The reason for the buzz surrounding this revival became clear as Jonas Kaufmann launched into his rapturous opening aria. His phrasing was exquisite, and his projection - underscored by distant horn-calls - was perfect, with its gentle falls into half-voice; his whole being radiated ardent nobility.
Lost in the forest, his paramour and her attendants then appeared; Anja Harteros’s Elisabeth countered his ecstatic outpourings with a steel-pure sound. But when the shock arrived by messenger – for reasons of state, Elisabeth must marry Don Carlos’s father, King Philip of Spain – a fissure opened. Now every inch a Hamlet, Kaufmann crumpled and froze, but Harteros seemed to take it in her stride, allowing herself to be crowned with no sign of reluctance: one entirely believed his protestations of mortal anguish, but hers not at all. Either the revival director of Nicholas Hytner’s production had not thought to induce her to act in this scene, or she had not been amenable.
In some ways this show’s visuals have worn thin: Bob Crowley’s sub-Hockney set for the monastery garden has a cheesy, cardboard look, and the chorus of courtiers, with their uniform black dresses and scarlet fans, could have come straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan. But the staging of the auto da fe (burning heretics et al) takes place in convincingly cruel splendour, and the vaults of the Escorial have an inky funereality.
And in this opera’s strikingly topical battle between theocracy and democracy, Verdi’s melding of the personal and the political is brilliantly fleshed out, with Don Carlos’s emotional crisis subsumed into his libertarian crusade alongside his blood-brother Rodrigo (Mariusz Kwiechen). While that Polish baritone made a fine foil for Kaufmann in the ‘freedom’ duet, the show’s still centre was the Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, a philosophical prince of darkness commanding events with baleful demeanour and a burnished tone; his self-tormenting soliloquy was imbued with a massive sadness, and in his duet with the Grand Inquisitor (Eric Halfvarson) the two bass voices meshed in intensely dramatic combat. Meanwhile Beatrice Uria-Monzon as Princess Eboli brought a flamenco edge to the ‘Saracen Song’; she vividly delineated her devious and vengeful character.
With Antonio Pappano and his band conjuring up Verdi’s dark harmonies, this sublime musical event wound to an overwhelming conclusion, as Harteros and Kaufmann delivered their last duet in a performance of transcendent beauty.