Verdi’s flawed, but towering, masterpiece Don Carlo was presented in HD Saturday December 11. There is no definitive version of the opera. Verdi authorized so many different variations on his original that it’s up to each company to choose how they’ll mount the work. Five acts, four acts, French, Italian, a ballet, no ballet, a very long list of cuts – picking the performing version is like going through a cafeteria line. The Met chose the five act version in Italian without a ballet which it announced as being the final revision made in 1886 by the composer.
Don Carlo is an Opera that gets better as it progresses. The first act in Fontainebleau which makes the plot a little easier to understand contains the work’s weakest music. I prefer the four act version which discards this act except for the tenor aria which Verdi moved to the second act (the first act of the four act version). The historical foundation for Schiller’s play on which the opera is based is pretty slender. Philip II was 32 years old when he married Elisabeth de Valois not the old geezer he is in both the play and opera. But it’s an opera so who cares about history. What matters is the drama and the music Verdi wrote for it.
Don Carlo in scope, scale, and complexity resembles Shakespeare’s King Lear. It’s not a starter opera. To fully appreciate the work it helps to have heard a lot of opera in general and a lot of Verdi operas in particular. It’s Verdi’s longest opera. It has to be long to cover the political, religious, and personal conflicts that set it apart from any other opera. It’s Verdi’s stunning ability to combine these disparate elements into a gripping whole that sets him at the summit of art. The demands it makes on any company that attempts it are formidable. There are six principal roles, a large chorus, and two scenes of size that test the staging to the limit.
The title role is the opera’s least rewarding. Don Carlo requires a spinto voice with great stamina. He’s in every scene in the opera except the best one – the one in the king’s apartment. He has to sing his only aria right after his first entrance. And the aria is the weakest in the opera and one of the weakest Verdi ever wrote for a tenor. Nevertheless almost all the great tenors with sufficient vocal heft, and many without the resources for it, have sung it; Björling, Tucker, Corelli, and Domingo have all impersonated Don Carlo at the Met. Roberto Alagna’s voice is a little light for the role and his high notes dry. He acted the role well, but his was not a performance worth a special trip to either the opera house or to the HD theater.
Marina Poplavskaya sang Elisabeth. She has a lovely lyric soprano voice that is also a little light for her role which calls for a spinto soprano. This is only the third role she has sung at the Met, the others are Natasha in Prokofiev’s War and Peace and Liu in Puccini’s Turandot. The other female protagonist was another Russian – Anna Smirnova. She didn’t do much with the Veil Song, but she did give a con belto rendition of ‘O don fatale’. She did not look like the sexiest babe in El Escorial.
Simon Keenlyside does not have a Verdi baritone voice; but he’s such an intelligent singer and actor that he fully realized the idealistic Rodrigo. Much of his appeal is visual. If you just listen on the radio or to a recording you will be less satisfied by his portrayal.
Sixty One year old Ferruccio Furlanetto gave us a King Philip who appeared even older. His voice is still in good shape. While his performance was very well received, I would have preferred a somewhat darker sound and a little bit more energy. But it was still a first rate job. ‘Ella giammai m’amò’ was touching and effectively started what is clearly one of opera’s greatest scenes – the scene in the king’s apartment. Eric Halfvarson was appropriately terrifying as the fanatical Grand Inquisitor – is there any other kind?
Edwardo Valdes was very impressive in the comprimario role of the Count of Lerma. Jennifer Check didn’t make much of the Celestial Voice. This was the role that first brought Lucine Amara to attention in 1950 and which started her career at the Met which spanned 41 years and 748 performances.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted with vigor. This was the second opera he has conducted at the Met. His Carmen last year was exciting as was this encounter with Verdi. The young Canadian maestro will doubtless deepen his understanding of Verdi as he progresses. His reading of the score has improved from the premiere of this production which was broadcast on the Sirius network. This was the 6th time he has conducted the opera in New York.
This production was cosponsored by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Norwegian National Opera. It was effectively directed by Nicholas Hytner who presented a fairly conventional staging. He would have been better advised to delete the priest who recites names and Latin verses during the auto-da-fé. The depiction of the heretics being burned at the stake was another idea that likely seemed better at the planning stage than it worked out in performance. Also unnecessary was the sword fight at the opera’s conclusion that leaves Carlo wounded in the arms of the mysterious friar ably sung by Alexei Tanovitsky. These interpolations added nothing to the opera.
The sets and costumes by Bob Crowley were also effective and conventional. They were appropriate to the period of the work which these days is in itself startling. The sets were mainly backdrops and lighting effects, but they worked. Every staging of Don Carlo is a major event as this work is so deep and demanding. Don Carlo is going to be broadcast again over the Met’s radio network next Saturday. I can’t remember the same opera being broadcast two weeks in a row. But next Saturday will give you the chance to hear the young Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee in the title role. He debuted at the Met in this role last month to great acclaim.
Finally, I still don’t know why Carlo calls Elisabeth “Isabella” in their second act duet.