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
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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)