Don Carlo

Royal Opera House, ROH
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Duty calls: Carlo gets the tap from Rodrigo Credit: Catherine Ashmore, ROH
The Flemish ambassadors received by Phillip and Elizabeth Credit: Catherine Ashmore, ROH
Rodrigo, Carlo, Elizabeth and the anguished Eboli Credit: Catherine Ashmore, ROH

The last time American tenor Bryan Hymel replaced the great Jonas Kaufmann at Covent Garden he was a stand-in. Not now.

With the possible exceptions of bull-fighting and dictatorship, there can be few occupations as demanding and brittle as opera that its practitioners so often rise on the mishaps of others. So it has proved for Mr Hymel.

It was in 2012 that he stepped in for the ill Kaufmann in Berlioz’s Les Troyens in what Hymel was to describe as his breakthrough role as Aeneas. Plaudits followed, and here he is again, this time taking over the title role in the third revival of Nicholas Hytner’s production of Verdi’s longest and most ambitious opera, four years after Kaufmann led its previous outing.

If that was Hymel’s reward, it’s ours too. Perhaps it was playing the trumpet in New Orleans as a boy that influenced that thrilling tone, precision, and clean articulation. Hymel has tremendous projection, vocally and dramatically, power that never sacrifices beauty and an emotional range to encompass this Hamlet of a hero.

The ovation that greeted his early aria Io le vidi could be assumed to reverberate in acclaim through the rest of the five acts.

Like Hymel five years ago, two other principals were replacing indisposed originals, Christoph Pohl as Rodrigo and Kristin Lewis as Elizabeth for Krassmira Stoyanova—who nevertheless is still scheduled to sing the same role in Vienna next month.

Pohl has a golden sound and expressive technique, alternating the subordinate accompaniment to Carlo in their famous duets with a commanding presence to direct his friend’s conduct. Lewis, after a hesitant start, (asking sopranos to skip is not generally to be encouraged), grew in confidence, her rich voice most effective in the soft, high notes that characterise Elizabeth’s suppressed emotions. Another substitute, Angela Simkin, made a promising last-minute debut as Tebaldo.

Russians Ekaterina Semenchuk and Ildar Abdrazakov were superb, she a sultry, passionate Eboli, confident over a wide range, and he a lyrical bass, the smoothest, most sympathetically drawn Phillip II I have heard. If anyone needs a Romantic bass lead, he’s your man.

Bertrand de Billy brought out both the delicacy and dark colouring in the orchestra, letting the brass rip just enough when necessary, and maintaining clarity in the most involved scenes of chorus and soloists.

Bob Crowley’s allusive set creates an appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere for the Spanish court, Carlo’s cell being hardly distinguishable from the King’s private study. The designs are often sketchy, ensuring focus falls onto the complexity of character. Only to convey the horror of auto-da-fe does Crowley rely on something more literal, setting the ceremony before a realistic façade of Villadolid cathedral.

The programme warned of flame effects at this point. No flames were evident. One should not complain about being denied the sight of roasting heretics, but while this at times disappointly static production failed to catch fire, there was always Hymel to set it alight.

The revival continues until 29 May, six days before the 150th anniversary of Verdi’s masterpiece opening at Covent Garden.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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