Met’s “Don Carlo” Respects Its Source

November 24, 2010 | By George Loomis
NEW YORK -- The Metropolitan Opera has had good luck with its productions of Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” For more than half-a-century it managed quite handily with just two, both of which appeared with relative frequency and helped establish this long and daunting opera as one cherished by discerning members of the audience.

On Monday evening it introduced a new production by the distinguished British director Nicholas Hytner that takes a place of honor with its predecessors. A co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet, it won a warm welcome in London when it debuted in June 2008. Some may have faulted Hytner for not bringing a stronger interpretive point of view to his work, but this is a staging that respects the grandeur, depth and richness of an incomparable opera.

“Don Carlo” has many dimensions—a thwarted love relationship, familial discord, political friction within an empire, conflict between church and state—and here they unfold clearly and purposely. Many details linger in the memory, such as the way Elisabeth of Valois and Don Carlo (whom she expected to marry until political expediency dictated that she marry his father, King Philip II of Spain) stare at each other longingly as she is borne away at the end of the Fontainebleau Act. Carlo runs up to give her the miniature portrait of him she looked at rapturously just moments before. Its rose-colored case makes clear that it is this very portrait that Philip later finds with alarm among Elisabeth’s belongings.

Hytner (who, like the other members of the production team, here makes his Met debut) dispenses with the hokey ending in which Carlo is somehow spirited away by the ghost of the Emperor Charles V. Instead, Carlo is stabbed by one of the king’s men, thereby bringing the ending more closely in line with the opera’s Schiller source, in which we are left to assume that Philip will do the Grand Inquisitor’s bidding and have Carlo killed. Here he dies with his head cradled in Elisabeth’s lap, thereby recalling their duet in Act 2 when they found a moment to be alone together.

Before they became better known, we used to speak of Verdi’s “dark, middle-period” operas, of which “Don Carlo” is one. Dark is certainly the word for the fortress-like indoor scenes of Bob Crowley’s sets, which apparently take their cue from the Escorial, Philip’s residence near Madrid. During set changes (which, happily, are effectuated swiftly and efficiently) Carlo is often found at the front of the stage, separated from the others by a forbidding wall.

Crowley’s sets, while respecting the majesty of the opera, often have a welcome fanciful quality. Charles V’s elaborately carved tomb is especially striking, although the bright red wall in the Garden Scene of Act 2, which looks as if made from giant Lego pieces, may be too much. Crowley’s elaborate period costumes, too, add considerably to the sumptuous aura. Red and off-red colors often bring contrast to the dark or muted shades around them. When the Marquis of Posa suggests to Philip that the “peace” his reign has brought to Flanders is paid for in blood, the stage is bathed in red (lighting by Mark Henderson).

In London the production served as a vehicle for a comeback effort by tenor Rolando Villazón, which proved short lived. The Met is fortunate in its Don Carlo, Roberto Alagna, who sounded splendid on Monday and sang with wonderful diction, although he sometimes lagged behind the beat and at the end tired slightly. He was a spirited dramatic presence as well, even if he seemed to be playing Roberto Alagna as much as the troubled prince.

Otherwise, except for Princess Eboli, the cast is the same as Covent Garden’s. Marina Poplavskaya’s Elisabeth has improved significantly since her initial performances there. The voice may lack ideal Italianate resonance but offers moments of genuine beauty. She floated some lovely pianissimos in Act 5, both in her aria and her poignant farewell duet with Carlo. His singing, however, was temperamentally rather cool, which limited her communicative potential. She makes an amusing preliminary appearance as a hunter, which is observed by Carlo and thus supplies the prior glimpse of Elisabeth that he sings about in the aria “Io la vidi.”

Ferruccio Furlanetto’s outstanding Philip is familiar to Met audiences (the other principals appeared in their respective roles for the first time). He never for a moment played to the grandstand in his great aria “Ella giammai m’amò,” which he made very personal and introspective. Yet his sumptuous singing, facilitated by a seamless legato, ensured that there was nothing small-scaled about it.

Baritone Simon Keenlyside’s Posa was splendid and had just about everything going for it—gorgeous tone, musical style, ardor on behalf of both the Flemish cause and his friendship with Carlo. Eric Halfvarson’s compelling performance as the Grand Inquisitor made the character seem old but hardly feeble.

Anna Smirnova, in her Met debut, brought full-bodied tone and sturdy high notes to the rousing aria “O don fatale,” but her Eboli wasn’t really a success. Her tone quality proved thick, intonation was sometimes a problem and her cadenzas in the Veil Song were awkward. Another Russian debutant, Alexei Tanovitsky, a hearty bass from the Mariinsky Theater, fared much better as the Friar.

One of the evening’s best aspects was the conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. One well remembers the sweep that James Levine brought to the score, but Nézet-Séguin focuses on its orchestral beauty with little if any falloff in fervor. Textures are so arresting and the playing so refined that one was sometimes tempted to direct attention to the orchestra rather than the stage.

As with John Dexter’s 1979 production, the musical text follows the so-called Modena version of 1886 for which, with Verdi’s blessing, the four-act 1884 revised version for Milan was prefaced by Act 1 (the Fontainebleau Act) of the original 1867 five-act Paris version. This time, however, the Fontainebleau Act is performed in accordance with its familiar published form, whereas the 1979 production interpolated an atmospheric opening chorus for woodcutters that was cut before the Paris premiere.

The opera is performed in the standard Italian translation, not the French original. But it is silly to perform an opera in translation when the resulting language is not that of the audience. The rationale has always been that singers are used to it in Italian, but not in this case. Alagna had previously sung Don Carlo not in Italian but only in his native French, which is of course superb. Keenlyside displayed excellent French last year in Thomas’ “Hamlet,” and I would put money on it that his Posa would have sounded better in French. Poplavskaya could just as well have sung in French—there was nothing special about her Italian. And there was nothing special about Smirnova’s singing in general. Only Furlanetto can truly be said to have benefited from the Italian translation. In short, this looks like a missed opportunity to use the French text. Still, it’s a splendid show.



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