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Posted at 2:10 PM ET, 11/23/2010

The Met's new Don Carlo

By Anne Midgette

Edited to add: A version of this review appears in Wednesday's Washington Post.

The Met finally got one right. And it was a tough one. It takes a bunch of really good singers to bring off Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” with voices loud enough to drown out the drone of us opera-lovers mourning the decline of Verdi singing in the modern age. Admittedly, not all of the singers at the “Don Carlo” prima on Monday night were actually able to change our minds. But there was enough solid singing, and Nicholas Hytner’s production -- his first at the Met -- was good enough, to make a satisfying evening at the opera. Or maybe I just love “Don Carlo” so much that I’m willing to be optimistic about the proverbial half-full glass.

Hytner adopted what I suspect is becoming a formula for European directors approaching the Metropolitan Opera: the “put them in traditional costumes and create slightly stylized sets” plan of attack. (Luc Bondy is still fine-tuning that one.) The sets, by Bob Crowley (also in a Met debut), ranged from servicable to evocative, starting with stylized white trees in the snowscape of Fontainebleau (where the opera’s five-act version opens) and extending to a dark space shot through with shafts of smoky light, the vault of the monastery of St. Just, dramatically awe-full. A forbidding wall pierced with small square windows descended between scenes, repeatedly shutting Carlo out of the spaces where the action played. Some of the stylization was a little trite (the female chorus sported big fur cuffs in the Fontainebleau scene, bright red fans in the red-and-black garden scene), and King Philip’s cavernous study seemed like a half-finished idea, but the general idiom of big dark spaces, large columns, military severity was effective.

The real reason it worked, though, was Hytner’s attention to the characters. It’s always hard to know how much inspiration comes from a director and how much from the singer: Ferruccio Furlanetto, who has become one of the great portrayers of King Philip and whose “Ella giammai m’amo” monologue at the opening of Act IV was stunning, had some of the same tender, telling touches on Monday that he showed in live broadcast of La Scala’s opening night in 2008. After accusing his wife, Elisabetta, of adultery, he grabs her fainted body and cradles her head, pouring out all the affection he can’t figure out how to give her when she’s conscious.

But Hytner certainly had a hand in it. And his conception of Elisabetta was one of the best things in the opera. The future Queen burst onto the scene at the very start of the opera, a strong-willed, loose-haired tomboy princess with a hunting rifle, beautiful and proud and free. She met Carlo, fell wildly in love, and then learned she had been betrothed to his father; you could see the walls of duty closing in around her as for the first time in her life she couldn’t do exactly what she wanted. Marina Poplavskaya embodied this free spirit, and her subsequent proud sad life at the Spanish court, so convincingly, and sang with such a lovely tone -- round and supple and warm -- that you could sometimes overlook the fact that the part was clearly two sizes too big for her. She couldn’t fake this in the big passages, though she tried to temper her delivery of the big final aria, “Tu che le vanita,” with artistry and sophisticated pianos. I hate to keep harping on a theme in my writing about the Met, but the company here yet again has chosen a voice that’s too small for the role, but that I predict will sound great in the HD broadcast (scheduled for December 11).

Vocally, the evening was sustained by Furlanetto and Roberto Alagna, who as Don Carlo sounded ragged in his opening aria but quickly sang his way into a firmer, ringing delivery -- a little tinny at times, and a little rough at others, but overall thoroughly respectable. Simon Keenlyside’s Posa was more a work in progress. Here’s another singer who doesn’t quite have the vocal heft for the role, though he came to it with both beauty and artistry. (Posa’s love for Carlo in this production extended beyond mere battlefield camaraderie.) Keenlyside overcompensated for vocal lightness with a kind of physical restlessness that’s become widespread among many of the Met’s so-called “singing actors.” There’s been a lot of criticism of the old-school approach of “park and bark” around the Met in the last few years, but the ability to keep still on stage conveys a kind of authority and strength that lots of gestures seldom achieve -- as Furlanetto’s King Philip abundantly demonstrated in his magisterial Act II duet with Keenlyside’s shifting Posa.

Making her Met debut as Eboli, Anna Smirnova showed a hefty, penetrating voice without a lot of elegance, and with some intonation issues. A happier debut was the sunny Tebaldo of Layla Claire, a current Met young artist. Also successful was Alexei Tanovitsky, debuting as the mysterious Monk, who in this production was indeed Charles V, watching by his own tomb as his son Philip kills his grandson Carlo (a more convincing ending than Carlo’s being spirited away into the depths of the monastery). However, the veteran Eric Halfvarson was a disappointment as the Grand Inquisitor; it sounded as if he was perhaps purposely trying to make his voice sound older in a few passages, but if so, it wasn’t a great idea.

In the pit, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director-designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra, showed that he is a fine orchestral conductor and has a ways to go as an operatic one. He is energetic to the point of exaggeration, drove a good sound from the players (apart from some notable bobbles from winds and brass), and was sensitive to the music. But coordination problems with the singers persisted throughout the evening, across the board, though the audience acclaimed him loudly after each intermission, regardless.

This may seem like a lot of caveats to be piling on a purportedly good evening. The strength of this “Don Carlo” came from the fact that a majority of people involved, starting with Hytner, seemed to “get” Verdi, and the singers were at least not wildly miscast, or actively unpleasant to listen to. Clearly, the bar has been set pretty low for Verdi performance these days.

But it’s a pleasure in any opera performance to find moments that cast light or understanding on the fusion of music and drama -- like the moment where Elisabetta, emotionally drained by her confrontation with her husband, sits numbly as Eboli launches into her own histrionics and reveals her own betrayal. Poplavskaya absorbed the final blow almost without affect and made her way off stage, weary and beyond caring, exactly as the music shows it might happen. That kind of moment was a reminder that the reason we keep doing masterpieces of the past is not just that they’re great, but that they can, in the right hands, provide moments of insight or truth. They may be few and far between, in a production that’s far from perfect, but we’ll take them where we can.

Other voices:
Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times
James Jorden in the New York Post.
Howard Kissel in the New York Daily News.
Ronald Blum in the Associated Press.
Martin Bernheimer in the Financial Times.

By Anne Midgette  | November 23, 2010; 2:10 PM ET
Categories:  national, opera  
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Next: More moves at the Virginia Opera


I love your reviews Anne Midgette - so straightforward and objective and knowledgeable. They can sometimes sound unkind but I know they are not - I detect no sarcasm or smugness or posturing in them - at least not in this one.

Posted by: pronetoviolins | November 23, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse

I attended Friday's show and, to my surprise, it was one of those evenings which were greater than the sum of their parts. Yes, there was only one truly Verdian voice: Furlanetto. Alagna started with a vibrato - not to call it wobble - but quickly recovered. Maybe we should ask him to start singing an hour before the show - or perhaps we should give him a break because the role is long. Not much to add about the rest of the cast, except perhaps that I was expecting worse from Anna Smirnova. Yes, I did miss Dolora Zajick (who is currently singing Ortrud in LA; that should be intreresting; I am thinking of a possible Met cast of Jonas Kaufmann, Rene Pape, Zajick...) and Smirnova's interpretation was matronly, but it was more than a respectable showing (OK, at the Met we should ask for greatness.)

The spoken-word priest during the third act auto-da-fe: his presence would have not bothered me if he kept quiet. It did not have to interfere with music.

Séguin: yes, his overall contribution was positive, conducting with a strong - if not alway firm - hand. I loved his energy and the full sound he draw out of the orchestra, yet corrdination issues persisted even on Friday. I can't wait to hear him in front of the Philadelphia Orchestra. On the other hand (and the Slatkin-Gheorghiu incident also helped), I got a newly-found respect for the Marco Armiliatos and the Fausto Clevas, the Nello Santis, the Berislav Klobucars and the Robert Hegers, maestros that are easily classified as routiners, yet who know how to controll their egos and put all their vast knowledge in supporting the singers.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | November 29, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

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