Tuesday 16 May 2017

Not quite a vintage revival but much to enjoy: Verdi's Don Carlo returns to Covent Garden

Auto da fe scene - Verdi: Don Carlo - Royal Opera - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
Auto da fe scene - Verdi: Don Carlo - Royal Opera - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
Verdi Don Carlo; Bryan Hymel, Kristin Lewis, Christoph Pohl, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Ildar Abdrazakov, dir: Nicholas Hytner, cond: Bertrand de Billy; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 15 2017
Star rating: 3.5

Some strong individual performances help illuminate a sometimes under-characterised revival

Ildar Abdrazakov, Christoph Pohl - Verdi: Don Carlo - Royal Opera - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
Ildar Abdrazakov, Christoph Pohl - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
Nicholas Hytner's 2008 production of Verdi's Don Carlo has returned to the Royal Opera House for the third time (seen 15 May 2017), following in the footsteps of Luis Lima and Jonas Kaufmann, American tenor Bryan Hymel rose to the challenge of Verdi's fallible hero in his role debut debut. The rest of the cast has been subject to some change over the last few weeks, and the Elizabeth, Posa and Tebaldo were replacements, so that we heard American soprano Kristin Lewis as Elizabeth (her Royal Opera debut), German baritone Christoph Pohl as Posa, Jette Parker Young Artist Angela Simkin as Tebaldo, with Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Eboli, Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov as Philip, Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze (who made his Royal Opera debut in 1984) as the Grand Inquisitor. The performance was conducted by Bertrand de Billy, directed by Nicholas Hytner with Paul Higgins as associate director.

Kristin Lewis, Bryan Hymel - Verdi: Don Carlo - Royal Opera - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
Kristin Lewis, Bryan Hymel - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
The production, new in 2003, remains very handsome and Bob Crowley's designs enable the flow of the piece between scenes (something rather important in such a long opera). Crowley and Hytner successfully catch the mood of each scene, with the help of Mark Henderson's lighting. So it remains a shame that the centre Auto da Fe scene, despite a degree of re-working since the production was new, continues to be such a mess with Hytner's over emphasis on the heretics, and a sense that the production team were attempting to use the minimum number of supers possible (Grange Park Opera last year achieved far grander results on a far smaller scale).

It would surely be possible to sometimes vary the edition of the opera used in revivals of this production, and let us hear some of the other magnificent music which Verdi wrote. It remains a shame that the Covent Garden seems to be firmly wedded to Verdi's final version of this opera, particularly in the Italian translation as it would be nice to hear the original French occasionally (even the 1886 revisions were written to a French text). This was especially true in this revival with Bryan Hymel in the title role, his narrow bore heroic tenor has such a fascinatingly old-fashioned French cast that it seems highly suited for French grand opera (and of course Verdi's original version of Don Carlos was very grand and very French).

Ekaterina Semenchuk - Verdi: Don Carlo - Royal Opera - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
Ekaterina Semenchuk - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
Bryan Hymel was indeed a heroic Don Carlo in the grand manner. His singing lacked the Italianate openness which we rather expect in the Italian version, but he provided much to enjoy. The narrow bore of his voice means that there is a lovely flexibility to the upper register. Occasionally I thought he was in danger of being a little too unvarying in timbre, but his performance was wonderfully heroic and untiring, so that Hymel was firing on all cylinders in the final scene over four hours after the opera had started. This was a relatively straightforward interpretation of the role, perhaps a little generic and with none of the extremes of angst which some singers bring to it. Instead we got a regular misunderstood good guy; perhaps not quite as bright as his friend Posa, but then few tenor heroes are. What Hymel managed to do though was have us rooting for him, singing with expressive poetry. And it was the strength of Hymel's interactions with the people around him, Philip (Ildar Abdrazakov), Elizabeth (Kristin Lewis), Rodrigo (Christoph Pohl) and Eboli (Ekaterina Semenchuk) which brought the character into focus.

Emily Edmonds - Verdi: Don Carlo - Royal Opera - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
Emily Edmonds - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
Focus was something which Kristin Lewis's Elizabeth seemed to lack. There were some lovely moments, but parts of the performance felt undercooked, perhaps because she came to the production relatively late. Her voice was similarly afflicted, in the opening Fontainbleau act we heard some ravishing piano high notes but the middle of her voice lacked the same clarity and firmness. This was something which continued, as she seemed to compromise firmness of line in search of expressivity. She was most successful when expressing moral uprightness (in the opening sections of her scene with Don Carlo in Act Two) or anger (as in her scene with Philip in Act Four), and her final Act Five aria was impressively firm and confident. But she never quite convinced that she burned with passion underneath for Bryan Hymel's Don Carlo, we were left feeling the love interest was a little tepid. I suspect that with stronger direction and stronger musical direction, Kristin Lewis's Elizabeth could develop into something powerful.

Christoph Pohl was an admirable and finely sung Posa. He does not really have a Verdi baritone voice, but then who does nowadays. Instead, like Simon Keenlyside before him, he uses his voice with musical intelligence and everything was finely sung. The Act One duet with Bryan Hymel was stirring indeed and, in fact, when Hymel and Pohl were on stage the air fairly crackled. Hytner's production has always discreetly recognised the homo-social/homo-erotic potential of the Carlo / Posa relationship and here it was often the strongest thing on stage, putting the relationship between Carlo and Elizabeth into the shade. Pohl's scene with Abdrazakov's Philip in Act Two really raised the emotional temperature too, but Pohl's overall sense of moral uprightness (a very Northern view of the character) made Posa seem a bit chilly too. It was only in the glorious death scene that Pohl managed to combine fine musicality with a strong bond of emotional sympathy with the audience.

Ekaterina Semenchuk was a very fine Eboli indeed. She brought a nice contrariness to a character who changes her point of view throughout the opera. Semenchuk has the strength of middle and lower registers to bring off  'O don fatale' with impressive power and flexibility, yet she also had a lightness in her upper register which made the Act Two 'Veil Song' a complete delight. This was a high powered account of the character and one which helped to keep the drama moving.

Paata Burchuladze - Verdi: Don Carlo - Royal Opera - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
Paata Burchuladze - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
Ildar Abdrazakov made a powerful Philip, one who was in full command in Acts Two and Three which whiplash responses where necessary, yet who really elicited our sympathy in the opening monologue to Act Four. This can be a tricky moment, now we have surtitles, it is fatally easy to elicit an audience snigger when we read that his tired old man believed his bride of convenience would love him. In fact Abdrazakov managed the scene very finely, and created a strong bond with the audience. This was a brilliant assumption of the role, and I do hope we get to hear him as Philip again soon.

So it was all the more disappointing that Paata Burchuladze simply failed to match Abdrazakov's vocal authority in their scene together. Burchuladze's Grand Inquisitor was impressively characterised but his voice seemed to lack an essential feeling of focus, so that instead of threatening his responses felt underpowered. The Grand Inquisitor might be an old and ill man, but it is essential that we feel his power. Last time we saw this production it was John Tomlinson in the role, giving a masterclass in how to threaten with subtlety.

I think part of the problem with the revival was that in the pit Bertrand de Billy was far too content to let things jog along happily. The last two acts of the opera completely lacked the sense of threatening atmosphere and growing doom that characterises the opera, and even in this version there needs to be a sense of grand opera grandeur which De Billy's performance lacked. He seems to have been content to simply weave things together (with the exception of the Auto da Fe scene when ensemble came awry), when with such a diverse cast a more pro-active conductor would have welded the opera into a greater sense of drama. One of the arguments for doing Verdi's final 1886 version of the opera (whichever language you sing it in) is that it has the more concentrated sense of drama arising from Verdi's later period, but this was rather missing.

Act Four finale - Verdi: Don Carlo - Royal Opera - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
Act Four finale - Verdi: Don Carlo - Royal Opera - ©ROH, Photo Catherine Ashmore
The smaller roles were all admirably taken. Angela Simkin might have been a relatively late addition as Tebaldo, bought she brought a brightly focused voice and a nice sense of character to the role. David Junghoon Kim was a dignified Lerma, whilst Andrea Mastroni held our attention as Carlos V.

Despite the great solos and duets, Don Carlo is an ensemble piece which needs to grip the audience with collective force, and this happened only fitfully. But there was a great deal to enjoy in this revival of Don Carlo with some very strong individual performances.

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  1. Emily Edmonds was replaced by Angela Simkin as Tebaldo. Might this be corrected please....

    1. Apologies, I was going by Covent Garden's own cast list for the 15 May which seems to have been wrong!


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