Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Don Carlo: Roberto Alagna
Elisabeth of Valois: Marin Poplavskaya
Philip II: Ferruccio Furlanetto
Rodriguo: Simon Keenlyside
The Princess of Eboli: Anna Smirnova
It is Thanksgiving’s extended weekend again and I always welcome having those four days off with the same high spirits. This year, however, is kind of special as I am still getting used to my brand new status of New Yorker (I've even passed the DMV! How more official can it get?) and am still endlessly delighting in the proximity of the Lincoln Center. So I quickly decided that I’d forgo the traditional turkey dinner and would instead concentrate on the dutifully productive (getting rid of the ugly eggshell walls of my apartment by painting them white) and the shamelessly hedonistic (Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Met yesterday and the NY Philharmonic and Leonidas Kavakos for the Tchaikovsky violin concerto at the Avery Fisher Hall today).
Therefore, it was with paint still stubbornly stuck under some of my finger nails that I walked down to the Met last night to be there at the unusual curtain time of 7:00 pm. But it was certainly a wise scheduling move for an opera that, in the original version we saw yesterday evening, albeit in Italian, can last up to five hours. A look at the cast, however, showed that the mammoth epic would be conducted by newly minted Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a young Canadian who is well-known for his boundless energy and unrelenting pace. If his exhilarating debut in Carmen last year was any indication, we were in good hands to get out of the opera house before midnight.
Don Carlo, originally written for the French public as Don Carlos, remains Verdi’s longest and most ambitious opera, a sprawling saga taking place in Spain during the Inquisition, in which the unhappy characters keep on fighting the unsavory fate in store for them. Politics, religion and, of course, human passions all collide in a story line vaguely inspired by the real Spanish royal family of that time, and there is literally never a dull moment. Based on a dramatic play by Friedrich Schiller, it is no doubt a considerable, at times probably overwhelming, endeavor to undertake, even after the unavoidable issue of finding the right singers has been resolved (Nobody has ever said that tackling Verdi was easy).
In that respect, the cast at hand last night was probably as strong as it could get. In the title role, Roberto Alagna’s noble handsomeness and natural charisma were as efficient as usual, but it is his singing that eventually made us all deeply care for the over-sensitive prince. Although his first and only aria was frustratingly punctuated by a mini-concert of coughs around me (Hey, you, the sick people, why don’t you get a grip on your self-centeredness and STAY HOME so that the rest of us can enjoy a noise- and germ-free performance?!), there was still plenty of other times where we could relish his genuinely supple and ardent singing. As his oppressive father, King Philip II, Ferruccio Furlanetto demonstrated stunning versatility, ruthless tyrant here, broken-down man there. His famous nine-minute aria at the beginning of Act IV, probably the best aria for bass ever written, when he lets down his guards and opens up about his inner torments, was such a heart-breaking eye-opener that it almost made us root for the guy. Simon Keenlyside may not have quite the same vocal power as those two, but he was a fierce Rodrigo, as committed to his best friend, Don Carlo, as to the people of Flanders, whose fate he’s so desperately trying to improve.
On the ladies’ side, there was much to praise as well, starting with Marina Poplavskaya, who was a wonderful Elisabeth of Valois. She may not have all the fire-in-the-belly necessary for a Verdi heroine, but her luminous, assured singing more than compensated for that. Her transformation from care-free, impetuous princess to duty-bound, lovelorn queen was truly painful to watch. As the Princess of Eboli, Elisabeth’s ultimate frenemy, Anna Smirnova produced some no-hold-barred singing, occasionally lacking in subtlety if not in intensity. Other smaller parts fit in well into the generally homogeneous production, and the Met’s fabulous chorus did live up to its sterling reputation again, especially in the grand, monumental scene of the auto-da-fé.
Speaking of grand scenes, Don Carlo is for the most part a constant succession of fateful, dramatic encounters, except for the first meeting of Don Carlo and Elisabeth in Fontainebleau, where all is joy and optimism, the one blissful moment of the whole opera. And, man, does it go down quickly from there! After the announcement that Elisabeth has suddenly become betrothed to Don Carlos’ father, King Philip II, you immediately know that there is no happy ending in sight. The fast and easy chemistry among the singers was a tremendous plus for the emotionally charged confrontations, whether it was the brotherly bond between Don Carlo and Rodrigo or the tearful confession of a sincerely repentant Princess of Eboli to her hopelessly drained-out queen.
Grand scenes do not take place in a vacuum, and the creative team behind the costumes and sets certainly contributed in turning this production into such an all-around success. While the outfits were decidedly traditional, the décors were stark and minimalist with changing lighting to help create the moods, sometimes to dazzling effect, like in the eerily beautiful forest of Act I, sometimes less so, do we really need the stage aglow in bright red every time the tension goes up a notch? The overall visual sternness, however, was perfectly in line with the unfolding plot and discreetly let the audience focus on the characters. This is the first Met production of Nicholas Hytner, who is also the current director of London’s National Theater in addition to many other prestigious assignments. Let’s hope it won’t be his last.
Verdi’s opera may have been a work in progress for twenty years, but he never lost his touch for dramatically powerful music. Here, the Italian master came up with a sprawling, multi-layered composition, which magnificently brings to life intimate encounters and huge crowd scenes, the personal turmoil of the characters and the big conflicts of their time: father versus son, independence versus duty, church versus state. Carefully detailed and immensely complex, each singing part benefits from Verdi’s blazingly colorful score and fits in seamlessly in this remarkably cohesive large-scale work.
Keeping a few hours of Verdi under control can sound like a daunting task, but luckily Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the name that naturally pops to mind when a conductor with unswerving stamina is wanted, was on the podium. Not only did he draw an all-out passionate and often nuanced performance from the orchestra and the singers, but he also had us all out of the door by 11:30 pm! I think this is my first Met performance ever where I leave before the estimated ending time, and it was much appreciated on a cold, cold late November night.