Don Carlo, Royal Opera House, London
Bluebeard, Grange Park Opera, Hampshire
L'incoronazione di Dario, Garsington Opera, Oxfordshire

Thrillingly sung and impressively staged, Verdi's tragedy is an

object lesson in musical theatre

It's not a perfect production. It's not a perfect cast. But in some scenes of Nicholas Hytner's Royal Opera House staging of Verdi's Don Carlo, orchestra, voices, design and movement unite so powerfully that you can almost believe that it is.

Take the Act IV confrontation between Philip II (Ferruccio Furlanetto) and the Grand Inquisitor (Eric Halfvarson): one poisoned by doubt, the other made monstrous by certainty. From the bitter complaints of the two old men to the jet black walls of Bob Crowley's set, the corrosive seam of contrabassoon and low brass, and the yearning oboe figures previously heard in the duet between Philip's son Don Carlo (Rolando Villazon) and Philip's wife, Elizabeth of Valois (Marina Poplavskaya), this is as good as live opera gets.

If Antonio Pappano's genius as a conductor is in his subtlety, Hytner's genius is in the calibration of gestures: the slight delay before Elizabeth takes the hand extended to her by Philip II, the ease of touch between her and her lady-in-waiting, the acute contrast between Don Carlo's impetuous energy and the watchful reticence of Posa (Simon Keenlyside). Don Carlo is as much about powerlessness as it is about power, and the characterisation in this production seems as centred in the small of the actors' backs as it is in their voices.

You can feel the weight of the 16th-century costumes, the burden of dynastic duty, the rigidity of royal protocol, the terror of the Inquisition. When the façade splinters, a gasp of despair is as seditious as a raised sword. Less impressive, alas, are those scenes where swords are actually raised: the Pythonesque prelude to the burning of the heretics, the giant shower curtain that conceals the stakes, and a cathedral built to the scale of department store changing rooms.

Limp stage fights and charred latex aside, this is a sumptuously detailed, thoughtful reading with exquisite work from the solo cello and off-stage brass. The chorus has never sounded better, with crisp diction and glowing blend. The sextet of Flemish Deputies is excellent, Halfvarson's malevolent toad of an Inquisitor is utterly repellent, Furlanetto's Philip is faultlessly sung and fascinating to watch even when still and silent. As Tebaldo, Pumeza Matshikiza is touchingly uninhibited, while Sonia Ganassi's Eboli, too generic in Acts II and III, intensifies as the drama progresses.

Poplavskaya's icy Elizabeth, though painfully drab and wan above the stave, is a moving study of repression and misery. Keenlyside and Villazon struggle to adapt their light, lean voices to roles that are too heavy, but sing with sensitivity and intelligence.

I can't imagine what ran through the heads of the people who booed Villazon, but I wish they'd been at Stephen Langridge's production of Bluebeard instead. Why anyone thought that staging this Second Empire trifle as a tribute to James Bond was a good wheeze is baffling. More baffling still is why Grange Park would import such dreck from the Bregenz Festival and squander a good cast (Philip Langridge, Janis Kelly, Robert Poulton, Elena Ferrari) on it. Splattered with dancing scuba divers, cut-out sharks, am-dram rural accents, pussies galore, and jokes that would have been stale in the 1970s, this was operetta in the style of a Morecombe and Wise Christmas Special. Minus Eric Morecombe. Under Richard Balcombe, the English Chamber Orchestra proved that it is as unsuited to the music of James Barry – the 007 theme appears in Act III – as it is to the music of Jean-Jacques Offenbach. Excruciating.

What a relief to head to Garsington, where this year's wild-card is Vivaldi's L'incoronazione di Dario. Vivaciously played under Laurence Cummings, the score is a game of baroque consequences, with arias in keys entirely unrelated to the recitatives preceding them, random shifts from major to minor, and sudden passages of wild beauty.

David Freeman's lithe production makes the most of Vivaldi's unpredictability while humanising the cardboard-thin, often selfish characters. Among the cast, Renata Pokupic's sweetly ditsy Statira and Sophie Bevan's feisty Alinda are outstanding.

'Don Carlo', ROH (020-7304 4000) to 3 July, live relay to Trafalgar Square and Canary Wharf, London and Clayton Square, Liverpool, 3 July; 'Bluebeard', Grange Park Opera (01962 737366) to 3 July; 'L'incoronazione di Dario', Garsington Opera (01865 361636) to 5 July

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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