Passionate love, war, religious fanatacism and family tragedy all appear in the more than thirty operas Verdi completed. But only in Don Carlo do they come together in the most brilliant and satisfying of his works. The 1886 version playing at Covent Garden lasts for four hours twenty minutes and every minute is essential. A packed house could hardly be restrained between scenes in their enthusiasm for a magnificent evening where orchestra, (conducted by Bertrand de Billy) story, singing and sets came together in what seemed an effortless production.

Of course it is anything but. This is a revival of Sir Nicholas Hytner's already lauded 2008 production and it is hard to see how it could be bettered. The opera opens with Elizabeth of Valois, played by the glorious Kristin Lewis, lost in the dark and winter-bare woods of Fontaineblue. The sets by Bob Crowley and lighting by Mark Henderson which do so much to deepen the effect of the tragedy already cast a spell. Elizabeth is saved by Don Carlos, son of the King of Spain, (sung persuasively by Bryan Hymel) to whom she is betrothed. Their immediate love seems a triumphant way to end the years of war between France and Spain.

But, on the contrary, it turn out to be the catalyst for tragedy. Phillip II, (sung by Ildar Abdrazakov) despotic ruler of Spain decides he wants Elizabeth for his own wife. It is the mark of Verdi's genius in picking up this story from Schiller's play and making it his own, that every character, (except the Grand Inquisitor - even a genius couldn't gloss over his sinister horror) is given music and arias to explain their action and touch the hearts of the audience.

Thus for me the most moving aria of the evening is sung by the sleepless Philip, alone in his study, mourning that Elizabeth, loves his son and not him. Even when he is forced to recognise her faithfullness his tragedy is no less.

The two other important roles, Carlos's friend, Rodriguo, Marquis of Posa, and the seductive Princess Eboli are excitingly sung by Christoph Pohl and Ekaterina Semenchuk. Eboli's affaire with the King, her love of Carlos and her betrayal of Elizabeth deepens the human drama. Rodriguo's task, on the other hand is to carry the political storyline which centres round the Flemish fight for independence from the Spanish yoke. It is to his credit that he carries off his loyalty to both king and king's son while also making believable his high ideals. Pohl's is another memorable performance.

Verdi does not pretend that Don Carlos adheres to a historical truth. (For example princess Eboli was married and had ten children.) He suggested his aim was more 'Shakespearian'. Accepting his point, perhaps I should have added history to my list of themes because the deus ex machina of the piece is Philip's dead father, Carlos V, whose monument in a shadowy church is visited by all the principal characters. Eventually, as the Inquisition moves in on Don Carlos, he concludes the drama by singing in a sonorous bass that suffering is a part of the world and will only cease in heaven.
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