Don Carlos, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

And so the Kirov Opera's Verdi season at Covent Garden drew to a close with Verdi's grandest opera, Don Carlos. The company has hardly covered itself in critical glory these last two weeks, although audience response has been respectably warm. In fact, the cries of "bravo" scattered through Friday's performance and at the curtain calls suggested unequivocal enthusiasm.

Not unwisely, the company presented Verdi's four-act Italian revision of the opera, but in whatever form, Don Carlos is hardly a repertoire staple for the Kirov: it only had its premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1976. Yuri Alexandrov's production dates from 1999, but as we have come to expect from the Kirov, its aesthetic style was shaped 40 years ago: ornate, approximately period (16th-century) costumes, and overbearing structures that didn't allow the big auto-da-fé scene to catch fire, so to speak. A mass of tall pillars, looking like bedposts, pushed the action to the front of the stage, which is where the Kirov's singers like to perform: forget character, just face the auditorium and belt it out. And if you do have to interact, it's best if one of you is on bended knee.

Opera in the Old Style, then, but the Kirov isn't the only company in the world guilty of that. And as Don Carlos, Yuri Alexeev proved an ardent tenor in that old style, Italianate not only of timbre but also in his aspirates and occasional straining for pitch. But in Don Carlos, the lower voices matter most. While Vassily Gerello's Posa blustered and barnstormed, Vladimir Vaneev got to the heart of King Philip's torment in his big Act III scene, even if elsewhere he lacked gravitas, a quality Fyodor Kutznetsov's Grand Inquisitor possessed in abundance.

Generally the women in Don Carlos occupy the dramatic background, but as Elisabetta, Olga Guriakova, an impressive Desdemona in Otello a few days earlier, confirmed her promise, although top notes sometimes went awry. Nevertheless, Don Carlos isn't only about solo voices, and when more than one character was singing, there was no sense of vocal strands knitting together. Likewise in the orchestra, conducted with his usual fervour by Valery Gergiev: lots of forward momentum, sometimes too much of it, but too often a textural imbalance for the sake of this or that detail.

A fleeting moment at the very end of the opera epitomised this Verdi season for me: the "monk" who had mysteriously rescued Don Carlos froze in position as the music faded to silence and the lights dimmed, but then simply walked offstage before the curtain had closed. Verdi is not a matter of "Get the notes out and get off"; too often these Kirov productions gave the impression that that would do.