Don Carlo, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, May 2017

That great playwright Schiller did not let historical facts get in the way of a good story, and his Don Karlos is a gripping stage tragedy. Traducung the close and loving relationship between Philip II and his third wife Elizabeth de Valois, step-mother to Don Carlo, it was perfect for Verdi, who added elements of his own, such as the auto-da-fé scene and the Act I meeting of Carlo and Elizabeth in the forest of Fountainebleau.

All images ROH/ Catherine Ashmore

That five-act Paris version led to a four-act Italian version omitting Act I, and a subsequent five-act Italian version including it, which we see here. This makes sense of the subsequent bond between Carlo and Elizabeth, and I only wish we could see the exchange of cloaks between Elizabeth and Princess Eboli, so we could understand the mistaken identity in Act II that drives Eboli’s destructive fury. Expect a few changes to Nicholas Hytner’s excellent 2008 production, notably the absence of the mass hanging and burning of heretics in Act III, which frees up some space on stage while spoiling a fine coup de theatre.

Elizabeth and Carlo

From the orchestra pit, Bertrand de Billy, known at Covent Garden for his Carmen and Maria Stuarda, produced fine dynamics that gave the opera a compelling forward movement. And vocally while one often finds Rodrigo (Marquis of Posa) commanding the stage, with Carlo as a vocally weaker character, here it was the other way round. Bryan Hymel, singing his first Carlo, invested the role with such power and emotion it might almost have been written for him. His first soliloquy in Act I has defied some of the world’s finest tenors, but here was true vocal passion, and as his beloved Elizabeth, American soprano Kristin Lewis made a huge impact in her House debut after a slightly nervous start. Her duet with Carlo in Act II was beautifully sung, and her monologue in Act V exhibited huge power and lovely high notes.

As Philip II, Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov showed powerful stage presence and wonderfully sustained power and depth of characterisation in his Act IV soliloquy, with Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze as the Grand Inquisitor giving a fine rendering of this irascible prophet-like figure. In a great opera for basses, Andrea Mastroni produced excellent depth as Carlos V and of course the Monk in Act II. As Princess Eboli, the powerful voice of Ekaterina Semenchuk lacked the lightness of touch for her Act II song of the veil, but more than made up for it later with a superb monologue of regret in Act IV. In the end even Christoph Pohl, from the Semperoper in Dresden, gave the Marquis of Posa a fine death scene, though he had earlier lacked power and stage presence.

Act IV: Posa, Philip, Elizabeth, Eboli

Terrific singing too from the chorus, with David Junghoon Kim as a very strong Count of Lerma, and Francesca Chiejina as the Voice from Heaven, high up in the dome of the auditorium — a nice touch.

This opera fully expresses the poetic truth of Schiller’s play if not the real relationships of Philip’s court, and I only wish Hytner’s excellent production had not lost its way in this revival, particularly for the auto-da-fé scene of Act III. In the French original the magnificent procession had over one hundred participants, and although this is a far tamer affair, it is weakened by amateurish treatment of the heretics.

Performances continue on various dates until May 29 — for details click here.

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