by Rachel Beaumont

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It's aliiiiive! Actually, maybe it isn't: Don Carlo at the ROH

Don Carlo
The Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
26 May 2017
Balcony Standing D32, £17
ROH page

Don Carlo is an electrifying opera but this performance didn't galvanize as it should have done, despite the presence of key components. Helpfully for the keeper of over-extended metaphors, the main problem that I could see was the conductor, Bertrand de Billy. The orchestra's performance was never bad but it was often lacklustre: measured when it should have been impatient, temperate when it should have been fervent, graceful when it should have been reckless. It seems a strange response to such music, but perhaps I've been spoiled by Pappano's anything-but-restrained account back in 2013.

The weeks before this revival were blighted by the announcement of two high-profile cast changes, the news of which disappointed me as much as it did everyone else. We should have had more faith: both Kristen Lewis and Christoph Pohl, stepping in at very late notice, are impressive singers, in many ways well-suited to this repertory – though with some reservations (this is a theme). Lewis has a classy spinto sound, but with a tendency to pull back from her top notes. Pohl's legato is out of this world and his tone is absolutely beautiful, but he's sometimes underpowered when the orchestra is at its loudest.

In the volume stakes neither Lewis nor Pohl stands much of a chance against the Bryan Hymel phenomenon. He's very excitingly loud and tenorial, as usual, but in a piece constructed of so many duets and ensembles surely someone should have asked him to take it down a notch from time to time. Of the other leads, Ildar Abdrazakov as Philip makes a fantastic sound, but is somehow lacking in gravitas (and age) to make the most of this morose king.

There are two exceptions to the 'but' model, one for good reasons and one for less good reasons. Paata Burchuladze sadly struggled as the Grand Inquisitor, such that I fear this role is no longer within his reach. Ekaterina Semenchuk, on the other hand, should be lauded without reservation. Her superb voice gives as much to enjoy here as in Il trovatore, and her Act IV scene is the highlight of the evening. The Veil Song is a close (and very different) second.

But these Semenchuk lightning flashes provide only fleeting illumination in a prevailingly damp evening. Is it De Billy? Is it the slightly revised production, with nary an incinerated heretic in sight? It's probably a combination of these and more. In the end I'm grateful that this wasn't my first exposure to the great Don Carlo.

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