“What a day, what a day for an auto-da-fé” sings the chorus in Bernstein's Candide, “It's a lovely day for drinking and for watching people fry!” The Royal Opera Chorus even tweeted this lyric yesterday ahead of its participation in opera's other auto-da-fé, Verdi's Don Carlo. Yet this third revival of Nicholas Hytner's 2008 production was a flameless affair without a single barbecued heretic. Has Health and Safety finally caught up with the Spanish Inquisition?

The auto-da-fé scene © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
The auto-da-fé scene
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

This is one of a few tweaks to this scene, with the screen depicting Christ's face streaked with blood replaced by a dais for twin thrones, Jesus half-smilingly looking down on the royal couple. Excising the bonfire leaves the Act 3 finale underwhelming, particularly when the Voice of Heaven was so poorly miked. On the plus side, the Priest Inquisitor now mutely delivers his roll call rather than noisily inviting the heretics to repent, but the chorus still jeers and hisses loudly. Elsewhere, Hytner's production remains impressive, closely related to Schiller in feel, as one would expect from someone who directed the play on which Verdi's opera was based. Hytner takes the convoluted strands of political and personal relationships in 16th-century Spain and knots them superbly. Bob Crowley's imposing sets help create a claustrophobic court in which it's easy to imagine intimate conversations being overheard, although the cardboard cut-out trees and Lego-brick construction in the gardens of San Yuste are a little too stylized for some tastes. Mark Henderson's atmospheric lighting is especially strong in the monastery scenes, shafts of light piercing the cloisters like daggers.

Bryan Hymel (Don Carlo) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Bryan Hymel (Don Carlo)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

During rehearsals this revival suffered a couple of high profile withdrawals, so it's understandable that some of the performances didn't really gel on opening night, while others took their time to hit their stride. The one glorious exception was Bryan Hymel, making his role debut as the Infante Don Carlo. In terms of musical material, the title role is outgunned by all the other principals; after his brief aria “Io lo vidi”, Carlo exists mostly in duet – three big scenes with his intended-bride-turned-stepmother Elisabetta and the great friendship duet with Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. Yet Hymel outshone everyone, his bright tone ratcheted up to full throttle, the slight sob in the voice helping depict the character's neurotic instability. I'm less sure about the interpolated high note thrown in at the end of the friendship duet (following Franco Corelli's lead) but Hymel's performance was tremendously exciting.

Kristin Lewis (Elisabetta) and Bryan Hymel (Don Carlo) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Kristin Lewis (Elisabetta) and Bryan Hymel (Don Carlo)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Ildar Abdrazakov treads in great footsteps as Philip II. This was the first time this production hasn't featured Ferruccio Furlanetto and the Russian bass sounded pale by comparison. His Philip was soft-grained, featuring a beautifully sculpted, introverted “Ella giammai m'amò”. However, there's little disguising Abdrazakov's weakness at the lower end of his range. He is to my mind more bass-baritone than out and out bass. The plunge from high F to low F in the phrase “Dunque il trono piegar dovrà sempre all'altare!” that closes Philip's grim encounter with the Grand Inquisitor found the low F sung so softly that it was, to all intents and purposes, absent.

Ildar Abdrazakov (Philip) and Christoph Pohl (Posa) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Ildar Abdrazakov (Philip) and Christoph Pohl (Posa)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Kristin Lewis, making her Royal Opera debut as Elisabetta at relatively short notice to replace Krassimira Stoyanova, cut a girlish figure dashing through the snowy forests of Fontainebleu in Act 1. Her soprano was a little cloudy at first, consonants swallowed, and nervousness doubtless played a part in a couple of forgotten words and skipped cues. After a few cranky gear changes between registers, Lewis rose to the challenge of her demanding Act 5 aria “Tu che le vanità” well, with good pianissimo high notes and long phrases blossoming.

Christoph Pohl, stepping in at even shorter notice for Ludovic Tézier, made a fine impression as Posa, his noble baritone having just enough bite to wound Philip in their Act 2 confrontation. After a curiously low-key Veil Song, Ekaterina Semenchuk made her mark as Eboli, the jealous lady-in-waiting to the queen, her singing not always subtle but she delivered a stirring “O don fatale”. Sadly, Paata Burchuladze's bass has not worn well, his Grand Inquisitor wobbling all over the shop.

Paata Burchuladze (The Grand Inquisitor) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Paata Burchuladze (The Grand Inquisitor)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

For a performance which ended a good ten minutes ahead of the advertised timing, Bertrand de Billy's reading felt ponderous in places, the final Carlo—Elisabetta duet in danger of grinding to a complete halt. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played well though, the brass on its better behaviour, and the Chorus gave the auto-da-fé plenty of mob mentality. 

Hopefully individual performances will bed in during the run, but this was an evening where it wasn't just the heretics that failed to catch fire.