Monday 10 July 2023

Any performance of Verdi's Don Carlo is an event: Verdi's large-scale drama returns to Covent Garden with Lise Davidsen and Brian Jagde

Verdi: Don Carlo - Brian Jagde, Lise Davidsen - Royal Opera (Photo Bill Cooper/ROH)
Verdi: Don Carlo - Brian Jagde, Lise Davidsen - Royal Opera (Photo Bill Cooper/ROH)

Verdi: Don Carlo; Brian Jagse, Lise Davidsen, John Relyea, Luca Micheletti, Yulia Matochkina, director: Nicholas Hytner/Daniel Dooner, conductor: Bertrand de Billy; Royal Opera
Reviewed 9 July 2023

Strong revival of Verdi's complex drama with a nuance performance by Lise Davidsen as Elizabeth complemented by finely balanced cast.

My memories of Nicholas Hytner's 2008 production of Verdi's Don Carlo (currently being revived at the Royal Opera House) rather focus on the unsatisfactory Auto da Fe scene in Act Three, but revisiting the production on Sunday 9 July 2023, I realised that Bob Crowley's designs are in fact largely stylish and efficient, each scene flows easily on from the previous without awkward pauses. And this is the production's fifth outing, (revival director Daniel Dooner) and it still looks handsome. 

On Sunday, Bertrand de Billy conducted with Brian Jagde as Don Carlo, Lise Davidsen as Elizabeth, John Relyea as Philip, Luca Micheletti as Posa, Yulia Matochkina as Eboli and Taras Shtonda as the Grand Inquisitor.

The production solves the work's complex editorial issues by opting for the final, 1886 version though there is an argument that his original 1883 revision in four acts is more coherent and reflects his final intentions. Also, the performance uses the Italian translation and I suspect that this is principally because the Royal Opera House's track record in performing the opera in French is not completely glorious.

Interest, inevitably, focused on Lise Davidsen singing Elizabeth. Whilst Davidsen's singing of Wagner roles has come to notice, her repertoire remains far wider than this. It was perhaps difficult to believe in her as the shy, retiring Elizabeth of Act One, but for the remainder of the opera Davidsen completely incarnated her, fiercely controlled and moral, the moments of lack of control relatively short. But she brought out Elizabeth's underlying sense of melancholy. Vocally there was a lovely flexibility to her line with plenty of beautifully shaped quiet lines, whilst Elizabeth's big challenge, her huge Act Five aria and final duet with Carlos, were memorably done.

Don Carlo is not the most interesting character and his most memorable moments come in his interactions with others. Brian Jagde seemed rather stiff in the scenes of love and tortured infatuation in Act One, but as the opera's drama developed, so did Jagde's performance. His Don Carlo was bluff and robust, not a suave romantic hero. He brought a focused energy to his scene with Davidsen in Act Two and his scene with the dying Posa (Luca Micheletti) in Act Four was moving, as was the final duet with Davidsen. Jagde's default vocal style seemed to be somewhat too loud and insistent, but he was able to tone things down for the more intimate moments. And for all any perceived limitations in his performance, there was one superb plus. Consistency. He sang the long opera finely, never seeming to tire, and made Act Five as fresh as Act One.

Luca Micheletti made a controlled Posa, always rigid of posture and upright. Micheletti is more of a lyric baritone than some who do there role, and there were plenty of moments when we enjoyed the lyric sweep of his singing, and always with a sense of style. The duet with Jagde's Carlo in Act Two was rightly one of the musical highlights of the evening, whilst he, Jagde and Yulia Matochkina's Eboli made the crucial ensemble scene in Act Three musically vivid, even if the staging remains somewhat stand and sing. Micheletti came into his own with a beautifully sung account of the death scene.

John Relyea was a fierce and controlling Philip, from the first moment we see him as he and Elizabeth simply walk across the stage in Act Two, this was clear. Relyea's body language throughout was telling. He matched this vocally with a fierce performance relieved by the telling Act Four scene when we get to see into Philip's soul. The scene with Taras Shtonda's Grand Inquisitor was chilling, though Shtonda inclined too much to the stentorian.

Yulia Matochkina made a lively and rather sly Eboli. Matochkina has a finely lithe voice and there was a youthfulness and flexibility to her account of the Veil Song, which 'O don fatale' in Act Four was telling. And throughout she was a lively presence in the drama.

Because of its origins in French grand opera, there is an expansiveness to the theatrical concept of Don Carlo which is very different to Verdi's earlier Italian operas. This extends to the plethora of smaller roles, all of them admirably taken here. Two Jette Parker Artists made a strong impression, Michael Gibson as a finely sung Lerma and Sarah Dufresne as radiant voice from heaven at the end of Act Three. Ella Taylor was making fine Royal Opera debut as a lively and engaging Tebaldo.

The Royal Opera Chorus has been busy recently with several large-scale productions but they were on form here, giving us plenty of thrilling moments. Conductor Bertrand de Billy kept things moving and ensured that the large-scale nature of the score had a dramatic sweep to it, but there where moments when I found details perhaps a bit to relaxed.

Any performance of Verdi's Don Carlo is an event, and this one did not disappoint. The cast was admirably balanced and whilst the focus of attention might have been Davidsen's Elizabeth, the other cast members were strongly cast and the results had the sense of ensemble drama needed for this piece. Ultimately the performance lacked the tragic weight that is ideal, but there was plenty to enjoy.

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