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Deeply Felt

Verdi's 'Don Carlo' at Covent Garden,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


The Royal Opera has revived its production of Verdi's Don Carlo a little over a year after it was first performed with a substantially similar cast. But there were two main reasons for going again to see the work, the new conductor Semyon Bychkov and the new Don Carlo, Jonas Kaufman. That change in singer in the title role is extremely significant. In the original performances the role of Don Carlo was at the utmost limits of what lyric tenor Rolando Villazon could achieve and the opera was performed accordingly, with conductor Antonio Pappano producing at times a very light interpretation of the work. Replacing Villazon with Kaufman, a lyric tenor who has already moved into more dramatic roles and has started singing Wagner, meant that the Bychkov and his cast could produce a rather bigger, bolder account of the work.

Unfortunately, when we saw the production on Sunday 27 September 2009, Kaufman was ill and was replaced by Korean tenor Alfred Kim. Kim is a member of Frankfurt Opera and had sung the role at the Royal Opera House in 2008 as well as travelling to Norway when the production moved to the Norwegian Opera. So he had experience of singing in the production, but he only flew in to London on the Sunday morning and was on-stage performing the Sunday matinée at 3pm. In the light of this, his achievement at presenting what seemed to be a reasonably finished account of the role was particularly notable. On this showing Kim had a useful, robust tenor with a degree of vibrato. He had the stamina to complete the opera without running out of steam in the last act, and he managed the quieter scenes with a reasonable degree of subtlety. That he developed some sort of rapport with Marina Poplavskaya's Elizabeth and Simon Keenlyside's Rodrigo was a notable bonus. The 'Blackadder syndrome' which troubled me somewhat in 2009 was less to the fore in Kim's performance, which was a relief. It would be unfair to review Kim's performance in too much detail, given the extremely last minute nature of his substitution, but he delivered a notable performance and I would hope to hear him again in less frantic circumstances.

Marina Poplavskaya repeated her portrayal of Elizabeth from 2008. Last year she seemed to be still growing into the role, but she has taken it on board in a fine manner. Her voice has filled out nicely, whilst retaining the wonderful sense of line, so that we get a real feel for the beauty and shape of Elizabeth's music. Poplavskaya's voice is still not refulgent, but it has taken on the warmth and depth which is needed in Verdi's music. The line and edge to her voice was notable and in one or two moments she gave hints of the beauties that Caballé brought to the role, which is surely a good direction for Poplavskaya to go in this repertoire. She is still not the warmest of singers, though Elizabeth is something of a chilly role, and Poplavskaya brought out all the stops for her final Act 5 aria.

The other major newcomers this time round were Marianne Cornetti's Eboli and John Tomlinson's Grand Inquisitor.

Cornetti was very much a big voiced, traditional mezzo-soprano account of the role. In the Veil Song her vibrato rather conflicted with the passagework and her voice turned a little threatening at the top. But in the garden scene she was superbly virulent and in Act 4 she produced a notable account of O don fatale. I suppose one day I will hear a mezzo-soprano who is capable of encompassing all aspects of this role. Cornetti came quite close but her big-voiced vibrato was just too prominent for my tastes.

John Tomlinson's Grand Inquisitor was wonderfully luxurious casting, Tomlinson's famously declamatory manner giving this role the chill it requires, but doing so with a voice so roundly resonant that it required no excuses for age, which so often happens. This meant that Tomlinson's long scene with Feruccio Furlanetto's Philip was one of the musical and dramatic high-points of the performance.

Furlanetto's Philip and Keenlyside's Rodrigo were repeated from last year, and both delivered performances which were as good, if not better than last year. I felt that this year's cast was rather better balanced and this seemed to reflect in their performances. Pumeza Matshikiza was the lively Tebaldo. Jette Parker Young Artists Robert Anthony Gardiner and Eri Nakamura were the Count of Lerma and the Voice from Heaven.

Hyntner seems to have modified the action in the Auto-da-Fe scene so things seemed to have more purpose and the comings and goings were rather less confused than last time, which was a bonus, though Bob Crowley's designs for this scene remain rather unsatisfactory. Repeated viewing of the production brought out hints of homage to Visconti's famous Covent Garden production, which may be accidental but are entirely felicitous.

In the pit, Semyon Bychkov produced a deeply felt, almost epic account of the score. He made the long paragraphs of the music tell and was able to dwell on details without compromising the flow of the music. In a long afternoon and evening (3pm to 7.15pm) everything unfolded naturally without a feeling that Bychkov was forcing things, but also without him ever holding up the drama.

Copyright © 29 September 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK









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