Despite An Unimpressive Production Bertrand De Billy and the Royal Opera Deliver a Compelling Don Carlo

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Don Carlo: Cast, Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Bertrand de Billy. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 12.5.2017. (CC)

The Royal Opera’s Don Carlo (c) ROH/Catherine Ashmore


Don Carlos – Bryan Hymel
Elizabeth of Valois – Kristin Lewis
Princess Eboli – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa – Christoph Pohl
King Philip II – Ildar Abdrazakov
Count of Lerma – David Junghoon Kim
Carlos V – Andrea Mastroni
Tebaldo – Angela Simkin
Priest Inquisitor – Josh Davis
Flemish Deputies – James Cleverton, Gyula Nagy, Wyn Pencarreg, Simon Shibambu, David Shipley, Yuriy Yurchuk
Voice from Heaven – Francesca Chiehjina
Grand Inquisitor – Paata Burchuladze


Director – Nicholas Hytner
Associate Director – Paul Higgins
Designer – Bob Crowley
Lighting Designer – Mark Henderson
Movement – Scarlett Mackmin
Fight Director – Terry King

This is the third revival of Nicholas Hytner’s Don Carlo. I reviewed the second revival here. What is arguably Verdi’s greatest opera is also one of his most complex in terms of edition: five act French, four act Italian, five act Italian with various omissions/additions between them.

Recently, a Mahler Eighth Symphony at the Southbank had a dizzying number of cancellations in its vocal line-up. The cast changes for this first night were not quite as traumatic, perhaps, but analogous and significant nonetheless. First, Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova (in as Elisabetta) ceded to American soprano Kristin Lewis, who makes her Royal Opera debut therefore by default. This was followed by another change: French baritone, Ludovic Tézier, due to sing Posa, cancelled. The first performance of the run boasted Christoph Pohl (who also sings on May 15, 26 and 29); the remaining performances will be taken by Simone Piazzola. And just when you thought it was all done and dusted, Australian mezzo Emily Edmonds cancelled her Tebaldo for the first two performances and was replaced by English mezzo Angela Simkin, who joined the Jette Parker scheme in 2016/17. The listing at the head of this review reflects who was actually heard in the theatre. Phew.

So it is no wonder things seemed a tad unsettled. That said, Bertrand de Billy marshalled his forces excellently, clearly understanding the large-scale forces at work in the score. Talking of which, this is the five-act Modena version. The vital Fontainebleu act is included, which (apart from containing masterly music) sets the scene for the confused dynamics at court.

The production remains somewhat underwhelming. Cardboard cut-out trees bring a sense of unreality to the forest in Act I (perhaps reflecting the fantasy of Carlo and Elisabetta’s love blossoming?); the auto-da-fe scene is dominated by a Christ head bleeding from thorns, but the actual incineration of heretics is left to the imagination. The claustrophobic nature of the more interior scenes (both in terms of location and emotion) were well captured, though, especially through the lighting of Mark Henderson. Black and red often dominate (night and blood?). The ladies’ scene (Act II Scene 2) was sparse and angular; there is no space for Romantic sentimentalising here. Characters can be deliberately isolated in their placing, reflecting the drama’s dynamics.

Wonderful to see Bryan Hymel as Don Carlo, who impressed so much in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable at the Garden. He has a full-throttle voice but is capable of much subtlety; his Act I ‘Io la vidi, al suo sorriso’ brought his presence centre stage in more ways than one, and his intensity never floundered. But Don Carlo is not as dominating a titular role as some, and the relationship with Rodrigo is vital. I say this with a double meaning because rarely have I seen man-hugs so “staged” and insincere as here, sort of action man-limbed clasps of the other clearly the result of “it says so in the production”.

If Christoph Pohl’s Rodrigo pails beside Simon Keenlyside’s assumption of the role previously, it remains an adequate assumption, and he gave a fine ‘Io morrò, ma lieto in core’ in the final act. The main weakness was in Pohl’s low register; yet in Act II he showed himself a stronger singer than the King, Ildar Abdrazakov. King Philip’s great Act IV aria, ‘Ella giammai m’amò’, prefaced by a sterling cello solo, could have explored far more depths.

As Elisabetta, Kristin Lewis displayed a strong lyric voice, impeccably pitched. She really understood the role of decorations in Verdi’s lines. Her evening triumphed in a phenomenal ‘Tu che la vanità conosce’ in the final act. The Veil Song (‘Nel giardino del bello’) was given with very full voice by our Eboli, the experienced Ekaterina Semenchuk. Yet as the performance progressed, one became aware of a rather weak low register from her, also. She marshalled her strength for ‘O don fatale’ though.

While not as ancient as some Grand Inquisitors, Paata Burchuladze was phenomenally convincing, his interactions with Abdrazakov taut and intense (something aided strongly by Bertrand de Billy’s conducting). Angela Simkin was a fine Tebaldo, David Junghoon Kim a strong Lerma. Andrea Mastroni was impeccably mysterious as Carlos V, while Francesca Chiejina’s Voice from Heaven floated, disembodied, over the stage.

This remains an overwhelming opera, perhaps Verdi’s most powerful of all. The machinations of state, religion and Cupid all intertwine to create a spider’s web that in different ways entraps all. The Grand Inquisitor cannot escape his fixed ideas, the lovers their fate, the King his misery. Despite its political leanings, a great humanity underscores the evening, brought together by de Billy’s fine conducting.

Colin Clarke

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