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Roberto Alagna [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
03 Dec 2010

Don Carlo, Metropolitan Opera

It may be as well to put matters in context by saying that Don Carlo is a favorite opera of mine (and of all Verdi lovers), and that I found the Met’s new staging highly satisfactory, vocally very good if less than top flight, orchestrally thrilling—and that I hope to catch it again this season. (Interesting rumors have been heard about the alternate tenor.)

Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo

Elisabeth: Marina Poplavskaya; Eboli: Anna Smirnova; Carlo: Roberto Alagna; Posa: Simon Keenlyside; King Philip: Ferruccio Furlanetto; Grand Inquisitor: Eric Halfvarson; Friar: Alexei Tarnovitsky. Production by Nicholas Hytner. Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Performance of November 26.

Above: Roberto Alagna as Don Carlo

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera


The Met, perhaps because this Nicholas Hytner production has been borrowed from Covent Garden where it has been playing for two years, has for once not made the mistake of undercutting a grand opera (such as Boris Godunov) by staging it as if it were a chamber drama, or staging intimate dramas (like The Nose and From the House of the Dead) as if they were grand operas. The new Don Carlo lets Verdi’s grandest work be grand, complete with massed forces and shocking coups de théâtre.

DON_CARLO_Furlanetto_and_Po.gifFerruccio Furlanetto as King Philip and Marina Poplavskaya as Elisabeth

The problem Verdi set himself in Don Carlo, following Schiller’s 1787 verse drama, was to represent political conflict with individual characters without sacrificing their individuality. This difficulty lies in the way of stage directors as well: If the figures are too personal, the issues fade, become unreal; if the political factors take the foreground, the characters may forfeit our sympathy. Verdi’s individuals each go through a soul-struggle before our eyes and ears; their agony brings them tragic stature and makes the conflict rending society (then and now) between individual conscience and reasons of state more vivid to us. For both Schiller and Verdi, the drama is the protest of the individual against the crushing demands of the tyrannical state, and though the focus of their sympathies is never in doubt, they fully state the case for the latter to create a richer tragedy.

DON_CARLO_Smirnova_as_Eboli.gifAnna Smirnova as Eboli

It wasn’t an easy birth. Verdi ultimately created three performing versions of the score; a fourth, drawing on cuts made before the 1867 premiere, was devised for James Levine at the Met in 1979. The current Met version is Verdi’s number three: Five acts sung in Italian translation, no ballet (only done in Vienna nowadays), no war-weary introduction (resurrected from opening night discards for Levine). It is a measure of the composer’s genius that, faced with the conflicting demands of story, persona, history and politics, he produced a masterpiece that has become an audience favorite.

Hytner stages Don Carlo in the three favorite colors of Spain: crimson, gold and black. Anyone dressed otherwise (the French court in blue, the Flemish envoys in brown) is clearly an outsider, and the chorus costumes are repetitive, which makes the main characters stand out. The portrait Carlo gives Elisabetta when he first meets her at Fontainebleau is in a crimson locket, which stands out against his black costume and her white one. In Act IV, when the King finds the portrait, it is recognizably the same crimson locket. The set often features a stylized black wall of small, rat-hole windows, a fortress or a prison for Carlo, cutting him off from human contact—but it also becomes the spy-filled court for the King’s study. Elisabetta is first seen as rather a hoyden, in cheerful silver French court dress, romping through the woods and firing a musket at (let us assume) deer. The contrast of her uninhibited behavior and flowing golden tresses with the rigid figure she plays in black or red after her wedding makes the proper point.

DON_CARLO_Keenlyside_and_Al.gifRoberto Alagna as Don Carlo and Simon Keenlyside as Posa

On the not-so-excellent side, Hytner appears to miss the point of Eboli’s Veil. That lady enters with a flamboyant showpiece about a king who accidentally woos his own veiled wife; thus Verdi subtly lets us know she has secrets of her own—she is in love with Carlo, but is the king’s mistress. (In Schiller, she is also the Queen’s false friend; Verdi couldn’t work that in.) When next we meet her, in the garden scene, she is veiled and Carlo makes love to her by mistake. Then, when the Queen learns of her treachery, with unconscious irony she orders Eboli to choose “between exile and the Veil,” that is, a nunnery. Hytner misses this through-line, which is not important. What is important is that we understand how Eboli, in the garden scene, deduces that Carlo loves the Queen. In the omitted previous scene, Eboli and the Queen exchanged veils; some Ebolis take off the veil and notice it again when Carlo recoils from her avowals, realizing only then that he thought he was making love to some other lady. Hytner’s Eboli, in contrast, keeps the veil on her head and simply makes a guess out of thin air. This is not thoughtful theater.

Another character whose potential Hytner seemed to miss was the mysterious Friar, who turns out to be the King’s abdicated, possibly dead, father, Emperor Charles V. Alexei Tarnovitsky has a rumbly bass with no suggestion of supernatural conscience, but to have him simply stroll on to interrupt the family tragedy forfeits the awe Verdi and his librettists hoped to create. The musical excitement of the opera’s conclusion appears to have no connection at all to the movements on stage at this supreme moment.

DON_CARLO_Poplavskaya_and_A.gifMarina Poplavskaya as Elisabeth and Roberto Alagna as Don Carlo

The leading singers at the second performance of the season were all good, though only Ferruccio Furlanetto’s King Philip held his own with memories of the Golden Age—my own personal Golden Age in this opera. Furlanetto growled and barked at first, then, in his two great duets (Posa in Act II; Grand Inquisitor in Act IV) and the sad monologue in his study that is the heart of the opera, began to soar and resonate: deep sound, clear and musical, but pulsing with thought. His way of removing his hat to wipe or clutch his brow at climaxes in the action was of a piece with this: very personal if not quite kingly. His burly dignity matched the dignity of his singing. He, and the viewer, never forgot he was the figure of power, however shattered—and which king it was, too, for like the real Philip II, he is always fiddling with papers, carrying his work about with him everywhere.

Roberto Alagna sang Carlo brashly and often beautifully. His “Io la vidi” seemed now and then to be shorter or longer than the proper placement of words on notes, as if he unconsciously remembered singing it in his native French (to which language the music was, after all, composed)—it is a pity that the opera has never been heard at the Met in the original tongue when it has been so heard in Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, to say nothing of Paris and Vienna.

Marina Poplavskaya produces a Verdi-sized sound of great depth and luster; it’s been a long time since we had such an Elisabetta. That said, the role is long and can tax the hardiest; in both her arias, Poplavskaya ran short of breath before the end. Her first duet with Carlo was promising, but her cries for justice in the study scene not especially effective. Sometimes she sounds wonderful and sometimes she is inaudible just when one would like her voice to emerge from the pack. It is a puzzling, interesting voice.

DON_CARLO_Halfvarson_and_Fu.gifFerruccio Furlanetto as King Philip and Eric Halfvarson as Grand Inquisitor

Anna Smirnova has the plummy Russian mezzo deep tones that make one think of Borodina, but Borodina could handle the high notes as well, and Smirnova is hit or miss: I wouldn’t trust her with Dalila or Carmen. Her Song of the Veil drew proper attention to herself, but she lacked both sensuality and wrath in the garden scene. “O don fatale” was her best work of the night, as it should be, but there were phrases produced inexactly, that flew off into the wings.

Good Posas can be vocally imposing (Merrill, Milnes) or thoughtfully so (Hynninen, Hampson, Alan Titus). Simon Keenlyside is an interesting Posa, an effective actor—if anything perhaps too individual for the courtier-confidante he must seem to be—with an ingratiating sound that does not quite fill the Met. He has to act harder because his voice simply can’t match Furlanetto or Alagna for power. As with his Hamlet, I felt that performing a role in smaller houses does not serve him well here. He should come to the Met, if he comes, in something he has not sung elsewhere.

Eric Halfvarson impressed as the Grand Inquisitor, Jennifer Check made an unusually able Celestial Voice (was she mic’d?), Layla Claire a pleasant Tebaldo, and Alexei Tarnovitsky a not very awe-inspiring Friar/Charles V.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin has a genuine feel for dramatic propulsion and kept the enormous work in constant motion. He has a graceful touch with a score that can be ponderous; he makes the melodies sing. Scene followed scene followed scene, but there was no slackening of tension, no moment when we were not savoring Verdi’s “tinta,” the specific color he devised for each of his operas, and were not eager to hear more.

John Yohalem

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