Don Carlo, Royal Opera, September 2009


Imagine a Christian Taliban in Spain, putting men, women and children in Flanders — all heretics — to the sword. Add to this the Spanish King Philip II taking as his new wife the French princess betrothed to, and loved by, his son Don Carlos, and you have the background to Schiller’s drama, made into such a wonderful opera by Verdi. Thankfully this was the original five act version, where Act I shows Carlo and Elizabeth de Valois meeting and realising they are in love with one another, before she is purloined by the king.

The performance at the dress rehearsal was absolutely terrific, and Semyon Bychkov as conductor gave the music a dramatic intensity I’ve never heard equalled. Of course the singers helped enormously, and this was a dream cast. Jonas Kaufmann as Carlo, and Marina Poplavskaya as Elizabeth, sang and acted their parts to perfection, and with Simon Keenlyside as Carlo’s friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II we could not ask for better — they were wonderful! Philip II’s soliloquy at the start of Act IV was brilliantly done, and John Tomlinson in the relatively small part of the Grand Inquisitor was absolutely riveting with his commanding presence and sightless eyes. As Princess Eboli we had Marianne Cornetti, who sang beautifully, but why is it that Eboli always seems to be dumpy and frumpy, when in real life she was considered one of the most attractive women in Spain. I rarely comment on the chorus, but they were superb, and the actors also did a fine job. In the auto da fé scene I particularly liked the spoken demands to the heretics that they pray forgiveness and embrace the true faith before being burned to death — this was surely an innovation since the original production by Nicholas Hytner last year.

That wonderful production, which I wrote about in my blog of June 2008, has a raw power that suits sixteenth century Spain, and shows the burning of the heretics, suddenly lit behind a screen. It portrays the king as an old man, but that is partly due to Schiller and Verdi — in fact he was still in his late thirties, but why let history spoil a good story? I love the way the depth of the stage at Covent Garden is used to give a feeling of space and power, and my only quibble is right at the very end. The ghost of Charles V appeared in human form looking simply like another character in the plot, rather than a spirit materialising from the darkness, and the magical intensity of the scene was suddenly lost.

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