The ROH makes staging Don Carlo look so easy. This challenging and complex music drama, in the five-act 1886 "final" version, runs nearly as long as Wagner operas and can often seem longer. But this inspired production, returning from last year and so luxuriously sung, was totally seductive from the start. September 15 was a triumphant opening night to Covent Garden's 2009-2010 season.
Munich-born Jonas Kaufmann was recruited and agreed to sing his first five-act Don Carlo in the spotlight. While lacking the sunny Italian sound, he more than makes up for this with extraordinary vocal intelligence and skillful dramatic thrust. Handsome and possessing a rich and powerful instrument, it is no wonder his appearances create a media frenzy. Also warmly received was Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya whose performance suggests a major diva has arrived. Clearly comfortable portraying the conflicted Elizabeth of Vadois, her voice had exciting energy and lushness.
Posa is sung by returning baritone star Simon Keenlyside with bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as an unapproachably perfect Philip II - a truly noble portrait. His nemesis, the Grand Inquisitor, was sung by that grand Wotan, John Tomlinson, taking on this role for the first time. The few lines of Carlos V were sung by no less than bass Robert Lloyd. American mezzo Marianne Cornetti was effective as Princess Eboli and could be more so if there were less "operatic" gesturing.
Returning from the success of the previous year, Nicholas Hytner's sometimes angry, sometimes elegant, sometimes playful staging puts the drama center stage. The political emphasis on the idea of freedom closely tracks the Schiller's drama and Verdi himself. With Hytner, the mutual rejection of absolutism between blood brothers Carlos and Posa has rarely been so carefully drawn.
The quibbles were few. The carpet of snow in the First Act will likely be better tacked down in subsequent performances and hopefully the Voice from Heaven (Eri Nakamura) will be a little less far off stage. Having the expansive baton of Semyon Bychkov in the pit gave the evening a special glow and excitement. That, along with the luxurious casting, makes this a revival of an operatic masterpiece that should not be missed.
The Royal Opera House's Don Carlo plays three more performances: Sept. 23, Sept. 27 and Oct. 1.
Click here for tickets and information.
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All photos by Catherine Ashmore.