Whichever version of “Don Carlo” one stages — Verdi tinkered with it over 20 years in different languages and lengths — the work exemplifies the term “grand opera.” But any bombast that label suggests is expunged by Covent Garden’s assured new production. Even without its topnotch cast headed by returning superstar Rolando Villazon, the marriage of Nicholas Hytner’s staging and Antonio Pappano’s conducting would be both dramatically muscular and musically exhilarating.
Hiring Hytner was a smart move, not least because he began his career in opera houses. Better yet, he made theatrical waves two decades ago directing “Don Carlos,” Friedrich von Schiller’s thriller of church, state and family loyalty upon which the opera is based, with a young Michael Grandage in the title role. It’s thus unsurprising that this production scores unusually highly as drama.
Hytner employs the five-act Italian version of the opera here (performed with two intermissions). The action opens in the forest at Fontainebleu, realized by designer Bob Crowley as a vista of flat white trees with an icy pathway zigzagging upstage against a series of white perspective frames. Contrasted by Velasquez-like period costumes, this stylized naturalism is the production’s hallmark — a succession of stark, uncluttered visual statements against which the subtleties of power plays emerge ever more strongly.
Overeager singers often mistake emoting for acting, but Hytner encourages restraint. Thus emotional peaks arrive with, rather than anticipate, the musical climaxes.
The director’s command of stage space is central to his success here. In the scene before his murder, Posa (a superbly resolute Simon Keenlyside) and Don Carlo (Villazon) argue fiercely about political loyalty. Instead of bringing the men close together, Hytner keeps them apart — and the same applies in scenes between Don Carlo and Elizabeth (Marina Poplavskaya), the woman he loves but cannot have. This approach not only charges up the vast space between them, it also brings enormous impact to their moments of actual contact.
Crowd scenes are equally impressive. Hytner lifts the dramatic temperature simply through his handling of groups of people, working with movement director Scarlett Mackmin to sculpt the chorus into one dynamic unit. When they surge forward to threaten the heretics, the menace is palpable.
The fluidity of the staging contributes to the achievement here. Dramatically inert blackouts and scene changes are replaced by a grille-like black wall that’s flown in downstage, leaving Don Carlo literally and metaphorically cut off from the world.
His sense of imprisonment is amplified by Mark Henderson’s expressive lighting. King Philip’s study, bare but for two chairs and a table, echoes with loneliness thanks to pools of chilly light pouring in through multiple apertures in the side walls to emphasize the surrounding darkness. Elsewhere, Henderson uses super-saturated colors to underscore the emotional temperature.
Drama is harnessed to musicianship throughout. In the great duet “Dio che nell’alma infondere,” in which Don Carlo and Posa swear to fight for political freedom, Pappano manipulates tempi to underline moment-by-moment detail, encouraging his singers to generate evocative tenderness and rousing excitement. He’s also consistently alert to the varied orchestral textures, pushing the resplendent brass section but also highlighting the fateful clarinet theme or plangent solo cello line.
Returning to the stage after months of recovery from burnout, Villazon started out nervously on opening night, but the more he relaxed, the stronger he sounded. It wasn’t the cleanest of vocal performances, but the undiminished exuberance of his attack, the dramatic legibility of his voice and his stage dynamism more than override occasional cracks.
Making her role debut as Elizabeth, talented Royal Opera discovery Poplavskaya showed moments of strain, but her dark, hooded tone conveys real dramatic conviction. If her airy top notes lack power, the relatively young singer’s high pianissimo singing in her final duet with Don Carlo is controlled to ravishing effect.
The one weak link is a miscast Sonia Ganassi. Shifting from the brilliant fizz of Rossini heroines to the malevolent scheming of Verdi’s bad girl, Eboli, is a tough assignment, and the effort shows.
Although the opera is called “Don Carlo,” whenever Ferruccio Furlanetto is onstage, one believes it should have been titled “Philip II.” Furlanetto brings immense status to this stern ruler of previously unshakable conviction, suddenly plunged into moral conflict. His glowering, measured physicality provides a compelling contrast with so sonorous a sound.
The last production of Verdi’s Italian version was in the Royal Opera’s repertoire for more than 30 years. This one — already en route to the Met in New York and Oslo’s new opera house — deserves as long a shelf life.