Don Carlo at the ROH

While Friday night at the ROH had been dedicated to men in skirts, on Saturday we switched to men in tights. I didn’t intend to see Nicholas Hytner’s somber period Don Carlo twice within only a few months, but I happened to be
in London and I’m very glad I did. When I saw this same production at the Met in March, it was most notable for not being laughable; this London version was genuine high drama.

Verdi, Don Carlo. Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 5/18/2013. Production by Nicholas Hytner (revival), conducted by Antonio Pappano with Jonas Kaufmann (Don Carlo), Lianna Haroutounian (Elisabetta), Mariusz Kwiecien (Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Philip II), Beatrice Uria-Monzon (Eboli, Eric Halfvorson (Grand Inquisitor).

It didn’t seem like the same production as the Met’s, to be honest. Visually, it’s not the most stunning. The images are stark but not particularly memorable and some of the sets look kind of bargain basement. Here, the excellent characterization more than made up for that. The smaller ROH stage concentrated the action, the chorus somehow shrunk into the background and the whole thing ended up like a family affair. While this is an opera with an extremely sophisticated sense of relationships, its political specificity only occasionally extends beyond the level of “take these dangerous letters.” When you have a cast and production this attuned to interpersonal dynamics the contraction of everything into the domestic is perhaps unsurprising.
The least convincing part of the production, in this performance, was the noisy and violent staging of the auto-da-fe, whose brutality is appropriate enough but, stuck into this heightened atmosphere, seemed strangely
at odds with everything else. When politics elsewhere seems like a pastime for the displaced libido, watching Inquisition thugs beat up some random heretics for ten minutes is, depending on how far you are willing to stretch that metaphor beyond the main protagonists, maybe something of a non sequitur (particularly when the rest of
the scene returns to focus on the personal relationships of the protagonists).
At the beginning of the opera, Elisabetta and Carlo are convincingly lovey teenagers, but only an act later they have aged into very lonely adults (in Elisabetta’s case resignedly, in Carlo’s case desperately). At the end of each scene, the curtain keeps descending behind Carlo, leaving him facing the audience alone, but everyone else in this opera is pretty isolated too—something that never seemed as dominate a theme in the opera’s New York incarnation. To quickly skip to the end, I still don’t like this production’s elimination of the surprise ending in which Elisabetta and Carlo are sucked into Grandpa Carlo’s tomb. Carlo is too wimpy and unhinged to deserve the semi-heroic/tragic death this production gives him (attempting to fight off around ten soldiers and failing), while the original finale is a spooky twist befitting the drama’s grand strangeness.
The single greatest improvement of this performance over New York’s was Antonio Pappano on the podium. It’s a real shame he never conducts at the Met. No one has a better sense of color and pace in Verdi than he, and this was a grave, exciting, and polished performance. The cello solo was also great, and taken at a gloriously slow tempo.
The talk of this performance was Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Elisabetta, who was plucked out of relative obscurity to replace frequent canceler Anja Harteros for most of the run. (Harteros is in these photos; I
can’t find any of Haroutounian. Imagine someone with similar hair but a good foot shorter.) Haroutounian’s quite a find, with a clear, beautiful soprano of considerable power.* This was not an entirely consistent performance; some phrases were more refined and controlled than others, and her middle voice seemed thinner than her (giant) top notes until the big aria in the last act. She’s a good and likable actress, sassy at the beginning (the opera opens with her aiming her gun at an unseen target, which she adorably missed) and steadfast yet conflicted through the rest. She’s one to watch.
(Harteros here, not Haroutounian)
As Carlo, Jonas Kaufmann was more introverted, awkward, and less predictably cute than Ramon Vargas in New York, making him a considerably more interesting sort-of protagonist. While his dark and throaty tone is never going to sound Italian, he’s got a perfect combination of subtle and loud for this role. He and Haroutounian did a fantastic job with my favorite music of the opera, the Act 2 duet, which has to switch between very gentle and sensitive singing and powerful near-shouting at the drop of a hat.
One wonders why the comparably sane Rodrigo would entrust Flanders to such an unstable figure, but, well, Mariusz Kwiecien’s Rodrigo seemed to harbor more than brotherly feelings for Carlo. This is a relatively obvious way to go with this opera, though I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen it taken this strongly before, and I’m not sure if it is the production or Kwiecien (Hvorostovsky didn’t choose this in New York, but I can’t say if the original cast did or not). It explains certain elements of walking anachronism Posa’s behavior, and adds considerable depth to this rather one-dimensional character. Unfortunately I didn’t like Kwiecien’s singing nearly as much as his acting; he showed his usually tendency towards bellowing. When he lets up it can sound nice, but that
seems rare.
(again Harteros)
Ferruccio Furlanetto as Filippo was the best thing going in the New York cast, but he was far more vivid and expressive here. It’s a very sympathetic and sometimes almost pathetic portrayal: his Filippo is profoundly lonely at the top, following a searing account of the aria with a horrified reaction to the Grand Inquisitor (the production helpfully makes the latter entirely blind–he’s usually at least partially but sometimes can see a bit–, allowing Filippo to react as he likes).
While Beatrice Uria-Monzon was a more convincingly sexy Eboli than most, and acted with appropriate craftiness, she was vocally the cast’s weakest link, only barely coping with the Veil Song’s coloratura and short of breath in “O don fatale” (I don’t know why I can’t find any photos of her either). Her top notes are on the wobbly side as well. Eric Halfvorsen was the other overlap from New York, and his and Furlanetto’s scene was again excellent. The chorus sounded very good in Act 1 but had some moments of screechiness in the higher parts of the Auto-da-Fe.
This is said to be an impossible to cast opera but I think this was a damn convincing job. You can’t really say who the main character is—for the first act and a half it seems like it’s about Carlo and then it’s about Filippo and then Elisabetta comes on and sings for ten minutes totally alone—but with a cast this consistently strong no one actually walked off with it and it was effectively an ensemble drama. This kind of meat and potatoes repertoire—or, I guess, spaghetti and meatballs—is rarely this good.
*Someone at the ROH has an ear for sopranos. They also were one of the first houses to hire the super Liudmyla Monastyrska.
Photos copyright ROH.
(Harteros again, sorry)



And Harteros yet again

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  1. I think Sir Pappano conducted the just-retired Carsen production of Onegin at the Met when it was new.

    Metropolitan Opera House
    March 13, 1997
    New production

    P. I. Tchaikovsky-P. I. Tchaikovsky/Shilovsky

    Eugene Onegin………..Vladimir Chernov
    Tatiana……………..Galina Gorchakova
    Lensky………………Neil Shicoff
    Olga………………..Marianna Tarassova [Debut]
    Prince Gremin………..Vladimir Ognovenko
    Larina………………Jane Shaulis
    Filippyevna………….Irina Arkhipova [Debut]
    Triquet……………..Michel Sénéchal
    Captain……………..Denis Sedov
    Zaretsky…………….Yanni Yannissis
    Dance……………….Marcus Bugler
    Dance……………….Victoria Rinaldi

    Conductor……………Antonio Pappano [Debut]

  2. Thanks for the review. I agree with you on every point except that I wasn't convinced by Kwiecien's acting. Yes, as Rodrigo his love for Carlo, of whatever nature, was emphasized, but otherwise I felt there wasn't much there, and not only because it's a rather one dimensional character. His death scene didn't do it for me. I was much more moved by the final duet between Carlo and Elisabetta.
    Haroutounian was wonderful! Hopefully it'll prove that this breakthrough was timely for her.
    Kaufmann's intelligence and imagination is astounding. Having seen him in a variety of roles by now, for each one he is different. I love how it always rings true musically and dramatically.
    The throaty quality to his voice… I wonder, generally speaking, why singers today, generally, seem to be deviating from the technique of singing in the mask. Isn't it easier and healthier to sing this way? when one turns to the singers of the past, it is striking how they all sound more focused.

  3. Hi – one answer and one question.

    You ask about Kwiecien's interpretation, and if it's part of the production? (with the caveat that I haven't seen this run of production so am answering entirely on your interpretation! And god I hope it wasn't rhetorical, if it was, apologies!)- I saw Keenlyside in 2011 (I think) and also on the dvd and was left with the wonderful feeling that no matter how mad with passion Carlo is and mad with loneliness Philip is, Rodrigo is the most insane of them all. I don't mean this to sound flippant, rather it created a fantastic energy to the politics (definitely not a surrogate for love when I saw it), and Carlo is his choice because he has always been. Only Carlo can achieve the most desperate desire of what Rodrigo believes is right. Hence, the Rodrigo v Philip scene surpasses all the scenes he has with Carlo, the excitement/fervour/anticipation of being close to real power is intoxicating to him.

    So – another interpretation then.. 🙂

    And now the question:

    My favourite bit of this staging, with nothing coming even close, is the bit when at the climax of Philip & Grand Inquisitore, Philip reaches for the letter opener and makes to stab him, hesitating at the orchestral climb down, while Blind Inquisitore who couldn't possibly have known what Philip has just done, knows exactly what he's just done and pauses, knowing he won't see it through. Amazing stuff.
    Question: do they still do this or has it been lost through revival?

    many thanks,


  4. May I step in here? From a recent interview with Furlanetto

    I like the moment in the duet when he raises the knife behind the Inquisitor's back…

    “That I don't do anymore. I did it a month ago, but this time I don't,” he laughs. “Originally I was doing it with the crucifix, which would be more interesting I would say – but unfortunately Eric grabs it before so I cannot pry it out of his hand,” he chuckles again.

  5. Re the ending, I agree the 'heroic' solution doesn't quite fit, but then the whole ghosty Carlos V thing doesn't quite fit for me either – saw the recent Munich version where it looked like the Commendatore dragging Giovanni down to Hell!

    Lucy at Opera Obsession recalls the orignal NY run of this production ending with Philip stabbing Carlo – not sure why that's been dropped as it sounds quite dramatic