2, then in Rodrigo’s death scene Keenlyside showed himself highly aware of the profoundly homoerotic undercurrent which runs through Rodrigo’s relationship with Don Carlo.

Like Villazon, Sonia Ganassi’s main area of expertise has so far been in early 19th century Italian opera (she has appeared as Rossini’s Cenerentola at Covent Garden). Her voice was more than able to cope with the dramatics required of it, though she had to use rather more of her heavy chest register than I would have liked. Princess Eboli is rather a tricky role, it was written for a mezzo-soprano who sang soprano roles as well. Ganassi’s experience in coloratura Rossini roles meant that her performance of such star numbers as the Veil Song and O don fatale had rather better integrated top notes than provided by many mezzos. In fact her performance of the Veil Song was almost worth the entrance money alone, as she sang it with distinctly Rossinian inflections in the coloratura, looking at the song from the earlier 19th century performance practice rather than simply trying to get a large dramatic voice round the notes as often happens. O don fatale was similarly beautifully inflected.

Ganassi managed to make Eboli seem attractive and unsure, rather than simply the awful schemer that often comes to the fore. Eboli’s character is one that gains from the longer, fuller 1867 version so in these later versions the singer must work hard to make the character cohere. This Ganassi did superbly.

There is no question that Feruccio Furlanetto’s voice is entirely fit for purpose when it comes to King Philip. This meant that Furlanetto’s resounding tones often dominated, which again is entirely fitting. Furlanetto’s Philip was perhaps not the greatest performance to have been witnessed at Covent Garden, but in an age of Verdian musical pygmies, Furlanetto is a towering giant and contributed a big hearted performance. He made you see the man under the monster, and you actually felt sorry for the silly old fool when he sang his aria opening Act 4. Then his scene with Eric Halfvarson’s Grand Inquisitor was spine chilling stuff; Verdi at his most powerful delivered by two intensely moving and involving singers.

Nicholas Hyntner’s production, in Bob Crowley’s designs, was intelligent and immensely stylish. Crowley’s costumes were mainly period (though those for the female chorus were a little wayward at times), with black predominating at the Spanish court. Crowley’s designs were not completely historically accurate but this is hardly a history lesson, they were close enough to give the right flavour and establish character.

The sets were distinctly more stylised, practical and lovely to look at. The basic set for the opera was a box filling the entire stage consisting of black screens with smallish openings. Sometimes this was wholly or partially absent, but most scenes closed with a black screen descending in lieu of a curtain. Each time it did so, Don Carlo would be left alone on the fore-stage cut off from the rest of the action. This was profoundly poignant in Act 1 when the screen descended on the retreating form of Elizabeth, now acclaimed Queen of Spain.

Each scene had a particular colour palette and feeling. The Fontainebleau forest was all black and white, chilly and stylised; the monastery a black lowering space, cavernously dark with a tomb for Carlos V dominated by a pair of angels. The gardens outside of the monastery included a remarkable stylised red wall and views of distant fields full of poppies, surely a coded reference to the Flanders which crops up so often in the opera.

The Auto de fe scene was dominated by the gilt façade of the cathedral, but the left hand side of the stage displayed a curtained off area with a huge projection of Christ’s face. This meant that Hyntner had rather less room to play with than was desirable so that the comings and goings were a little confused, but all was revealed at the end of the scene when the lighting changed, and behind the curtains were revealed the pyres with the heretics burning vividly and realistically.

Philip’s study was a huge plain black space enlivened simply with a table and a prie-dieu in front of a huge monstrance. This seemed entirely apt for the King’s character.

The final scene reverted to the interior of the Monastery; there was no final spiriting off of Don Carlos by the monk (Robert Lloyd). Instead Don Carlo died in Elizabeth’s arms whilst Lloyd intoned.

A big virtue of the production was the way that scenes flowed into each other, with no waiting around. This created good dramatic momentum in what is a long opera, even after Verdi’s surgery. But Hyntner was rather more than a traffic policeman, and he created a thoughtful and insightful evening. Verdi’s opera started out as a French grand opera and this still shows even after his revisions. Hyntner made you forget that the plot often creaks and groans, and helped you concentrate on character interaction.

Don Carlo may not be Verdi’s greatest opera, but when well performed it comes pretty close. This was not the evening of ultimate Verdi singing that the audience at Covent Garden seemed to convince themselves it was. But it was highly intelligent, immensely involving and a thought-provoking night in the theatre. I look forward to the production’s revival.

Personal review from Terence Dawson

Performance; Friday 20th June 2008

This production of “Don Carlo” at Covent Garden, is of the later revised work of 1886. At the time considered over long it is still 5 acts spanning over 4 hours. A harrowing story of the conflict between duty, friendship and loyalty, set to some of Verdi’s greatest music. Magnificently performed by the orchestra of Covent Garden under the baton of their fine musical director Antonio Pappano. How lucky they are to have him.

Nicholas Hytner directs this handsome production, all the scenes effectively and simply mounted. In particular the forest of Fontainebleau in act 1, where Don Carlo first meets his betrothed Elizabeth of Valois. Glistening frosted trees, winding path through the snow, icy mist, all in chilly monochrome and the act 3 “Auto da fe“, where the heretics are burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Flaming reds and gleaming gold. An enormous portrait head of Christ, crowned with thorns, blood streaming down his face, through which at the end of the scene we see the heretics burning. Gruesome!

Packed with such fine set pieces as Carlo and Elizabeth’s duets in the first and last scenes; Philip II and Rodrigo’s confrontation in act 2; Carlo and Rodrigo’s famous and stirring duet of loyalty and purpose; Elizabeth’s beautiful aria “Tu che la vanita” in the last act and perhaps the finest of all, the chilling scene in Philip’s chamber in the Escorial where the Grand Inquisitor makes it clear to the King that the Church is more powerful than the state.

With a stellar cast lined up including; Tenor Rolando Villazon, after a long absence from the stage; the rising young soprano Maria Poplavskya and not to mention the fine Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto and the great English baritone Simon Keenlyside, we should have been in for a cracker. So why didn’t we get it? The answer on this night due to the indisposal, through illness, of Villazon. Korean tenor Alfred Kim was the last minute replacement and a fine secure voice he has (though I felt tonally a little thin) but in opera, particularly this one, it is not sufficient and even given the support of an artist of the calibre of Keenlyside, he was unable to generate any dramatic tension. The other reason more worryingly, for the production, was the casting of Maria Poplavskya as Elizabeth. This young artist has a lovely voice but this role, at this stage in her career is a step too far. In the last scene at the start of her big aria “Tu che la vanita” I thought we were in for something special (even if she had been saving herself for it) but as it progressed she seemed to tire and from where I was sitting her lower register became all but inaudible. Even physically she seemed to slow as the performance progressed.

There were many good things however. Firsty, Covent Garden stalwart Robert Lloyd as the ghost of Emperor Carlo V. The final scene where he sings of life’s suffering, peace only to be found in the grave, while he lowers over a cowering King Philip who has just seen his son Carlo killed by his own men, is memorable. The Grand Inquisitor of Eric Halvarson with a bass voice as sonorous as his accompanying music in act 4, chills the blood. The Philip of Ferruccio Furlanetto is riveting from start to finish, powerful in voice and presence, regal, cold, commanding yet also vulnerable. His scenes with Rodrigo in act 2 and the Inquisitor in act 4 were the highlights of the evening.

Finally to Simon Keenlyside’s Rodrigo Marquis of Posa; Republican, friend to the people of Flanders and blood brother to Don Carlo. This is a singing actor of consummate skill, able to totally inhabit a role. A rare thing in the world of opera and one to be celebrated when experienced. The twitch of a finger, the puff of a cheek, the slightest raise of an eyebrow even when he is not the focus of the action. Watch him when he goes to a wretched imprisoned Carlo, wipe away a tear from his friend’s face and soothe his brow. Watch his timing as he is shot in the back, dying in his friend’s arms to the heartrending echoes of their earlier duet.

An evening of highs and lows then but the highs must include the designs of Bob Crowley and the dramatic and beautiful lighting of Mark Henderson.

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