Proms

Don Carlos Royal Albert Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
Watch this space. The Royal Opera will be hoping to fill it on a regular basis when they join London's homeless next year. On Saturday they transported Verdi's Don Carlos there, and could probably have filled it twice over. The Royal Albert Hall, that is. But then this is the Proms and the Proms does so love a big event.

They don't come a whole lot bigger than Don Carlos. Don Carlos, note, not Don Carlo. On the journey over from WC2 (where Verdi's epic of epics recently played in its original five-act French version), language, edition and cast, but not the conductor - Bernard Haitink - had changed. By way of a postscript (some postscript) to Covent Garden's ongoing Verdi Festival, this was the Italian five-act version (well, one of them) performed in concert with a cast dominated by three big-name Russian stars (well, two actually - Galina Gorchakova was "unable to appear"). Complicated, isn't it?

But Don Carlos is bigger than all the complications you can throw at it - a masterpiece in any language - and by the time Verdi's prophetic threnody of horns rolled forth in the prelude to Act 2 (is there a more far- seeing, far-reaching passage in all opera?) its epic status had effectively been endorsed by the hall. And then the bells rang out from high in the dome to signal the auto-da-fe, Verdi's massed brasses - liberated from their "off-stage band" status to take up positions slam-bang at the centre of the action - rowdily buttressed the festivities and, even as "the vindictive pyres" were lit in our imaginations, a "Voice from Heaven" (Mary Plazas quite literally sounding from somewhere off in the blue beyond) offered urgent solace to the condemned heretics. Only in Grand Opera. And the theatre of Grand Opera had at last come alive in the Albert Hall.

I say "at last" because, up until that point, the temperature of the evening had been very much that of a "concert performance". Haitink is not, in the literal sense, a theatrical conductor, he does not, will not, provide short-term thrills over long-term satisfaction. So this was a patient Don Carlos, notable above all for the sombre beauty of Verdi's writing. The big advantage of concert opera is that the orchestral score is laid out, revealed, as it never can be in the theatre, giving an orchestra as good as that of the Royal Opera every opportunity to shine. They did. And so, to varying degrees, did this cast.

Richard Margison (Carlos) is a real tenor whose well-modulated heroics above the stave would seem to find something extra in defiance. What a pity that his lyric entreaties failed to convey a comparable level of involvement. His phrasing sang but it did not captivate. There was no presence, no magic in it. You know it when you hear it - an intangible inner-light. We heard glimmers of it from Sylvie Valayre (replacing Gorchakova as Elisabeth de Valois), a fine singer with one voice and the will to use it. The top opens gloriously, the fruition of many a well-sculpted phrase in her big Act 5 soliloquy. She's still growing into the role. The best is to come. Not something one now feels about Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Rodrigo). A hall like this cuts the voice down to size, admittedly, but for all his showmanship, his Bolshoi-style emoting (push hard and hang on to those big notes), there is no disguising the fact that he is no longer producing a beautiful, subtle, honeyed legato (what a contrast to Thomas Hampson at Covent Garden recently). And that is the very life-blood of the role.

For the rest, Roberto Scandiuzzi's Philip promised more than he actually delivered in his great Act 4 monologue and Robert Lloyd's Inquisitor was commanding to a degree, though nothing in the voice suggested the blind, wizened, wily bird of prey. The best voice, the best singing, came from Olga Borodina as Eboli (how good to hear the remorseful middle section of "O don fatale" sung like it were the last remnant of bel canto). But what a cool customer. Opera has a new ice princess. Spain? Siberia, more like.

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