Don Carlo at the Royal Opera

            The Royal Opera in London has revived its 2008 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo, this time with Semyon Bychkov in the pit and rising star, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. The short verdict: Kaufmann was just about perfect, and Bychkov never less than interesting.

            It’s a production that anyone weaned on the Metropolitan Opera’s old John Dexter version will find refreshingly intimate and sharply etched. Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys, The Madness of King George) has staged the 1886 version, which was written after Verdi had composed his late masterpiece Otello. For this version, Verdi reinstated much of the original first act, and thus it adds up to a very long evening.

Jonas Kaufmann and Marina Poplavskaya in Don Carlo

Jonas Kaufmann and Marina Poplavskaya in Don Carlo

        But the drama is taut and rather miraculously, in Hytner’s hands, even the problematic last act makes a certain kind of sense. Act V is almost always an anti-climax: We’ve had four acts of devastating vignettes, which establish the ferocious power of absolutism, the corrupt machinations of the Church, the ugliness of jealousy and the weakness of the human heart. We’ve also had a thwarted love story between Carlo and Elizabeth, who are cruelly separated when Elizabeth’s hand is given to Carlo’s father, Philip II, in a blunt act mix of marriage and real politik.

            But this love story often seems rather irrelevant to the deeper thrust of the piece, which is more about politics and idealism and friendship and trust. The greatness of Don Carlo lies in its moral seriousness as much as its music, and the love between Carlo and Elizabeth is important only to the extent that it establishes the depth of sacrifice two people must make to live up to their own values. The last act brings back Carlo and Elizabeth for one last reunion before Carlo flees to Flanders to oppose his father’s imperialism and defend the oppressed victims of Spanish and Catholic ambition.

           The lovers don’t really need to meet one more time, and given the depth of their repressed passion, they both know a meeting is foolish. But they meet anyway, are surprised in the process, and Carlo is somehow saved from certain death at the hands of either king or Inquisition by the sudden appearance of his dead grandfather, Charles V, who leads him to safety in his capacious tomb.

            Of course that makes no sense, and it is a very unsatisfying way to end an opera that has, up to this moment, been so deeply intelligent about ordinary life in the shadow of repressive government. Hytner doesn’t really solve the problem, but he gives the act psychological depth by focusing on a plausible reason for the meeting: Carlo and Elizabeth are talking their way into an acceptable fiction, an understanding of how and why their love must end so that both can get on with life. This, at least, connects the act to the concerns of the rest of the opera and, in the process, makes their final encounter deeply poignant.

            Bychkov has found a surprisingly amount of chamber music in the score. This is sometimes frustrating (the orchestral sound can be very spare in his interpretation, especially early in the “Fontainebleau” act). It’s also revelatory—you hear details, vocal doublings in the orchestra, and the wonderful architecture of argument in Verdi’s magnificent act-ending ensembles. The whole production downsizes the occasional remnants of French grand opera that crop up here and there in Verdi’s score. Even the auto de fe scene is relatively tame. The reward comes in the many scenes built around one-on-one encounters between the various protagonists, where Bychkov’s direction makes it seem as if Verdi was channeling the spirit of Monteverdi more than Meyerbeer.

            And Kaufmann? The voice is sounding very fine—light and bright but strong, pliant and tireless—and he looks the part. Given Carlo’s many character flaws, a handsome Carlo really helps engage the cynical listener. We need some reason to care about this callow, mooning brat (the real Carlo seems to have given the world very little reason indeed to love him) and Kaufmann’s boyish yet chivalrous charm went a long ways to establishing sympathy for the character.

            As Philip, Ferruccio Furlanetto was a magnificently regal presence, like Wagner’s Wotan but with a real personality and blood in his veins. Simon Keenlyside struggled with the lower end of Rodrigo’s music, but he also managed to flesh out a more complex Rodrigo than most, letting the audience see why, perhaps, Carlo doubts even his best friend. Marina Poplavskaya may be building towards a solid Elizabeth, but the voice isn’t quite there yet. And Marianne Cornetti’s Eboli was mostly a disappointment, better in its manic-mezzo moods than its coquette passages, but not fully woven into a coherent performance. But this is a guy’s opera, so minor quibbles with the leading ladies didn’t spoil one bit of the evening.

            One final note: The Royal Opera audience was magnificent the night I attended. They were quiet and attentive, as still as statues, and their enthusiasm was perfectly modulated to the merits of the performance. A standing ovation night? No, and they didn’t give one. But it was a very good night in the theater, and the audience let the musicians know that.

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