I went to see the previous run of this production, and failed to review it, thus rendering it pretty much deleted from my memory before too long. This time I am determined to do better.
The visual aspect of the production is very stylised, and colour-themed in mostly black and red (with a bit of white for snow in Act I and gold for church in Act 3). Particularly striking was the repeated visual motif of a huge black wall with a grid of small square holes, suggesting both the actual prison in which Carlos is incarcerated and the imprisonment of the various characters within the strictures of their culture – rigid class structure and social status, bloodthirsty religion and dictatorial law. Less effective was the wall made of giant red lego bricks in the Spanish garden in which the court ladies hang around, whinging about the hot weather (while very sensibly wearing heavy, tightly-fitting black dresses). Most of the rest of the cast were in black too, apart from the king and queen’s white nightwear, and special red (Grand Inquisitor-esque) heretic-burning outfits. At least the red looked a bit more regal than King Philip’s earlier outfit of a black BHS women’s anorak and flower-pot hat (which I have been assured was the fashion of the time, although Philip was the only man wearing one).
Musically I found this a truly superb performance – all the more so as it was not actually a performance. Seymon Bychkov’s tempi were well-judged, and the orchestral playing expressive and textured. This is the first time I have attended a dress rehearsal, and I gather it is inappropriate to comment too much on singers, as they may not be ‘singing out’, to save themselves for first night. If this was the case here, I can only say that the audiences are in for a treat.
I haven’t heard Jonas Kaufman before, but am informed by a fan that he was taking care to ‘save himself’ in a demanding role, and indeed he was somewhat quiet at times. However, his singing was thoughtful and nuanced, ranging through the wide spectrum of Don Carlos’s emotional states throughout the drama. His acting was considerably more restrained than Villazon (whom I previously saw in the role, and whose manic-depressive Carlos appeared constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown), but equally valid.
‘Infante’ is an appropriate title for Carlos, as he is really very childish; he is selfish and egocentric, given to extreme mood swings, wanting instant gratification and unable to rationally think through the consequences of his actions – even if they might result in the inglorious deaths of those he claims to love. He thinks himself terribly hard done-by not to be allowed to marry Elizabeth (whom he barely knows but has fixated on, and continues to pester despite the fact that suspected infidelity would mean execution for her), with little sympathy for the fact that Elizabeth herself has put her own desires aside and nobly given herself as prisoner and sex-slave to an unpleasnt and elderly tyrant, to bring peace and save the lives of her compatriots. Marina Poplavskaya was an excellent Elizabeth, portraying through voice and acting a strong personality forcing itself into submission, but with outbreaks of fiery defiance (such as when confronted by the king for keeping Carlos’s bus pass in her jewellery box).
If Carlos’s love for Elizabeth is essentially superficial (however obsessive), how much deeper is Posa’s for Carlos; having been friends for many years, he knows him well, including all flaws and weaknesses, yet loves him anyway. An unflinchingly brave human rights activist and challenger of the oppressive regime, he also shows a tender side, begging Carlos to leave his father’s poisonous court and come away with him to Flanders, and murderous rage at Eboli’s threats to his friend. It is unfortunate for Flanders that the end result is their hero’s stupid, tragic execution. Simon Keenlyside’s Posa is truly a thing of beauty. He personified all the facets of the character with complete conviction (including, I am pleased to say, Posa’s love for Carlos, which in some hands can be unconvincing). I blubbed my way through his death scene – and love opera as I do, this is not something that I make a habit of.
Although Posa’s death is the most emotionally affecting scene of the opera, musically my favourite bit is Philip’s ‘Ella giammai m’amò’ monologue at the start of Act IV. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s rendition was magnificent (as, in fact, he was throughout the opera). Simply, a gorgeous dark bass voice coupled with mature and expert musicality. Robert Lloyd also produced a very fine sound in the small role of Carlos V ( in this production seemingly still alive and hiding out in the monastery, rather than a ghost rising from the underworld).
Philip’s late-night monologue, incidentally, got me thinking about the character with a little more understanding. Specifically, he mentions how he is unable to sleep, and probably won’t do so until he is in his grave. Being an insomniac myself, and currently rather sleep-deprived, I understand how it feels, night after night, to be dog-tired but with a brain that just won’t shut down properly, and how miserable one can get, alone in the early hours. It’s no stretch of the imagination to see that the prospect of the sleep of death can have a certain attraction. But what about the other psychological effects of sustained lack of sleep? Impairment of logical reasoning, resulting in poor decision making; inflexibility of thought, resulting in inability to change tactics or viewpoints; depression, leading to emotional numbness and wear and tear on marital and familial relationships… This could actually explain quite a lot about why he acts in the way he does.
The highly dramatic scene between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor is another highlight of Verdi’s score. Unfortunately the excellent Erik Halfvarson (from the last run of this production) was replaced this time by the seemingly ubiquitous John Tomlinson. Fortunately he managed to keep his woofing and bobbing to a minimum and invest the role of Santa Claus the Inquisitor with a modicum of gravitas. The other weak link in the cast, in my opinion, was Marianne Cornetti’s Eboli, decently portrayed as a petty, jealous bitch, but with some intonation issues, and a wide vibrato which did double-service as semiquavers in the Veil Song. However, these weak links were by no means annoying enough to disturb an overall triumph of a production.
Having checked the ROH website, it looks pretty much sold out. However, if you are at all wavering whether to see it or not, do try! I’m sure you won’t regret it.