A stunning Don Carlo

Two weeks ago, we attended the opening night of Don Carlo, and last night we were back. Having anticipated a certain ‘bedding in’, I confined my thoughts last time to the gorgeous performance by Anja Harteros. This time, however, the riches were in unquantifiable abundance: a truly splendid night of music and drama, everything fused into a thrilling, unsurpassable whole.

I grow to like this production the more I see it, although I will admit to a suspicion that I’m swayed by the current cast to perhaps overlook any shortcomings. It’s a little over-stylised in places and, in less capable hands than were here on stage, it may perhaps lack atmosphere in the more intimate scenes. All in all, though, it is well-pitched for the action on stage, and allows the human drama to play out without obtrusive ‘ideas’. The big set-pieces are well choreographed, and where some have expressed reservations, I actually like the addition of chanting priests to the auto da fé scene. Comments on the production are well-rehearsed, however, and it is the inhabitants that interest us on this outing. Kaufmann, Furlanetto, Halfvarson, Kwieceń and the hitherto-unheard Lianna Haroutounian just about conjured up a dream team.

Kaufmann’s near-unique vocal qualities will always be able to impress more immediately in the verismo repertoire than the curious character of Don Carlo, where sustained, expansive heroics are less in demand. The intermittent full-on heroic outbursts were as gripping as would be expected from Kaufmann, his muscular tone always beyond Verdi’s requirements. But there is much in Carlo’s drama that is relatively low-key, and it is to Kaufmann’s credit that this dramatic detail shone through, never better than when ensuring that his colleagues have something vivid and detailed to react against. It was a performance of sustained engagement and clarity, anchoring a whole-company endeavour.

If there’s a stand-out role built into the piece itself, it has to be Philip II, and never more so than in the truly first class persona of Ferruccio Furlanetto. When the Royal Opera want to book a new singer for this role, they’ll practically have to stage a coronation scene, so entwined is this fantastic performer with this role in this production. ‘Authority’ doesn’t come close to the sense of absolute confidence that Furlanetto projects throughout the role’s demands, effortlessly conveying both the King’s horribly distorted sense of power and his abject, lonely sense of his own private tragedy. Ella giammai m’amo encompassed the rage, the despair and the resolve required to give grounding to this almost too changeable character. Beautiful, moving stuff.

Always an absolute highpoint of this most sophisticated of 19th Century operas, his confrontation with the Grand Inquisitor was gripping. Eric Halfvarson, reprising the role of the hate-filled priest, again brought a dark and chilling intensity to the role. The music accompanying this duet never ceases to amaze me in its descriptive, frightening atmosphere.

As antithesis of such tortured – and torturing – darkness, the Marquis of Posa was in the hands of Mariusz Kwieceń, his bright, secure and confident baritone being almost a little too plush for the role, until his empathic and gripping death scene. He scaled his voice down for the faltering last phrases with an intensity that took my breath away. By a margin, the most purely moving passage in the opera.

And so, to Lianna Haroutounian. I finished my last set of observations wishing her every success. I had no sense at that point that it would be a success of these proportions. She was a vivid and moving Elisabetta, awash with a wealth of little dramatic touches: her nervousness as she awaits Carlo’s approach in the monastery garden of Act 2; the transition from crushed, wronged wife to haughty queen in her dealings with Eboli in Act 4. The latter moment I remarked upon previously with Harteros: though comparisons are invidious, they are far from one-sided. Yes, admittedly, Harteros has that astonishing vocal control and tone that allows for strikingly secure dynamic contrasts from pianissimo to full forte; but Haroutounian arguably conveys a more fully rounded character. Where Harteros is fully formed as the regal Queen from the beginning, Haroutounian makes a beautiful and more believable transition from excited young woman to reluctant but duty-bound Queen. Her voice is impressively controlled, expansive and gleaming: it has more steel glinting from under the velvet than does Harteros, but it is well-deployed and unfailingly gripping. Lianna, welcome to London: we hope to see you back very soon.

I was very unsure about Béatrice Uria-Monzon on the first night, and last night she certainly sounded more fully in control of her role and more consistent in her voicing of Eboli’s challenging range. I had been puzzled by her sounding much more like an Azucena than the sort of Eboli we’re used to, but before last night’s performance I read the Kobbé entry on Don Carlo which described how Verdi had shifted the role up a tone for a particular soprano, which accounted for its particularly hazardous dynamics. I was much more engaged with her performance last night, a clarity of vocal attack notable in her O don fatale, with a convincingly viperish take on the character who is, after all, so quick to vengeance.

Smaller roles were all well-taken, the Voice from Heaven (Susana Gaspar) and Carlo V (a welcome return for Robert Lloyd) notable amongst them. Pappano’s leadership of all of the forces had also acquired more confidence and depth than on opening night. The marshalling of the massive, shifting forces of orchestra, chorus, off-stage band and principals in the auto da fé scene was a particular high point. Everything here, as elsewhere, was carefully, deliberately placed but with no sense of caution coming across at all: it was big, juicy Verdian drama at its best. The orchestra, which had been lithe and pointed in La Donna del Lago the previous night, was now a big, rich, gorgeous-but-fearsome machine. Absolutely first-rate.

I have nothing ahead of me on the ROH main stage for about a month now: it is just possible that these last two nights have given me enough to be getting on with. Actually, what am I saying? I want more: when it’s this good there can’t possibly be too much of it…

Addendum

To the gentleman that approached a friend at our table during the first interval and asked if he was behind Recitative, I apologise: I was too slow off the mark, and only clocked the question you’d asked when you were already dissolving back into the crowd, otherwise I would have said you were at the right table, but wrong chair… Hello, anyway!

One comment

  1. Ah ! Now I don’t feel quite as foolish! I am John F(ord) and have responded to a couple of your postings. We decide to treat ourselves to dinner at the amphitheatre reataurant on Saturday and we were at the table on the other side of the glass where you and your friends were sitting and I thought that I had placed you from your small photo on your blog. Trevor (my fella) had a laugh when it appeared I had got it wrong. But not as wrong as I thought. A wonderful evening though wasn’t it ? We are off to see Donna del Lago on monday

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