Sometimes we leave wondering why Verdi's opera was not titled PHILIPPE II, ROI D'ESPAGNE. On this occasion, however, we might feel it should have been called ELISABETH DE VALOIS, for the Queen is the most interesting and fully realized figure in stage director Nicholas Hytner's production (shared by the Met, Norwegian National Opera, and Royal Opera House Covent Garden; EMI's DVD is a composite of three summer 2008 ROH performances). Hytner and soprano Marina Poplavskaya have brought much care and imagination to the heroine's gradual progression from coltish, mischievous young girl to fatalistic, disillusioned monarch, and their work is persuasive. They make Elisabetta's every look, gesture, and attitude seem integral and supported by text and music, whether the choice is traditional or not (e.g. Elisabetta's helpless look back at Carlo as she is carried away in the celebratory procession at the close of Act I; the flash of anger aimed Filippo's way during the farewell to the banished Countess, a solo thankfully given its full two-verse due here; the sprinklings of pride and haughtiness amidst the protestations of innocence in Act IV Scene 1). Poplavskaya, as always, is a fascinating face to watch, and she looks show-stoppingly glamorous in a series of period gowns by Tony Award winner Bob Crowley. Even the changes in her coiffure from scene to scene tell us something of the character's inner life.
If the voice that comes out when this sensitive actress opens her mouth is not the sort we think of as that belonging to a "Verdi soprano" in the classic line, it is an interesting one in its own right, and it is the one belonging to the woman attempting the part. With adjustment for vocal category, the same could be said of other cast members. Both Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo) and Sonia Ganassi (Eboli) must work hard for the high notes to which their music frequently guides them; each sounds most comfortable in the midrange. Keenlyside's portrayal seems unfinished. It is difficult to know whether stray tics and mannerisms we see, little smirks and squints, a curious rigidity of posture at baseline, are the character's or his own. At the Met, with a different eponymous tenor (Roberto Alagna) opposite Keenlyside, Hytner seemed to me to have encouraged a subtext to the Carlo/Rodrigo relationship that probably had not occurred to Schiller, Verdi, or the librettists, but is increasingly fashionable in modern stagings. For example, Keenlyside obviously was playing barely concealed delight when Alagna's Carlo began to confide his "sinful love," and when the object of the sinful love was revealed to be Carlo's stepmother and not Rodrigo himself, the baritone played disappointment along with the usual shock and revulsion. This is less obvious on the ROH DVD. Ganassi is a considerable improvement over the unfocused, pitch-indeterminate Anna Smirnova, who replaced her for the 2010-11 Met performances, but Ganassi is another in a long line of mezzo-sopranos who lack the flexibility for the Veil Song. Her native credentials serve her well in terms of both style and delivery of text, but her deportment works against the concept of a glamorous seductress of the royal court; she is less than an ideal foil for Poplavskaya's elegant Queen.
Ferruccio Furlanetto has previously appeared on video as both the Grand Inquisitor (the 1983 Met/DG) and Filippo (the 1986 Karajan performance of the four-act abridgement, on Sony). Here, all that mars a powerful portrayal of the King is a tendency to depart from the sung line by shouting, modifying pitches, and cheating note values. I prefer to believe these are Furlanetto's crafty ways of working around narrowing resources, because if they are expressive choices, they stand out starkly against the greater portion of his contemplative work. Eric Halfvarson is also an old hand at the Grand Inquisitor (over a decade earlier, he appeared in the French-language Châtelet performance with the same conductor, also on DVD). At this point, so entrenched is the practice of casting basses who have the remnants of a voice as the Inquisitor, I no longer go in expecting to hear the musical line honestly, securely sung. This seems to have devolved into a character part, where stage presence, skill at declamation, and the ability to look and sound convincing as a 90-year-old relic are prized over absolute musical values. Within those strictures, Halfvarson does accomplished work. Robert Lloyd, having progressed in previous years through Filippo and the Inquisitor, completes his trifecta of this opera's bass roles by appearing as the Monk, and he is effective in the brief role.
The major liability, sadly, is Rolando Villazón as Don Carlo himself. This ROH run occurred between his first and second withdrawals from the stage, before his vocal cord surgery, but no knowledge at all of his medical biography is required to hear that he was in serious trouble and would have been wiser to cancel. When the music lies low and the specified dynamic is undemanding, there are reminders of the fine instrument with which he first appeared on the international circuit; but the voice is dry and lacking in polish, core, and stability, and the resulting performance consistently strained. With three dates from which to compile, the makers of the DVD have kept out major calamities, but the tenor constantly sounds on the verge of cracking, and any listener who knows where the music of this long and difficult part is leading, what hurdles lie ahead, is likely to be kept on the edge of his/her seat in the wrong way. It is unfortunate that Jonas Kaufmann's assumption of the role in the ROH's subsequent revival was not chosen for preservation instead. Villazón's fans are better off with the earlier DVD of Willy Decker's Amsterdam DON CARLO (four acts, on Opus Arte). Here, he hobbles through with a likable personality and not much more.
Antonio Pappano's conducting has matured since the previous Kultur DVD of an eccentric pick-a-mix edition (frequently misadvertised as "the original French DON CARLOS"). The ROH Orchestra plays very well for him, and they are well recorded -- the high-quality audio and video are major pluses. Hytner's physical production has been controversial for its hard-edged, none-too-lavish scenic design (e.g. the bright-red "Lego wall" before which Eboli entertains the ladies of the court) and for the addition of an actor delivering spoken dialogue as a fanatical priest in the auto-da-fé, covering Verdi's cornet solo (ceremonial music frequently cut altogether, it is worth noting). But the director is alert to character possibilities, most successfully in the handling of the Queen but also in the central confrontation between Rodrigo and Filippo, the motivations, conflicts, and agendas of which emerge with force and precision (Keenlyside and Furlanetto are at their best in that duet too, and everyone benefits from Pappano's clarification of the musical development). Hytner also attempts with some success to unify this sprawling work by isolating Carlo at scene endings, "orphaning" him on the stage by lowering a wall behind him that hides everything and everyone else from view.
My first choice DON CARLO/S DVD at the time of this writing (from a field encompassing both languages and several versions of the score) remains the first video of the opera released in any format, the Met 1983. This offers a generous performing edition (everything the ROH 2008 has, plus the rarely performed opening scene for Elisabetta and her war-deprived people), impressive orchestral playing under James Levine, John Dexter's evocative traditional production, and a cast including several great 20th-century singers in roles with which they were closely identified. Even if no one was having the best day of his or her life, they come out well ahead of most of the competition. The new ROH, more clearly a product of our present age in its state-of-the-art technical credits and its director's attention to matters of acting, is a respectable contender for the "place" position.