There are two love stories in Don Carlo. The first is the thwarted passion between Don Carlo, Infante of Spain and his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Valois. The second – the intense, almost homoerotic devotion between Don Carlo and Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa – is the most moving depiction of male bonding in all opera. It’s the sparks flying between the men that are the more convincing tonight.

The pair’s great, rousing duet to liberty ‘Dio che nell’alma infondere’ at the end of Act II touchingly establishes the depth of their to-the-death friendship. Its refrain echoes through the score whenever their loyalty to one another is tested, returning poignantly in Posa’s prolonged death scene, so difficult to carry off, but here handled with great dignity by Simon Keenlyside.

Keenlyside, one of today’s greatest singing actors, turns in a deeply felt performance fully worthy of the character Don Carlo’s father, King Philip II, calls ‘the only true man in this swarm of humanity.’  His baritone is the perfect foil to Jonas Kaufman’s velvet tenor, and his physicality, as much as his passionate singing, touchingly communicates the tenderness between the two men.

Far less persuasive is the doomed love between the Infante and his reluctant Queen, who is forced into a politically expedient marriage to King Philip designed to bring peace between France and Spain.  Jonas Kaufman as Don Carlo has plenty of the requisite Italianate lyricism, but is a rather wan, tepid presence, lacking the gravitas for this Hamlet-like role.  His Elizabeth, Marina Poplaskaya, is also somewhat generic and colourless up until the last two acts, when she conjures up real passion and some fine singing.  It’s difficult to credit this dislocated relationship at the best of times, a dramatic weakness for which Verdi must take the blame, but with lovers like these, the task is made harder still.

Elsewhere too, the singing falls short of Verdi’s very considerable demands.  Marianne Cornetti as Princess Eboli, while steady, lacks the agility and subtlety for the role. She is leaden and approximate when handling the gorgeous filigree coloratura of the ‘Veil Song’ in Act II, and happier by far when bringing her heavy chest register to bear in a big-hitting aria like ‘O don fatale’.

It’s when exploring the political dimension of Verdi’s masterpiece that Nicolas Hyntner’s production really comes into its own.  Don Carlo is a study in the loneliness of corrupt power, a preoccupation Verdi first explored 20 years earlier with his dark, austere opera Simon Boccanegra.  Picking up the theme in Don Carlo, he realised one of his finest psychological creations in the miserable, despotic King Phillip, behind whom hulks the shadow of the blind Grand Inquisitor, the terrifying embodiment of the religious tyranny of 16th century Catholic Spain.

Ferruccio Furlanetto delivers a gripping portrayal of Philip, vacillating between regal monumentality and anguished self-recrimination.  His tortured soliloquy at the opening of Act IV, as he broods over his loveless marriage, is compellingly acted and sensitively sung in his rich, nuanced bass.

John Tomlinson as The Grand Inquisitor

John Tomlinson as The Grand Inquisitor

Even greater is the ensuing scene with the Grand Inquisitor, sung chillingly by the brilliant John Tomlinson, a snow-haired vision in theocratic red.  Philip asks him whether he will absolve his sin if he murders his own son. The Inquisitor replies that this is a sacrifice worth making for Spain, and compares it to the one God made on Calvary. Opera doesn’t get much better than this.

It was at this stage that the sounds coming from the pit finally began to do real justice to Verdi’s magnificent score. The early part of the opera, particularly Act II, boasts some of the most consistently inspired and beautiful music Verdi ever wrote.  But for much of the first three acts, conductor Semyon Bychkov presided over an oddly muted rendering,  missing some of the music’s dark  majesty and pungent rhythms.

But by Act IV Bychkov was in his element, showing real affinity for these Boris Godunov-like scenes.  Cast and orchestra alike had loosened up, and by the Act V finale the strings were richly textured, Poplaskaya began to show real class and Kaufman pumped out some glorious tone.

Bob Crowley’s production design is hit and miss. Effective use is made throughout of black prison walls pierced by intersecting shafts of light – reminiscent of a panopticon – that fit well with the claustrophobic, repressed society the opera describes.   But the auto da fe scene, in which Protestant heretics are led out to be burned at the stake, is kitschy and ill-conceived.  The stage was dominated by what looked like an enormous shower curtain, daubed with a crude and lurid picture of Christ’s face.

This was the first revival of a production led last year by Convent Garden’s music director Antonio Pappano, and at times it was tempting to wish him back at the helm.  But it seems likely that the slightly subdued performances were down to first night nerves.  There’s plenty to suggest that once it hits its stride, this production of one of the greatest of all operas could become something special.

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