I loved this Nicholas Hytner production of the 5 Act version of Don Carlo. I was going to say full version but that would have involved adding at least another hour to the opera's 3 ½ hour playing time so some form of performing compromise has to be reached.
This is an opera about the Spanish Infante, Carlo, who is betrothed to the French princess Elizabetta as part of a peace treaty between the two countries. The two meet and fall in love but their joy is brief as it is shortly announced that the peace negotiations have gone so well that Elizabetta is to marry, not Carlo, but his elderly father Philip II. So Carlo has to get used to calling his beloved, Mum.
Seeing the first act, set in the forest of Fontainebleau it is difficult to see how Verdi could countenance cutting it to make room for a ballet at the opera's Paris premiere. From the first duet between Rolando Villazón and Marina Poplavskaya we are aware that we are in for something special. Rolando Villazón has the voice and also the eye-rolling Rowan Atkinson look to play the slightly deranged Don. The exciting young Russian Soprano, Poplavskaya is a revelation as Elizabetta with a purity of tone and complete control throughout her vocal range.
Simon Keenlyside is an added bonus as the idealistic Marquis of Posa, Don Carlo's friend who persuades Carlo that his future is in Flanders, fighting for the cause of the oppressed Flanders people. There is a thrilling moment in Act II when they pledge eternal friendship. The theme from this aria recurs throughout the opera as a friendship leitmotif.
Act III has the spectacular Auto-da-fé with opponents of the Spanish Inquisition being burned at the stake. There is the suspicion here that the DVD director is protecting the viewers at home from what is seen by the audience at Covent Garden. The picture is deliberately framed so that the left-hand side of the stage is not visible. As the scene ends, the cameras draw back to show the charred bodies on the stake.
Act IV contains, arguably, the opera's best music. First there is King Philip's soliloquy sung by bass Ferrucio Furlanetto, then there is a wonderfully sinister performance from Eric Halferson as the 90 year-old, blind, trembling and utterly frightening Grand Inquisitor. The act ends with Princess Eboli, who has betrayed Elizabetta, cursing her own beauty. Sonia Ganassi, as Eboli, is possibly the weak link in this production. She has some spectacular music but is not quite up to the role in this exalted company.
In Act V, Elizabetta and Carlo are finally reconciled to being mother and son before, in Nicholas Hytner's version, soldiers of the Inquisition burst in and kill Carlo. This is a wonderful opera, one of Verdi's final three masterpieces. We have a cast of well rounded characters with no real villains except the Grand Inquisitor. Everyone is just doing their best to play the hand that fate has dealt them. The only slightly risible thing about the libretto is the way everyone is in anguish about the treatment of the Flemish. Not that I have anything against the Flemish, it's just that the political dimension of Schiller's play has probably been lost in its translation into an opera.