Verdi downsized for the Nineties

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More than most operas, Verdi's Don Carlos is a living organism: infinitely adaptable and with no format fixed by the composer, who had such trouble with the score that it became - for him and us - a life-long work in progress. Productions come in five acts or four, in the original French or adopted Italian, and with numbers grafted on or cut out according to the current state of Verdi scholarship; so the potential exists for every new staging to be uniquely of its time, and the version now running at Covent Garden is nothing less. It uses a very full, five- act text, unearthing unfamiliar music and amounting to more than four hours' playing time; but as theatre it is fashionably modest. And to appreciate how modest, you need only visit the "Visions of Verdi" exhibition which opened this week at London's Theatre Museum and includes costumes from the famous 1958 Visconti staging at the Royal Opera. Then, Don Carlos was an opulent fantasy of crushed velvet and paste diamonds. Now, it has been reduced to unadorned sobriety in a production by Luc Bondy that stifles rather than trumpets Verdi's interest in spectacle.

The opening scene in the Fontainebleau forest - the one you don't get in a four-act version - feels Debussyan, as though Bondy is about to find in Don Carlos a pre-echo of French fin-de-siecle symbolism. And, in fact, he does try - especially with the imagery of constricting blindness (as opposed to liberating vision) that surfaces periodically through the piece. Not only is the Grand Inquisitor blind, as Verdi asks, but Eboli is missing an eye (you know this because she wears a patch, like a transvestite pirate).

If I sound sceptical, it's not because I undervalue Bondy's theatrecraft: as anyone who saw his Covent Garden Salome knows, he can make powerful statements out of subtle gestures. But I'm not sure how much subtlety Don Carlos can take. Philip II's monologue and the confrontational duets unarguably present some of Verdi's most intimately intense writing, but much of the rest is Jean Plaidy: epic history retold as romance, with uncomfortably inserted spots of magic realism - the ghost of Charles V - to cheer the gallery. Bondy's low-key approach suffers a complete failure of nerve with the supernatural, and barely nods in the direction of the epic. His characters are human but small-scale, their dimension set by a Philip II (Jose Van Dam) with the allure and presence of a provincial archdeacon.

Roberto Alagna's Carlos is small in almost every sense - you feel he ought to be sitting on Thomas Hampson's knee during the scenes with Posa - and styled as a Hispanic Hamlet in contemplative but ineffectual revolt against the court. The voice is resinously fine but tighter than it was a year ago, and you can't help wondering whether superstardom hasn't begun to take its toll. To my ear, the best singing comes from Karita Mattila, whose warm, heavy-textured Elisabeth is beautifully done. But like everything else here - even Thomas Hampson's Posa which you'd expect to be all ebullience - it's a touch reserved. And the same goes for Bernard Haitink's conducting, which is fine but never quite delivers the slap and thrust that Verdi's gutsier writing - especially the Carlos/Posa buddies duet - demands.

Don't get me wrong, this Carlos has a lot to offer - not least the fact that it plays in French, which is self-evidently the right language for music designed by Verdi to woo a French audience. But it's not the thing of wonder we had all expected from reports of Bondy's production when it opened in Paris earlier this year.

A more telling example of operatic restraint is Graham Vick's Glyndebourne production of Eugene Onegin (or Yevgeny Onyegin as Glyndebourne insists), which has just revived and comes as close to a perfect staging of a perfect piece as anything I've ever seen. With simple, clean, unfussy sets, it manages to be inspired and musical, applying beautifully engineered solutions to scenes like Madam Larina's ball where Vick dances the chorus through interconnecting rooms to fill or empty the stage according to the temper of the score. I also love his handling of imagery, especially in the final scene where Tatyana's rejection of Onegin plays as a reminiscence of his earlier rejection of her. All that changes is the quality of furniture in the progress from the country to St Petersburg.

As before, the Russian soprano Elena Prokina makes a touchingly understated Tatyana, fragrant rather than full-bodied in the Letter Scene, and Wojciech Drabowicz still minces as Onegin (you suspect he cold-shoulders Tatyana because he's really after Lensky) but sings handsomely (enough to win any man round). Gennadi Rozhdestvensky replaces Andrew Davis as conductor and it's a change for the worst, with ponderously slow speeds. But otherwise my only objection is to the surtitles which attempt, grotesquely, to recreate the ironic couplets of the Pushkin poem that inspired the libretto. It's a mistake - not only because Tchaikovsky refashioned Onegin into something essentially unironic, but because surtitles shouldn't try to masquerade as a source of interest in their own right.

After almost half a century's existence, the Aldeburgh Festival no longer needs to cast around for themes: it can plunder its own past, which offers more than enough material and has prompted as this year's focus the unmistakably Aldeburghian trio of Britten, Auden and Henze. Of the three, Auden is the common ground in that his words danced with the music of the other two; and being the most forceful of collaborators - never crushed into the traditional librettist's subservience - he was, as often as not, the one who led the dance, supplying texts whose brilliance and impenetrability repelled all boarders. Listening to the Britten/Auden song cycle Our Hunting Fathers at Snape Maltings last weekend (Oliver Knussen conducting the BBC SO with Rosemary Hardy, soprano) I was reminded of the dazzling contest it presents between words and music, and of how the young Britten only achieves a draw by the sheer instinctive genius of his response to text. I can't believe he really understood the poems.

There were more examples of that instinct the next day, when Steuart Bedford conducted a choice line-up (Thomas Allen, Jean Rigby, Janice Watson, Susan Gritton ...) in a concert performance of The Rape of Lucretia. As always in concert-opera, the words came into uncommon focus, and not much of Ronald Duncan's "poetic" libretto - a true Forties period piece - can bear the scrutiny. But Britten's music soaks into its awkward joints like balm and elevates unremarkable verse like Tarquinius's "frail crucible of light" to memorability. At a stroke the rapist gets the most entrancing number in the score, and you wonder whose side the composer is on. Lucretia gets nothing comparable.

As for Henze, he's been featuring at Snape as well - in person, as the only member of this Aldeburgh Three still living. But since he lives on at the festival tonight and in the coming days, I'll keep him for next week.

'Don Carlos': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), Mon & Sat. Aldeburgh Festival (01278 453543), all week.

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