The Act 1 set for Nicholas Hytner’s stellar production of Don Carlo, now in its third revival at the Royal Opera House, looks a bit like a dollhouse designer’s rendering of a wintry forest: Bob Crowley’s snowscape features towering rows of proscenium flats and thin white trees. The singers, then, early on, seem to be rather small compared to their monumental surroundings. This revival’s cast performs tremendously, and they would be well worth the ticket with a lesser work, but the true centerpiece remains the overwhelming achievement of Verdi’s music itself, heard here in its final 1886 five-act version and brought to life stunningly by French conductor Bertrand de Billy and the ROH orchestra.
That snowy opening scene involves the meeting of the titular Spanish heir, sung thrillingly by Bryan Hymel, and his French betrothed, Elizabeth of Valois, sung by Kristin Lewis, making her lush, expressive ROH debut. Don Carlos and Elizabeth instantly fall for each other, but their passion is short-lived: King Philip II (Ildar Abdrazakov) claims his son’s bride-to-be for himself. Hymel and Lewis offer superb vocal intensity throughout but neither of them consistently deliver the clarity or specificity in their storytelling that these characters require. Hymel does well early on to portray Carlos’ love for Elizabeth as a boyish infatuation, albeit one that will doom him even as he matures away from it, but he brings a little less colour to the Hamlet-like moodiness that defines Carlos in the acts that follow. Lewis is best late in the second act, when Elizabeth calls Carlos’ bluff, daring him to kill his father and marry his stepmother. Here, her acting matches her powerful voice, but elsewhere, especially in the final climactic scene, which dips in energy, both principal singers never quite convey the depths, let alone the nuances, of their grief and passions (Hytner’s staging of the opera’s final mystical moments also seems similarly – and unnecessarily – vague).
Verdi, though, powers Don Carlo with the rich, complex musical characterization of not just his central pair but four additional roles. The best of those here is the Horatio to Don Carlos’ Hamlet, the loyal Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, sung and acted movingly by the German baritone Christoph Pohl, never better than late in Act 2 when he impetuously but courageously confronts the king about the oppression of the people of Flanders. It is Rodrigo, not Carlos, whom Verdi ultimately grants a glorious death aria (“Lo morrò, ma lieto in core”), and Pohl performs it superbly. It is also in the pair of duets with Pohl that Hymel’s Carlos most convincingly comes alive, and their moving friendship seems genuine.
The extraordinary mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk takes on the sensual Princess Eboli, hopelessly in love with Don Carlos, with panache. Her conversion from coquetry to repentant constancy, after she has vengefully set in motion her plot to bring about Carlos’ downfall, comes as the evening’s highlight with her passionate “O don fatale.”
Verdi saves his most chilling, strongest music for the tense faceoff between the paranoid king and the man who pulls the strings behind the scenes, the elderly, blind Grand Inquisitor (Paata Burchuladze). Abdrazakov and Burchuladze are both in fine voice with commanding stage presences. Other musical highlights include Verdi’s stunning use of counterpoint (the Act 3 trio and Act 4 quartet) and de Billy draws subtle shades out of each act’s orchestral prelude.
Finally, under chorus director William Spaulding, the Royal Opera Chorus sings stirringly, especially when the men’s chorus cries out to the king for peace before he burns a group of heretics alive. Just like that terrifying pyre, this is a Don Carlo that burns brightly, accentuating the vastness of its composer’s dramatic power.
Don Carlo is playing at the Royal Opera House until May 29.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore