tue 21/11/2017

Don Carlo, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Don Carlo, Royal Opera

Don Carlo, Royal Opera

Conductor Bychkov and bass Furlanetto shine in Hytner's revival

It finally came just over three hours in. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s gouty Philip II leans his elbow on his chair and begins to grind his head into his right-hand like he's a human pestle and mortar. He first castigates himself for ever having thought that his wife, Elizabeth of Valois - who he suspects of sleeping with his son, Don Carlos - might have fancied his unyielding, aged presence, and then tries to sing his way out of his tortured predicament. With this searchingly eloquent confessional - Furlanetto's rich bass voice resounding like an open fire - came the first - and pretty much the last - prolonged bout of applause of the evening.

Nothing had gone wrong; yet, nothing had gone spectacularly right, either. This first revival of Nicholas Hytner’s 2008 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo (the Italian version from 1886) presents a simplified and slightly skew-whiff 16th-century setting, each scene dominated by a single, archetypal, and often geometric idea, all slightly lazily tasteful in colour and co-ordination, though right in tone. The feeling of bleakness and an oppressive sterility that this fanatical, enclosed court has imposed was maintained – mainly by turning the lights down – throughout. Though the coldness of thought behind the design seemed to sit uneasily with the fire and fluidity of the music.

Further dark shadows were cast by the voices of the two leads. Jonas Kaufmann (Don Carlos) and Marina Poplavskaya (Elizabeth) both have a murkiness lurking in their instruments that, particularly in the gloaming of the wooded opening scene, are complementary in this opera. Pity neither quite hit top form. Kaufmann got lighter and lighter as the evening progressed, while Poplavskaya’s upper register became exposed very quickly, and started to resemble the sound of a whisk on high speed, producing a lot of noisy and unappealing air.

The only truly poor link, however, in both voice and stage presence, was Marianne Cornetti’s overripe Princess Eboli, who spent most of her time rocking on the spot like some Subbuteo footballer and denuded the ensemble singing – in which the part of Eboli is integral – of any dramatic tension.

An engaging rapport between either Simon Keenlyside’s Rodrigo and Kaufmann’s Don Carlos, or Elizabeth and Don Carlos, could have saved the day but neither relationship was quite there, perhaps due to first-night nerves. Keenlyside – whose voice got better and better as the night progressed - did his best to inject this usually immensely touching story of faithful companionship with some intimacy but Kaufmann kept balking from going that extra step.

Instead, for character, we were forced to rely on Furlanetto’s Philip II, who took command of the stage whenever he was on it – even matching up quite well against John Tomlinsons’s stentorian Grand Inquisitor – and the conducting of Semyon Bychkov. Deploying three trombones and what looked like a cimbasso – essentially a bass trombone – as a rudder, and the windy tremolo strings as sails, Bychkov set off through some pretty exotic soundscapes, the delicately flirtatious shores of Tchaikovsky, some lustrous woodwind-driven seas and big burnished clouds of noise. The fourth act is filled with small insistent melodic whirlpools that seem to encircle the man who is meant to repulse us the most, the bloodthirsty Philip II. But, with Bychkov and Furlanetto as our guides, the tyrant somehow manages to become not just compelling, but, in his own forlorn way, actually rather sympathetic.

Kaufmann got lighter and lighter as the evening progressed, while Poplavskaya’s upper register became exposed very quickly

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