Cynics had a field day when the Royal Opera announced Anja Harteros for the role of Elisabeth in Don Carlo, and the no-show diva with a second-to-none cancellation record (or a next-to-none attendance record) hasn't disappointed them. Even though she did manage the opening performance before pulling out with acute tonsillitis – and, at the time of writing, has not yet cancelled her second and final one next Saturday – the company will have anticipated more than the odd guest appearance when they signed the German soprano. After one too many let-downs it'll be a miracle if they invite her back.
Into the breach on the second night stepped Lianna Haroutounian, and what a 42nd Street sensation she was. It was the stuff of fairy tales. Simultaneously making role and house débuts a week ahead of her scheduled take-over, the young Armenian turned in a finished performance of extraordinary accomplishment. Her voice has power and expressive bloom yet she is not afraid to shed the beauty when the drama demands it, and her chemistry with opera superstar Jonas Kaufmann (supreme in the title role, his voice impassioned and hair-raising above the stave) brimmed with urgency.
For two people cruelly separated by fate, Elisabeth and Carlo do seem to spend a lot of time in each other's company; but that's how things work in opera. Schiller's source material is an elaborate head-and-heart political intrigue – imagine the saga of Princess Margaret and Group Captain Townsend relocated to Inquisition Spain – and the work's length (even this, the shortest performing version, runs for 265 minutes) would be a headache were it not so economically written. Verdi dispatches the early exposition in double-quick time before settling in to one of his richest, most sweeping scores and creating half a dozen unforgettable characters.
Two bass greats held the stage with gravitas to spare. As King Philip, that master of vocal inflection Ferruccio Furnaletto sparred uneasily with Eric Halfvarson's gnarled Grand Inquisitor, a near-gargoyle with a soul as deformed as his body. Polish baritone Marius Kwiecieñ was a classy foil to Kaufmann as Posa, and while the French mezzo Béatrice Uria-Monzon sounded squally at times her fervent Princess Eboli also made a strong impression.
Nicholas Hytner's 2008 production, sensitively revived by Paul Higgins, places an emphasis on uncluttered storytelling, as do Bob Crowley's no-nonsense period settings (although heaven knows why he built his monastery out of red Lego blocks). Together the creative team's straightforward approach allowed some expertly-managed crowd scenes to make their mark while the protagonists' turbulent lives unfolded in forensic detail.
Music Director Sir Antonio Pappano, back after an enforced lay-off through injury, has hardly picked a soft option with which to ease himself in; but such were his energy and authority he might never been away. The strings were clean and alert, the brass eloquent and colourful and the solo cello at the start of Act Four simply ravishing. Pappano's marshalling of the complex orchestral, choral and individual strands in the Auto-da-Fé was a wonder. Indeed, the entire evening was a feast of marvellous music supremely performed – and best of all, on a night when all seemed well with the Royal Opera's world, Lianna Haroutounian became a star.