Royal Opera House, London

Classical review: Don Carlo - Spite is even spikier second time around

5.00

Verdi's most powerful drama packs a punch in a revival of Nicholas Hytner's production with an all-star cast

In no other opera did Verdi dramatise the conflict between romantic desire and political imperative, church and state, idealism and repression with such devastating intensity as in Don Carlo. "Nothing in the drama is historical," he wrote, "but it contains a Shakesperean truth and profundity of characterisation." Those who see it as his greatest work would agree. But with greatness comes the great challenge of casting.

Returning as Carlo was Jonas Kaufmann, who is blessed with A-list looks and vocal artistry to match. German soprano Anja Harteros played Elizabeth of Valois, to whom Carlo is betrothed before his father, King Philip, decides to marry her himself. It was this pairing that created some fuss ahead of this second revival of Nicholas Hytner's 2008 staging.

Their first meeting in the icy woods of Fontainebleau was slow to catch fire, but each subsequent meeting raised the temperature as Kaufmann drew more warmly sculpted phrasing, and Harteros responded with beautifully judged restraint: her lower register can be quite veiled but blooms exquisitely higher up. Where the original production boasted an elfin Rolando Villazón and a glacial Marina Poplavskaya, this pair emphasised the couple's equality in tragedy. Harteros's "Tu che le vanità" and final duet with Don Carlo scaled heights that one normally only dreams of.

Roderigo, Don Carlo's brother in arms in the Flemish struggle for freedom, was sung here by Mariusz Kwiecien – less charismatic than 2008's Simon Keenlyside – with his full emotional intensity reached only in death. A magnificent constant in this production, however, remains Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II of Spain: merciless as despot, heartsick as he accepts his wife has never loved him, and chilling as he plots his own son's death with the poisonous Grand Inquisitor (Eric Halfvarson again).

In the pit, Antonio Pappano extracts every last ounce of menace, fear made palpable in the horns before the burning of the heretics. The staging is broadly successful, with its darkness and redness underscoring Philip's grim promise to Posa that "death has a rich future in my hands".

Mahan Esfahani (Wigmore Hall, London ****), an Iranian-American on the cusp of 30, holds the unique position of being the first harpsichordist ever to give a solo recital at the Proms, last year. Devoting the first half of his Wigmore Hall concert to William Byrd, he nonetheless managed to imply a snapshot history of the instrument from the English Renaissance to the 1970s.

Addressing his audience with the urbanity of a latter-day Tom Lehrer, Esfahani declared that Byrd was "the liberator of the keyboard", which he proceeded to demonstrate by means of ever more intricate galliards and variations. He proved a master at tracing a line through this Elizabethan surround sound, allowing each of the different voices to emerge in focus before replacing it within the shifting contours of the music.

From there, we progressed to The Musical Offering, the fruit of Frederick II's challenge to Bach in 1747. The king gave Bach a theme on which to extemporise a three-voice fugue on the spot, which he did. The king then requested one in six voices, to which Bach replied that he needed more time. Two months later, Bach sent the king a whole collection of fugues and canons, from which Esfahani played the three- and six-voice fugues, and then the astonishing, endlessly rising Canon a 2 per Tonos, which he likened to an Escher staircase.

In the further reaches of weird was Ligeti's Passacaglia ungherese, which deconstructs harpsichord sonority, moving between tonality and dissonance in a way that is astonishingly pleasing. Continuum features rapidly repeated notes in the upper register until they accelerate into invisibility. Fortunately this is not something Esfahani himself is liable to do any time soon, since he has just been granted leave to stay in the UK: good news for him and also for us.

'Don Carlo' (020-7304 4000), to 25 May

Critic's Choice

Opera North's new staging of Benjamin Britten's comedy Albert Herring has Alexander Sprague in the title role and Dame Josephine Barstow as the autocratic Lady Billows (Leeds Grand, Wed & Thu). In London, Bach Unwrapped continues with three concerts focusing on the motets and Lutheran Masses given by The Sixteen, under Harry Christophers (Wed, Thu, Sat). Bach specialist John Butt returns for the last instalment of his Brandenburg Cantatas with the OAE (Fri).

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Voices
The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food