Don Carlo, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, May 2013

What a privilege to witness such an outstanding performance of opera, with the incomparable Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. You want to stay and savour the applause, to recall the extraordinary soliloquy by Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II at the start of Act IV, when he expresses in words the emotional pain he has so deftly shown earlier. Despite the major historical and political motifs — Spanish Inquisition, plight of Flanders, and high expectations in the legacy of Charles V — this is a very human drama. Yet people sitting near me left early — two at the end of Act III after the fabulous auto-da-fé scene, and two more in the middle of Act V pushing past their neighbours to get out.


If you haven’t the time or stomach for a five-act opera leave well alone, but if you can feel the emotional depth that Verdi gives to historical forces this was a performance not to be missed. Surely music director Antonio Pappano is the man to thank. Yes, he has a fine orchestra and world-class singers for this production, but uniting them to scale the heights of emotional expression in Verdi’s score is a superb achievement.

When Mariusz Kwiecien as the honourable Rodrigo dies and Philip II enters to say Chi rende a me quell’uom? (Who will give me back this man?) there is a moment of expectation that the Church has overplayed its hand … but the sudden entrance of the Grand Inquisitor demanding obeisance to the king is a masterstroke. The Church reigns supreme, and the powerful chorus in Act III along with priests raising crosses and lording it over heretics who have had their tongues cut out — all this is reminiscent of fanaticism in the world today, manipulated by political will, theological disingenuity, and sectarian determination. An opera for our time, methinks.

Kaufmann as Don Carlo

Jonas Kaufmann as Don Carlo

Among the singers, the vocally nuanced portrayal of Philip II by Ferruccio Furlanetto seems to have reached new heights of expression in the second revival of this Nicholas Hytner production, and Eric Halfvarson as Grand Inquisitor showed the youthful fire that one energised this old man who now commands the forces of darkness, relieved at the end only by the ghost of Charles V, in the person of Robert Lloyd. By contrast the moving sincerity of Anja Harteros as Elisabeth was a lovely thing to behold as she reached beyond superb vocal technique to express a full gamut of emotions. She could allow her voice to fade away to nothing after recalling the sublime meeting with Jonas Kaufmann as Don Carlo, who brought a gloriously revealing pathos to this vocally demanding role. Here was singing with a superbly gentle quality, quite different from the harsh impenitence of Princess Eboli by Béatrice Uria-Monzon, replacing Christine Rice. When she showed her stripes at the start of Act III, Mariusz Kwiecien as Rodrigo expressed his restrained fury, and his powerful singing of the role showed a nobility of life and purpose so sadly to be snuffed out by one the Grand Inquisitor’s men.

This opera fully expresses the poetic — but not historical — truth of Schiller’s play, and the 1886 version, written nearly 20 years after the Paris premiere of 1867, forms a marvellous artistic unity. With an incomparable cast at Covent Garden it’s a sell-out.

Performances continue until May 25, with Roberto Aronica replacing Jonas Kaufmann in the last two, and Lianna Haroutounian replacing Anja Harteros for the last four — for details click here.

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