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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.
Copyright © 6 July 2008
Robert Hugill, London UK