OPERA / Grand but economical: Julian Rushton on Opera North's new Don Carlos

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The Independent Culture
Verdi's Don Carlos, a unique combination of political intensity and human tragedy, belongs in every ambitious company's repertoire, but it has the reputation of being unperformable without vast expense on sets and starry singers who can also act. The new production for Opera North makes it clear that the work is not so fragile as to depend on all these things. The argument over language (both French and Italian are authentic) is resolved by using Andrew Porter's measured translation, appreciable from the outstanding diction of several singers.

Opera North's previous venture at one of Verdi's French grand operas the ill-fated Jerusalem produced by Pierre Audi. With the same conductor and the estimable Clive Bayley again impressing in a short and crucial priestly role, they have chosen the producer more wisely. Tim Albery is at his best with personal relationships and in defining situations with economical movement; and since I have disliked his work in the past, I am happy to say that here it is sensible and free from gimmicks.

The production suggests that 16th century Spain was grimly primitive. Nicky Gillibrand's black clothes for the men are more functional than fashionable, buildings contain no hint of decoration, and there is more Nordic darkness than Mediterranean light. Hildegard Bechtler's designs provide a flexible frame for the tragic austerity of this highly political drama. Huge bare walls help project the sound; but the big scenes (the auto-da-fe and the abortive uprising) lack the space to be as impressive as the music demands.

If the sundered lovers looked physically uncomfortable, this may owe less to their inhibiting garments to the actors' awkwardness of movement. Linda McLeod's Elizabeth relied too much on a saintly smile, while Richard Burke's Don Carlos should temper his grimaces; he seemed to view the dying Rodrigo with fastidious distaste. Both these voices sounded strained in their upper reaches though they became warmer in the final act, and Elizabeth's aria was movingly sung until the tremulous and unappealing top notes came into play.

The usually immaculate orchestra made a ragged start, although Paul Daniel's inspirational conducting brought about a full recovery. Verdi's orchestration demands a stentorian voice within the 90-year-old Grand Inquisitor; Richard Van Allen looked admirably gaunt and sang finely, but was simply under-powered. John Tomlinson released one unfocussed swoop towards the end of his stupendous monologue, but his icy, passionate, arbitrary, and lonely Philip II, like his Boris Godunov, is of world class.

The highest honours are shared though, for the Rodrigo, Anthony Michaels- Moore, excelled himself with controlled but fiery baritone singing and vitally committed acting: it was exciting to see this good performer touching greatness.

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