No Verdi opera has as many versions as Don Carlos. There are at least eight. Alas, the composer never designated any of them as definitive. The Met has done both four and five act Italian versions, but never until this season the five act French original. Well, not really the original. The Met’s current go at Verdi’s masterpiece excludes some material from the the first staging in Paris; the current Met production omits the chorus parts in the first act. Also, as the opera had to end before midnight to allow the Paris audience who who lived in the suburbs to catch the last train home; some music Verdi wanted was removed from the very start. Verdi made both four and five act versions to Italian words. It’s in these forms that the opera has made its way throughout the world’s opera houses – at least those outside of France.
This staging would have been much better if the first act had been left behind. It’s much weaker than the rest of the opera. The tenor’s romanza could have been moved to the second act as is done in the four act Italian version. While Verdi wrote the score to French words, he thought in Italian and in my view Don Carlos sounds better when done in that language. Nevertheless, the opera as performed this season has some advantages. It explains some of the action that in earlier stagings seemed mysterious.
In the prison scene Rodrigue’s murder by a henchman of the King is now understandable. The incriminating papers Carlos gave to him earlier were found by the King’s agents and thought to be Rodrigue’s. The rebellion was instigated by Eboli as an attempt to free Carlos. The additional music is quite good and restoring it is a decided plus. There’s also more music in the final duet between Élisabeth and Carlos. And, in the Act 2 duet between the same two, Carlos calls the Queen ‘Élisabeth’ rather than the mysterious Isabella in the Italian libretto.
The new production’s director, David McVicar said during an intermission interview that Don Carlos was the most interesting character in the opera and likened him to Hamlet. I’ve always thought him the least interesting of the six principals. Simply put, he’s weak and crazy. He’s the heir to a great empire and has no sense of duty or responsibility. He, along with Ernani, is the least interesting of Verdi’s major tenors. I don’t think it accidental that he’s the only principal who doesn’t appear in the Closet Scene – arguably the greatest in all opera.
Veteran Matthew Polenzani sang the title role with a bright and secure voice that has increased in size over the years. He started with comprimario roles at the Met and then moved to Mozart and Rossini. He gradually increased the scope of his roles, but remained a lyric tenor. Don Carlos is the first spinto role he has sung at the Met. He met the demands of his long part with a first rate performance of a role that doesn’t have a really showy number aside from the friendship duet with Rodrigue in Act 2. He never showed signs of fatigue or difficulty throughout the long afternoon. In fact, he seemed strongest at the opera’s conclusion.
French-Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis has only sung Marcello in Bohemè and the Count in The Marriage of Figaro at the Met prior to this outing. Rodrigue is fine role, but it’s not as demanding those in Ernani, Trovatore, Vespri, Ballo, Forza, or the Everest of Rigoletto. Depuis sang with art and style. His lyric baritone is smooth and he can shape a lovely line. His acting was convincing. He has a winning stage presence. Dupuis has the Count in Trovatore on his ticket. His arc as a Verdi baritone will be interesting to follow.
Eric Owens was not in good voice He moved slowly and seemed uninvolved in the story. He missed the previous performance of the opera on March 22 . Matthew Rose took his place. Rose was the Monk in today’s show. Perhaps Owens is still indisposed. His lack of dramatic thrust was in sharp contrast to John Relyea’s portrayal of opera’s most terrifying creature – the 90 year old blind Grand Inquisitor who can bend the most powerful monarch in the world to his will. Relyea was fanaticism incarnate. The great confrontation between the throne and the altar did not come off as it should because of Owen’s subpar performance.
Sonya Yoncheva sang well but also did not seem at ease in her part. She could not be faulted of anything specific, just a lack of excitement.
The same could not be said of Jamie Barton’s impersonation of Princess Eboli. I could have done without the eyepatch and the disfigured eye beneath it. She pulls the patch off during ‘O don fatale’ – I can’t get used to the French even if it’s almost the same. She has a great voice and she sings with passion. An artist at or soon to be at the top. Her only problem is the massive amount of weight she’s carrying. The poundage can have a major effect on her health. She’s only 40 years old and should have the best part of her career in front of her. I hope she finds a solution to this issue.
Met’s Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin was supposed to conduct, but was ill. The young Swiss maestro Patrick Furrer did a good job. He had previously conducted two performance of this production at the Met.
This was David McVicar’s 11th show at the Met. It was a dark and somber affair rather unimaginatively staged. The Auto-Da-Fe scene was particularly lacking. It looked like it belonged on a much smaller stage. Then there was the character made up by McVicar. A dancer with facial makeup that looked to Heath Ledger’s Joker for inspiration. He gyrated manically across the stage and generally ruined the great scene. Another example of directorial misconduct. He should be banished to the same convent as Eboli
The sets were mostly dark walls and windows. They didn’t get in the way, but added little save more somberness to a very somber tale. The costumes were period appropriate; these days that’s innovative in itself. Carlos and Rodrigue wore pantaloons that made their butts the size of a departing Mack trucks. The last thing an opera singer needs is a costume that makes him look heavier.
Back to the language. This opera just doesn’t sound right in French. ‘Ah! la pietà d’adultera consorte!’ hurled at Elisabeth by Philip in the scene in the King’s apartment hit’s like a runaway freight train. ‘Ah, c’est la pitié des épouses adultères!; slides by without impact. The Met should go back to the Italian version.
In summary, 4.5 fine performances out of the required 6 make the Met’s current iteration of one of opera’s greatest masterpieces worth a trip to the replay coming up in a few days. Don’t drink any fluids for 24 hours before the show if you want to get through each portion without a trip to the lavatory.
Metropolitan Opera House
March 26, 2022
Don Carlos…………..Matthew Polenzani
Élisabeth de Valois…..Sonya Yoncheva
Princess Eboli……….Jamie Barton
Philip II……………Eric Owens
Grand Inquisitor……..John Relyea
Celestial Voice………Amanda Woodbury
Count of Lerme……….Joo Won Kang
Countess of Aremberg….Anne Dyas
Royal Herald…………Eric Ferring
Flemish Deputy……….Vladyslav Buialskyi
Flemish Deputy……….Samson Setu
Flemish Deputy……….Msimelelo Mbali
Flemish Deputy……….Christopher Job
Flemish Deputy……….Jeongcheol Cha
Flemish Deputy……….Paul Corona
Set Designer…………Charles Edwards
Costume Designer……..Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer…….Adam Silverman
Movement Director…….Leah Hausman
Video Director……….Gary Halvorson