There are at least four versions of this late-Verdi opera in print, and any number of variations used in production. So it is important to state that this production used the five-act Italian version sanctioned for Modena in 1886, representing the composer’s last thoughts. The troubled textual history of this work reveals two important truths about its ambitions: the sheer difficulty of writing opera that seeks continuously to blend the political and personal, and the problems of combining the grandiose and artificial conventions of French Grand Opera with plausible study and development of character. Verdi never entirely reconciles these issues in the first and final acts, but against that has to be set the staggering quality of the central three acts, a sustained sweep of creativity that he rarely equals elsewhere. This may be a flawed, sprawling masterpiece, but it is still a masterpiece.
One of the most salient achievements here is the creation of five equally interesting and conflicted characters, and for any production to succeed you need each of the singers to be of outstanding individual quality and with the acting chops to develop the twisted network of relationships between them. It is the great virtue of this revival of Nicholas Hytner’s 2008 production that there is both blend and balance and star quality in the performers, and this despite two late changes to the cast. The same goes for the Royal Opera House orchestra under Bertrand de Billy, who are fully in the dark, brooding groove of Verdi’s increasingly complex, thick-textured orchestration, while offering some delightful solo and chamber-scale work too.
Leading this cast is American Brian Hymel, whose heroic tenor register is just right for a role that needs to contrast with the bass-heavy voices elsewhere in the cast. He is a more likeable and less manic Carlo than many performers of this role, and thus he engages our sympathies more, right from the start in the wintry Fontainebleau scene where we need to feel his innocent, idealistic attraction to Elizabeth, before politics switches things around and compels her to marry his father, King Philip.
Elizabeth is a tricky role to bring off, both vocally demanding and for much of the time dramatically passive. Yet Kristin Lewis grows in authority and passionate resignation as the evening progresses, with her scenes in Acts IV and V having particular power and plangency. She is well matched by mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk as Princess Eboli, who delivers a wonderfully committed performance of ‘O don fatale’, and manages the difficult transition from poisonous, jealous conspirator to remorseful victim.
However, in some ways the most absorbing scenes, and the ones that most engaged the composer, are those where politics and personal loyalties are brought into sharpest conflict. Here the duets are like duels, and the three performers who take on King Philip, Rodrigo, and the Grand Inquisitor each succeed in expressing their arguments and emotional torment with great persuasive power that hushed the audience in a way that is rare in scenes of such abstract intensity. What also comes across too is the searing disdain the composer felt for institutionalized religion, which crystallised around the extraordinary sequence of frenzied choruses that accompany the auto-da-fé, where heretics are humiliated and burned. Here Hytner’s experience in directing musicals was seen to good effect in adding plausible momentum and visceral power to a scene that can in other hands seem too static and protracted.
While off-stage effects were often too quiet and distant, the majority of the transitions and interventions in the production worked effortlessly and special tribute should go to Bob Crowley’s sets which combined gloomy and (literally) sepulchral interiors with spectacular colour for pageantry and outdoors.
All-in-all, this is a very fine revival and a must-see for all admirers of Verdi’s unique meditation on the conflicting demands of political realism and idealism: a work that is still far too rarely performed, and a deeply rewarding experience in these capable hands.