With its superb cast this production has been possibly the most eagerly anticipated ROH show of the season, and despite a slightly tepid start, it soon completely lives up to the highest expectations.
Director Nicholas Hytner (revival direction by Paul Higgins) takes an interesting approach to the piece, which while it doesn't at all neglect its Grand Opera status, does reinterpret many characters' motivations and attitudes. First and foremost is the relationship between Elisabeth de Valois (Anja Harteros) and Don Carlos (Jonas Kaufmann). They are not at all credible as an erotic couple - their Act I romance is presented as a childish daliance, and in the central acts, Elisabeth is not really very tempted by Carlos' advances and hysterical overtures. This all changes when she learns of her husband's infidelity, and so in Act V we see her idealise and rationalise the whole affair with Carlos to suit her new psychological exigencies (and it must be said that the newfound dreamy, unearthly beauty of her music seems to suggest a very profound change in her). Throughout Don Carlos is presented as a slightly hysterical, even goonish character - it's difficult to understand why he is so totally distraught and obsessed about this failed engagement. Many scenes end with a prison wall coming down at the front of the stage, leaving him alone showing that mentally he is in prison long before he is physically locked up. In the calmly and movingly acted final Act, the two of them seem more like brother and sister, or even "mother and son" as they refer to each other, all in line with the repeated allusions in the libretto. The father/son dynamic of King Philip and Carlos is conspicuously and surely deliberately absent.
The real romantic couple of the drama is revealed to be a homoerotic one - that is the relationship between Carlos and Posa - again subtly achieved and suggested, and never fully consummated but very obviously intended to be there, at least from Posa's side. Their physical and emotional intimacy perfectly mirrors the text and makes total sense of the otherwise slightly troublesome sacrifice that Posa chooses to make. As I say all this comes completely from the libretto and never seems wilfully added or out of kilter with text, and nor is it some hideously over the top "Broke back Carlos" idea.
Bob Crowley's designs are hit and miss. The general aesthetic is rather minimalist with very strong colours to characterise each scene. The snow scape of Act I is about as unevocative and clumsily executed as can be imagined - visually a mess with ugly and nonsensical white panels whose only function seems to be to cover the sides of the stage. The dark cathedral in Act II however (which returns in Act V) is the total opposite: maximum atmosphere is created with the most economic means - a row of pillars, a tomb and strongly directional lighting is all that is required. For the "Veil Song" in Act II we revert to ugly crudeness, which continues into Act III's horrid garden and the Auto-da-fé scene, though the latter is saved by a stunning and shocking coup de théâtre as we see the bodies burning on stakes during the closing bars. Brilliant visual boldness and subtlety is restored in Act IV and V in the prison like cavern of Philip's study, Carlos' actual prison, and then the return the oppressive majesty and mystery of the Cathedral.
As an overall evening it works well - though I must admit that I was slightly disappointed after Act III and thought that this had been an opportunity missed. But it all pulls together in Acts IV and V and becomes the stunning piece of theatre that this cast in this opera promised to be. Part of this is surely due to Verdi's score. These last two acts (and particularly Act IV) stand with Boccanegra, the Requiem and Falstaff at the very Summit of Verdi's musical and dramatic achievement. Ferruccio Furlanetto could scarcely be bettered as Philip vocally or dramatically and at 64 (later this month) it's a miracle his voice still sounds so fantastic. His aria and duet with Eric Halfvarson's equally impressive Grand Inquisitor was fully the highlight that it should be in the opera, and set the extraordinarily high standard for the rest of the evening.
The Act V aria "Tu che le vanità" was simply the best singing I have ever heard from Anja Harteros. While eminently decent in the first three acts, there were issues - the middle register was sounding hard and overdarkened, and dramatically she seemed slightly blank. But then in Act IV the voice became much more focussed and beautiful, and by Act V we got phrase after phrase of truly superb singing. The chest register was wonderfully coloured and supported, the middle finally warmed, and the top so large and full that I just instantly thought Sieglinde (O hehrstes Wunder!). Acting wise as well the turning point came in Act IV with Eboli's admission of guilt. I had problems with her Desdemona last season, but I finally get why everyone loves her so much. Wonderful.
Jonas Kaufmann followed a similar trajectory over the evening going from merely good in the early stages, to totally wonderful in Act V. What is abundantly clear is that he's absolutely in his prime and the world's leading tenor in the lyric-spinto repertoire; I hardly need describe the virtues of the voice. The issue comes with the Italian repertoire and whether his voice is ideally appropriate for it. As I say there is no question that he is the best in the world at this Verdi repertoire at the moment, but taking the longer range view, since this is a voice of shall we say "historic" importance, I think it's prudent to think on where he can make the biggest contribution to the art form and create the greatest legacy given that he'll be allowed to sing anything he asks to do at this stage. The issue is that his very distinctive sound and extraordinary evenness in all registers derives partly from a great deal of vocal cover, the flip side of which is that there is just no squillo (aka Italianate "ping") in the voice to speak of. On CD/DVD this is a very difficult thing to get an accurate picture of, but in the theatre it's very obvious. Though his singing is founded on Italianate "bel canto" principles of long lines, legato, clean attack and perfect blend of registers, I'd argue that the timbre, his temperament and the particular bent of his artistry towards text and word shading make him much better suited to the German repertoire. Of course it's his career, he thrives on diversity, he'll sing what he loves and no one is ever going to complain. But when are we getting him in London in a major Wagner role for instance? Anyway.
Béatrice Uria-Monzon had been substituted for the originally billed Christine Rice who is recovering from a rather serious illness. Though I sorely missed Rice, and suspect that in the final assessment she would have made a superior Eboli, I was nonetheless largely very happy with Uria-Monzon's very distinctive interpretation. I very much like the voice - though it's far from having the most beautiful timbre, with some squall in the upper regions, and it's maybe a touch small for the role, the chest register is incredibly dark and dense and dirty in the Callas mould, she sings with colours, and everything she sings seems to matter. She only got moderate cheers at the curtain which I suspect was partly because of the not very accurate coloratura in the Veil Song and uneven timbre across the voice, but I like any woman who can act, make me care about what she's singing, and bark those low notes like a beast. I also have to love an Eboli who is for once more physically alluring than her soprano rival.
As Posa, Mariusz Kwiecień was in very fine voice, with a beautiful, well blended and very large sound, not a single note strained, and his arias beautifully delivered. A slight blandness in approach stopped me from being fully involved in his performance, but most will think this is cavilling in a very fine assumption of the role. Robert Lloyd was also rather brilliant as the spirit of Carlos V - astonishing also that he is 73.
In all this, and somewhat surprisingly I might add, conductor Pappano emerged as the weak link. The orchestra played accurately, but things just ticked along for the first three acts and Pappano hardly shaped any climaxes or tensions in the music, everything sounding a little drab and undifferentiated. Things didn't really get going until the last third of the evening, but the music is so inspired here that basically just playing the notes is going to be exciting, and he wasn't quite up to the superlative level of the singing. It must be admitted that many of the gorgeous sonorities in these last acts were at least brilliantly achieved. Perhaps he was having an off night. I am going again on Wednesday so we'll soon see.
Beg, steal, deceive your nearest and dearest, in order to get to this show - who knows when we'll see the like again.