Arts: Along for the ride

Roberto Alagna may have been inconspicuous by his presence but there's more to Don Carlos than its tenor lead. By Edward Seckerson

The forest of Fontainebleau. Snow is falling. A white, riderless horse canters across the Covent Garden stage. Either this is a touch of fanciful stage realism or the most dramatic no-show in operatic history. But then you spy him, a small red figure at the rear of the set - Roberto Alagna. After all the rumours, the missed rehearsals, the threatened cancellation, the Royal Opera's most-prized Don has found his way back into the forest. He's not in the best of voice. The dulcet tone is initially rather dry, unfocused, the phrasing short, uneasy, wooden. He doesn't help himself, of course, refusing, as ever, to yield to the natural curves and caresses of the line. How can he expect to sing a fine and true and touching legato without portamento? It is that, surely, which elicits from these well- worn phrases their tenderness, their soul. But that is not Alagna's way, and this may not be his finest hour. Or rather, hours. He has five more acts in which to shine.

Verdi's Don Carlos was born big to grow bigger. Paris wanted it biggest. And what Paris wanted, Paris got. Verdi did so long for a great success there. And it was as if, in Don Carlos, he could barely contain his ambitions. The threnody of horns that rolls out in the Prelude to Act 2 - sometimes the first music we hear - seems to symbolise the brooding magnificence, the epic reach of this timeless score. We may never hear every last note of it. There is no "definitive" version to be culled from the mind-boggling complexities of its various revisions. Those who have familiarised themselves with the integral edition might well have been puzzled, for instance, by Covent Garden's decision to omit the encounters (in the Fontainebleau act) between Elisabeth and the wood-cutters and their women. It would seem to strengthen the narrative thrust of that act by establishing there and then her closeness to the people. Remember, it is on the strength of that closeness that Elisabeth makes her momentous decision at the close of Act 1. But we must make ours. Don Carlos is an opera for all seasons. It moves with the times. And to hear it in all its glory with so much added and so little taken away is, in itself, hugely satisfying.

Musically (and, consequently, dramatically), this eagerly awaited new staging from the Swiss producer Luc Bondy took a while to get into its stride. It wasn't just Alagna. Bernard Haitink, too, was having problems finding his length and breadth. The flow was halting, rubatos awkwardly turned, co-ordination between pit and stage decidedly shaky. Up to, and including, the auto-da-fe scene (and that's a lot of the opera), this Don Carlos was a sound, safe, but hardly sweeping proposition. Even Bondy, that most physical and liberating of directors, seemed inhibited by the sheer weight of his responsibility. The sunny skies, the scrubbed pine, the jolly bright colours of the auto-da-fe ("what a day, what a day, for an...") were nicely at odds with the awfulness of the scene, it's true, but still, notwithstanding flames sprouting about the heretics as if on "gas mark 5", this was pretty routine stuff.

And then Verdi hit us with Act 4 - the "Grand Inquisitor scene", one of the finest in all his output - and it was as if the half-cooked (if you'll forgive the choice of metaphor) had in an instant been done to a turn. King Philippe is discovered, a black, lonely, bowed figure "entombed" amidst so much grey stone - an austere image memorably repeated for Carlos's prison in Act 5. As he reflects on the burdens of his kingship and marriage, the thought crosses our minds that the woman asleep in the bed beyond may or may not be Elisabeth. In a chilling moment, she gets up and leaves like an overnight whore (or even Eboli) without so much as a second glance. And then the Inquisitor enters like the proverbial bottled spider, hooded and bent double over two walking-sticks with fire literally sprouting (albeit a little half-heartedly) in his path. Kurt Rydl's hacking black basso threatens judgement with menaces in every cavernous phrase.

The evening turned on this scene. Elisabeth's explosive return, knocking aside the departing Inquisitor as if he were no more than an intrusive insect, created startling new tensions; the restoration of the Quartet, beautifully blocked, raised the musical temperature. Only Martine Dupuy's unruly account of Eboli's "O don fatal" (too many histrionics, not enough singing) proved anti-climactic. And when did you last hear a Don Carlos where that aria was the low point?

Unusually enough, Dupuy fared rather better in the throw-away (if rather too thrown-away) coloratura of her first scene. Everyone else grew in stature. Well, I say everyone else, but while Alagna settled down, he hardly made capital of his most persuasive and (at best) exciting voice. He was, in a word, impersonal. By contrast, Jose Van Dam's Philippe, with half the vocal possibilities (his once famed legato sostenuto has dried out somewhat), sang from a full, noble heart. Hampson was a splendid, ardent, involving Rodrigue, taking time to find his finesse, his honeyed way with the bel canto ingratiations of the role, but once he did - and his fond farewell to Carlos will be one of the evening's enduring memories - it was a happy release indeed.

So, too, the glorious sound of Karita Mattila's Elisabeth de Valois. This ample voice may take a while to warm, to speak effortlessly in those floated pianissimi so beloved of the lyrico spinto soprano, but, once it does, there's literally no holding it. Mattila's final scene was thrilling, the arching phrases of "Toi qui sus le neant" filling both house, hearts and minds. Elisabeth travels a long way in Don Carlos. For Mattila, the real journey may just be beginning.

n Further perfs 17, 22, 25, 28 June, 1, 4 July, ROH, Covent Gdn (booking: 0171-304 4000). The Royal Opera also presents the 1886 five-act Italian version at the Proms (and live on Radio 3) on 20 July (booking: 0171-589 8212)

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...