WORKS: Don Carlo
PERFORMER: Rolando Villazón, Marina Poplavskaya, Simon Keenlyside, Sonia Ganassi, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Eric Halfvarson, Robert Lloyd; Royal Opera House Chorus & Orchestra/Antonio Pappano; dir. Nicholas Hytner (London, 2008)
CATALOGUE NO: EMI 631 6099
Lots of plusses and minuses need sorting out in this Don Carlos. Filmed two years at Covent Garden, it’s the house’s third-ever production of Verdi’s greatest French Grand Opera – his greatest opera, many would say – and its most serious failing, apart from the use of the discredited Italian translation, is the rather wobbly background-foreground balance of Nicholas Hytner’s production in Bob Crowley’s (mostly hideous) sets.
This director, marvellously insightful in Handel and Mozart, appears at sea with the spectacle native to the form and so completely transmuted by the mature Verdi. Indeed, Hytner’s version of the central auto-da-fé (burning at the stake) scene, complete with priest shouting condemnations of the heretics and crowd cheers of approval, veers alarmingly close to Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
This inexpert handling of the opera’s crucial exterior aspects contrasts sharply with Hytner’s tenderly intimate approach to those interior: the dialogues of Spain’s tragic royals and their retinue. Best of all, the love-torn relationship of the titular prince and the fiancée stolen from him by his father the king is sensitively staged and played: Rolando Villazón (in less uncertain voice than reportedly on opening night) and Marina Poplavskaya, a regal beauty much loved by the camera, make it all movingly fresh.
Four of the opera’s taxing five principal roles were here lightly cast – only Ferruccio Furlanetto’s craggy Philip possesses the proper Verdian vocal stature – and one appreciates the point particularly in the tenor’s and soprano’s moments of failing stamina. But close-ups compensate at least in part, and Pappano’s urgently impassioned conducting of the ROH orchestra on superb form lends everyone unfailing support. Max Loppert