Kaufmann’s triumph and an unexpected debut

11 May

There was I counting my blessings.  I’d deliberately booked an early performance of Don Carlos simply because I couldn’t imagine missing Jonas Kaufmann singing the title role.  Then, when Anja Harteros announced that she wouldn’t be singing the final four performances, I felt distinctly smug – even more so after the reviews of her performance on the opening night. So when the email arrived on my blackberry at 12.16 on 8th May telling me that Harteros had cancelled that performance because of acute tonsilitis, I probably deserved it.  The Royal Opera House offered assurances that Liana Haroutounian, her replacement, was very exciting and I consoled myself that, with Kaufmann, Kwiecien, Furlanetto and Pappano still there, it wasn’t going to be a wasted evening.

Actually, it was far from that and Miss Haroutounian proved to be very exciting indeed.  More of her anon.  What I’d like to start with, however, is a paean to Jonas Kaufmann.  Carlos isn’t exactly a grateful role and, at this stage in his career, you could forgive Kaufmann if he decided that there are other roles that he’d rather do.  What we would have missed, had he done so, is as fine a portrayal of the role imaginable.  You can chart his portrayal through the three scenes with Elisabeth – the first puppy-ishly enthusiastic with real love that is dashed, the second where he is almost unhinged (he despairing entrance was just right) and the last one where, you feel, he achieves some stability.  Elsewhere he is ardent, alert and always aware of what is going on and his emotions.  And he sings it marvellously.  There were hundreds of phrases that I treasured because they felt so right.  His first aria was sung reflectively, introspectively that it felt sacreligious to applaud afterwards.  In his duet with Elisabeth, he sang the latter part with a wonderfully controlled pianissmo, emphasising the introspection and I was moved as I never have before by this scene – I don’t think I’ve such outstanding soft singing ever.  The man is a genius.  It’s great that he’s got more work planned with the House, but can he come and live here, please?

He was the peak of a hugely accomplished cast.  This is the third time round for Ferruccio Furlanetto and, I suppose, one day it might be interesting to hear another Philip – it’s jsut that, off hand, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather hear.  He’s able to produce an outstanding range of colours in the voice – lightening it for the more introspective, sympathetic parts, but darkening and managing a terrifying intensity for the anger and power.  He understands the role and the words, he listens to the other characters and presents all the complexities of the character.  He charts effortlessly the movement of the debates between himself and, first, Posa, next the Inquisitor.  There’s something shy about him = a difference between the man as King and the human being that he conveys perfectly.  Of the many treasurable moments, I’ll remember the start of the quartet in Act IV as Elisabeth collapses and he holds her up and he conveyed the sorrow and regret for what had happened.  He is a great singer.  I’m looking forward to his Fiesco – any chance of hearing him in other roles here?

He was matched in his scene by Eric Halfvarson’s marvellously powerful Grand Inquisitor – not someone you’d want to meet in a darkened cloister.  Familiar, but very, very welcome.

The rest were largely new.  Mariusz Kwiecien was Posa – a handsome, intelligent, assertive figure.  I wondered if he was in the best vocal health in the early part.  He sounded just a bit anonymous and he doesn’t convey the sheer intelligence and passion that Simon Keenlyside brought to the role.  By the fourth act, however, he was in outstanding form and gave a moving, gripping and really beautiful performance of his aria and death – which seemed the tragedy that it is.

I was less taken by Beatrice Uria-Monzon as Eboli.  She’s a tall, striking figure with a nice, slightly edgy mezzo.  I found her rather a cold, calculating figure, slightly anonymous.  I missed the range of dynamic and imagination that Sonia Ganassi brought to the role when this production was new – particularly in O don fatale.  She was a perfectly decent Eboli but not outstanding.  I wondered if she’d be more comfortable in the French version or whether I might no rather hear her as Charlotte or Dido.

So what of Miss Haroutounian?  I’m always cautious about unknown replacements saving the show – they have nothing to lose, the audience is willing them to be the next star and it’s all a slightly artificial experience.  You can’t necessarily predict a great future. However, simply on this performance, I thought that she is a much more than promising singer and was fully up to singing with colleagues at this level.  Her voice is warm, reminding me of Caballé, and her personality matches it.  She was taking care of the words, reacting and engaging with her colleagues – all the duets with Carlos came over really well and she caught the dignity of the woman as well.  She did both arias well but not outstandingly.  For me, the big test for an Elisabeth is how she manages the final Act aria.  It comes late in the show when the audience is tiring and it’s a very subtle, unshowy piece which is not easy to bring off.  Of the dozen Elisabeths that I’ve heard only Freni and Mattila have convinced me.  Haroutounian didn’t join their number but I felt that she would one day.  I also missed the arching phrasing that others have brought but this is to cavil at a performance that was at a very high level indeed.  I hope that she’ll be back.

Pappano was in the pit and secured the usual excellent playing from the orchestra and singing from the chorus.  As ever, what I admired most was the way he works with the singers and makes it possible for them to give of their best.

The Hytner production is now rehearsed by Paul Higgins.  I felt that it had lost some of the precision that it had had in its earlier performances and that it looked more operatic, the gestures slightly hammier, than before.  I was conscious of how difficult the second scene of Act III is to stage and felt that there were passages where there was just not enough going on and you were waiting for the next piece of action.  There were odd moments when I longed for a less traditional view. For most of it, however, I was gripped by the outstanding acting and singing of the cast and, really, I’m just being picky here.

This was a performance at the highest level and I had a sense of an audience gripped and engaging with one of the greatest and most interesting operas in the repertory.  There was, rightly, little applause during the opera.  At the end, far fewer people were rushing for the exits than usual: we stayed to applaud, forgetting my last train rule.


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