I go to about half a dozen operas a year, mainly by 19th-century Italian and French composers, plus some Mozart, bits of Handel, Richard Strauss and Britten and, most recently, Wagner. Having seen my first Don Carlos — the memorable Luchino Visconti production — more than 50 years ago, I thought then that it had all one could wish for in an opera, and it remains my favourite. Hearing the live broadcast from New York of the Met’s Don Carlos in March, I was reminded once again of the treats in store as the Nicholas Hytner production (which had its first outing in 2008) returns to Covent Garden this month. The seven performances at the Royal Opera House begin this weekend.
Our eminent opera critic, Michael Tanner, will no doubt pen his usual perceptive review, perhaps finding fault with the structure of Verdi’s opera, or with aspects of the production. He may even — but surely not? — be less than enthusiastic about the tempi of the orchestra under the heroic Sir Antonio Pappano, or the singing of one of the major roles. But I shall just revel in the glorious music and the drama of the royal court in 16th-century Spain.
I recall a previous Spectator opera critic, Rodney Milnes, explaining that both Don Carlos and the Ring had similar themes — abuse of power, conflict and the power of love — but that Don Carlos had tunes. And what tunes! Visconti reinstated the Fontainebleau first act, which hitherto had often been omitted, with the eponymous hero’s lovely, and only, solo aria. It was in the next act, in the monastery at Yuste, where he and Rodrigo sing out for libertà for Flanders, that I had my introduction to Tito Gobbi. But I have a more vivid memory of his long duet with the great Boris Christoff (Philip II), ending with the king’s chilling warning to beware the Grand Inquisitor — ‘Ti guarda!’ — and Rodrigo on one knee before him. Before that, Carlos and Elizabeth have their painfully poignant duet, and Elizabeth bids an emotional farewell to her lady-in-waiting, summarily dismissed by the king.
According to some professional critics, the auto-da-fé scene is unsatisfactory and out of keeping with the rest of the opera. I disagree, praying in aid the composer’s biographer Francis Toye, who calls the scene ‘an undoubted masterpiece’, and Tony Hall, the recently departed chief executive of the Royal Opera House, who has described it as one of the most powerful in his operatic experience. Apart from the impressive, and from the monks chilling, choral passages, the scene has the crucial first confrontation between the king and Carlos, and that affecting plea from the Flemish deputies, which always stays with me long after the opera has finished.
From the beginning of Act IV (in the five-act version) the tunes just don’t stop. Philip’s magnificent soliloquy in his study is followed by the finest bass duet in opera (is there another?) between the king and the blind Grand Inquisitor, in which the Church asserts its ultimate authority over the state. A typically Verdian quartet then precedes that show-stopper of an aria from Princess Eboli, ‘O don fatale’. Not all mezzos have enough voice for this aria which, at its climax, needs to be belted out as Eboli, preparing to enter a convent, exclaims that she has one more day to save Carlos. ‘Un di mi resta...Lo salverò!’ I was thrilled to hear Grace Bumbry sing this in the 1960s, and when last week I listened to her once more on a YouTube recording, my spine was tingling again.
In the next scene, the two arias in Carlos’s prison sung by Rodrigo, before and after he is shot, are certainly tuneful, though unremarkable by comparison with what follows. I think Verdi leaves the best till last, with Elizabeth’s beautiful and heartbreaking aria, leading to her farewell duet with Carlos. This was sung most memorably for me by Karita Mattila and Roberto Alagna in the 1996 Luc Bondy production, conducted by Bernard Haitink.
This month we have Ferruccio Furlanetto, the finest Verdian bass singing today; Jonas Kaufmann, who received rave notices for his Parsifal in New York; and Anja Harteros, outstanding as Desdemona at Covent Garden last year. And if that’s not enough, she and Kaufmann are singing the same roles in Munich twice at the end of July, with René Pape as Philip and Zubin Mehta conducting. Although both performances are said to be sold out, there are two other Don Carlos options this year: Toulouse next month and La Scala in October. It’s all terribly tempting.