The heat generated by this scorching revival of Verdi’s Don Carlo had little to do with burning heretics or indeed any aspect of Nicholas Hytner’s lucid if rather passive staging but rather the conducting of Semyon Bychkov whose drive and patience ensured that both the urgency and weight of history defining this great score were magnificently served.
Bychkov’s triumph was fully to reconcile the sweep and intimacy of Don Carlo. Fine detailing was as significant as grand gesturing in Bychkov’s scheme of things. Verdi’s simplest colourings, like the bare unison horns carrying us into the vaults of the San Yuste Monastery, were rich in atmosphere and subtext, the musical embodiment of lines like “the sorrows of the world follow us into the cloister”. At the other extreme Bychkov brought electrifying immediacy to key climacterics in the drama. In the scene where Rodrigo takes on the King, Philip II, the fury of his accusation that Philip will rule over “the peace of the grave” unleashes an awesome welter of sound from the depths of Verdi’s orchestra. In Bychkov’s hands it was as if a huge fissure had opened up in the fabric of the piece. Dramatically speaking, it had, of course.
That great scene was wonderfully played by Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Philip II). Furlanetto is that special breed of singing actor for whom gravitas is inbred. We see a broken man disintegrate before our eyes in his great act four aria; we feel his anger and defiance in the encounter with John Tomlinson’s craggy Grand Inquisitor who manages to turn the word “Sire” into a condescending growl. These are credible portrayals. Less so Marianne Cornetti’s indomitable Eboli, a voice of considerable fire-power but hopelessly woolly in the lacy coloratura of her folksy Veil aria.
One of the most effective devices in Hytner’s staging – and I still find the garish pop-up aspects of Bob Crowley’s design alienating – is Carlo’s isolation, the descending front cloth of ancestral tombs a constant reminder of his grandfather’s weighty legacy. Jonas Kaufmann carried this romantic idealism magnificently, thrilling in his full-throated anguish, tender in his love for Elizabeth de Valois with mezza voce phrases literally melting in the singing of them.
Marina Poplavskaya (Elizabeth), beautiful and intense on stage, is not a natural Verdian, the voice too white and unyielding, the lack of through-phrasing conspicuously unidiomatic. But in the perfect symmetry of their first and last encounters there was a real frisson between she and Kaufmann. The numbing pianissimo of their final moments together carried such regret and resignation as to unlock the very heart of a great piece.