En passant: ROH Don Carlo…Two Glyndebourne hits…

Don Carlo, Covent Garden, 12.5.17

With its God-given melodies, ravishing orchestration, and intricate but whizzing plot, Verdi’s Don Carlo ticks all the boxes, including that of topicality 150 years after its Paris premiere. Based on a play by Schiller but grounded in the history of the Spanish Inquisition, it’s a rumination on libertarianism versus a punitive form of theocracy with which we are now all too familiar. Its eponymous hero, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his blood-brother Rodrigo, takes up his sword against his father King Philip on behalf of their downtrodden subjects in the Netherlands.

But the mainspring of the plot recalls Hamlet, as Elisabetta, the woman Don Carlo loves, is forced to marry his father. There is also a conflict on another level, between the King and his Grand Inquisitor over the respective powers of church and state: can Philip be forced to murder his own son? The chilling reply is that a rule which held good for Calvary should also apply here. Only Verdi could have woven these elements into such a seamless and gripping whole.

The opening scene between the young lovers plunges us straight into Carlo’s dilemma, moving from his ecstatic joy on meeting his betrothed to shocked despair at the news of her forced marriage, but in this revival of Nicholas Hytner’s staging the scene misfires. Bryan Hymel’s Carlo lacks the subtly-inflected vocal responsiveness which Jonas Kaufmann brought to this scene in the previous revival, while Kristin Lewis’s Elisabetta has been induced, presumably by an unnamed revival director, to pout and flounce like a spoilt child. Another disappointment is Ildar Abdrazakov’s King Philip, with neither the deep vocal heft nor the physical presence needed to create the dark authority of that role. Meanwhile the auto da fe has been tamed, and the ending robbed of its mystery.

However, Hymel and Lewis become progressively more convincing, and there is much else to enjoy here, notably Christoph Pohl’s nobly-sung Rodrigo, Andrea Mastroni’s sonorous Carlos V, Angela Simkin’s bright-toned Page, and Paata Burchuladze’s Grand Inquisitor, a scarlet-robed puppet laying down the law with iron inflexibility. And I’ve never heard the orchestra play with more refinement than they do here under Bertrand de Billy.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Princess Eboli ©ROH photo by Catherine Ashmore

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Princess Eboli ©ROH – credit Catherine Ashmore

   But the evening’s tours de force come from Ekaterina Semenchuk. Whether in her flamenco-tinged veil song, her shocked discovery that her love for Carlos has been spurned, or her agonised confession of guilt over her betrayal of Elisabetta, this great Russian mezzo’s beauty of tone, restrained power, and brilliant characterisation effortlessly command the stage.


Hipermestra/La traviata, Glyndebourne Festival Opera 20/21.5.17

The surtitle box says ‘mobiles off’ in Arabic, the proscenium is fringed with Islamic designs, and the orchestra are veiled and capped like players in the Middle East: every effort is made to give us a sense of place. The plot of Cavalli’s Hipermestra derives from antiquity, and this is its first production since its premiere in Florence in 1658: director Graham Vick and conductor William Christie have chosen it in the belief that the passion, heroism, and intrigue of its plot, and the beauty of its score, will appeal irresistibly to lovers of Baroque opera today.


Emőke Baráth as Hipermestra – credit Tristram Kenton

One big production error may qualify that ‘irresistibly’. Cavalli’s style is wall-to-wall solo recitatives unleavened by choruses, and the first two acts run unbroken: the effort of concentration on a labyrinthine libretto for two solid hours makes one long for a brief respite. But this music, which inhabits the same sound-world as that of Cavalli’s mentor Monteverdi (if not on the same exalted plane), weaves a compelling sonic tapestry, particularly with a brilliant ensemble as here – ten singers and eight period instrumentalists with not a single weak link.

The fifty daughters of King Danao are engaged to the fifty sons of his brother Egitto. Terrified of an oracular prediction that one of those fiancés will murder him, he orders them all to be married then killed by their wives; Hipermestra, who loves her husband, refuses – thus is her seeming tragedy set in train. Stuart Nunn’s staging opens with a bling-filled mass marriage in what looks like a Gulf-state hotel, and the action – low comedy alternating with high drama – bowls agreeably along.

But the atmosphere darkens as it becomes clear that Vick wants us to think Syria. This is initially done crudely, as the stage is crammed to bursting with a real-life Merc, military truck, and petrol station. Then come touches of implied horror including a mock beheading, a hinted-at gang rape, and a pile of pebbles for a stoning; there is a strong feminist thread.

But the final act has transcendent authority. It begins with a solo violinist (the redoubtable Kati Debretzeni) playing a lovely solo amid the all-too-convincing ruins of a destroyed city, and it continues with a sequence of dramatic cameos in which singers and players combine and re-combine to resolve the story’s conflicts. One is left with some glorious memories, notably Raffaelle Pe’s haut-contre purity, Benjamin Hullett’s vibrant tenor, Renato Dolcini’s baritonal warmth, Ermoke Barath’s soprano steel, Ana Quintans’s soprano sweetness, and the hilarious lord-of-misrule antics of Mark Wilde’s Berenice, here a dead ringer for Baba the Turk.


Kristina Mkhitaryan and Zach Borichevsky in La traviata – credit Robbie Jack

The revival of Tom Cairns’s production of La traviata with Kristina Mkhitaryan as Violetta is outstanding. The restrained naturalism of Cairns’s direction allows this Russian soprano’s performance to play off those of Zach Borichevksy’s boyish Alfredo and Igor Golovatenko’s graceful Germont père to profoundly moving effect. This Violetta has an ordinariness which melts the heart, and her delicately-inflected singing, abetted by Richard Farnes’s sensitive direction in the pit, is a delight.


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