A selective guide to arts commentaries in print and websites elsewhere.
Introduction to Broad Street Review, plus biographies and contact points for our editors and contributors.
See a list of coming appearances by BSR's writers.
Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo’ at the Met (live)BY: Steve Cohen 12.04.2010
The main flaw in the Met’s outstanding new production of Don Carlo lies in the international nature of its cast. The use of a French-Canadian conductor, a half-French tenor and various Russian, British and American soloists may seem like welcome egalitarianism, but non-Italians have a rough time capturing the flavor of Verdi, that quintessential Italian nationalist.
Don Carlo. Opera by Giuseppe Verdi; directed by Nicholas Hytner directed; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor. Through December 18, 2010 at Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, Broadway and 65th St., New York. Live high-definition transmissions to movie theaters December 11, 2010, with U.S. encore January 5, 2011 and Canadian encores January 22 and February 14, 2011. (212) 362-6000 or Metoperafamily.org.
Is there an Italian in the house?STEVE COHEN
For the third time this season, the Metropolitan Opera is presenting a new production– with relatively bare sets– of an opera that previously had massive, realistic scenery. This is what Das Rheingold, Boris Godunov and Don Carlo share in common.
Gone are the forests of the Rhineland, the onion-domed palaces of the Kremlin and, in this case, the gardens and fountains of Spain. I miss the splendor, but director Nicholas Hytner and designer Bob Crowley have given us a compellingly dark and ominous Don Carlo. Despite its length (the longest of all Verdi operas), this Don Carlo flows because of quick scene changes that are possible with these simpler sets, and because of vibrant conducting by the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director-designate, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
The opera’s protagonist Don Carlo, son of the Spanish king in the 16th Century, is engaged to the French princess Elizabeth, and the two fall helplessly in love at first sight. But their marriage is aborted when King Philip decides to marry the young princess himself. In the process Philip alienates both his wife (who remains faithful but remote) and Carlo, who leads a Flemish rebellion against the Church and his father.
Both Nézet-Séguin and tenor Roberto Alagna in the title role are superb: Nézet-Séguin conducts with enthusiasm and feeling, lingering over some phrases as he listens closely to the singers. While slowing for emotional effect in certain duets, he maintains Verdi’s line and achieves vigor and excitement in the big ensembles. Throughout, he vividly brings out orchestral colors.
Alagna sounds fresh and clarion in the title role and, as we saw in last year’s Carmen, he is an effective actor. The night I saw him, however, he was slightly below pitch when he attacked the high notes in his first-act aria. After that, he was excellent, though his sound does not quite have the natural beauty that Tucker and Corelli brought to the role.
The main flaw in this otherwise outstanding production lay in the international nature of the cast. Although this production uses the score from Don Carlo’s world premiere in Paris in 1867, which Verdi wrote to a French libretto, it’s essentially an Italian opera, and the Met has opted to perform it in Italian. The use of a French-Canadian (like Nézet-Séguin), a French-Italian (Alagna) and various Russian, British and American soloists may seem like welcome egalitarianism, but non-Italians have a rough time capturing the flavor of Giuseppe Verdi, that quintessential Italian nationalist.
The distinguished bass Ferruccio Furlanetto— an Italian, naturally— brought out King Philip’s vulnerability and pathos with commanding Verdian style and powerful high notes. Other cast members suffered some problems. Marina Poplavskaya appeared cold, and her voice lacked richness in the lower range. With her blonde hair and jutting jaw line, she invested the French princess-turned-Spanish Queen Elisabeth of Valois, with a dignified persona.
This character doesn’t give in to passion as, after her wedding, she rejects Don Carlo’s romantic advances, so her decorous bearing is defensible. But I would have preferred an Elisabetta whom I could love more, and sympathize with. Poplavskaya gleaming high notes, however, are thrilling, and she showed good breath control in her expansive phrasing.
Truth to tell, I’ve never heard a completely satisfying Elisabetta. Hers is a role that was avoided by some of the greatest Verdi queens of the Met’s landmark 1950s revival: Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas and (later) Leontyne Price, to name a few. Milanov’s brother and coach, Bozidar Kunc, once told me the part was ungratifying because the soprano has no aria until the final act, but he was mistaken: Elisabetta sings important passages in duets and ensembles before then, which would benefit from stronger lower notes than what Poplavskaya supplies.
Another Russian, Anna Smirnova, is wild but effective as the Princess Eboli, who is in unrequited love with Don Carlo. I forgive some vocal inconsistency because Eboli’s character is supposed to be undisciplined. Ideally, a singer should be able to achieve results by accurately singing what’s written, but Verdi himself said that sometimes a soprano should intentionally produce an ugly sound for dramatic effect. Smirnova doesn’t sound ugly— just out of control.
The British Simon Keenlyside is a fine musician and a good actor, but his voice lacks the squillo, or ping, that’s necessary for an outstanding Posa, the leading man’s best friend. He lacks the extroverted projection of a true Verdi baritone. American Bass Eric Halfvarson was appropriately feeble and fierce as the 90-year-old Grand Inquisitor. His confrontational scene with King Philip was the highlight of the evening. Jennifer Check, a 2000 graduate of the Academy of Vocal Arts, was ethereal as the Celestial Voice.
A kind of prison
Hytner and Crowley set the opening Fontainebleau act in wintertime, with hunters making tracks through the snow. This was striking, while most of the Spanish scenes achieved their effects with a few simple props and dramatic lighting.
A unique touch was the use of a drop curtain that evoked prison walls, with cell-like windows, during all the scene changes. For example, Don Carlo came downstage alone at the end of the first act; the curtain separated him from the snow scene and the prelude to the second act began. He pined, reflectively, in front of that wall during the orchestral music. When the scrim was raised we saw that we were in the monastery of Saint Just in Spain. Similar effects occurred between each scene.
The metaphor, of course, is that the characters are imprisoned in jails of their own making. Elizabeth is trapped in a loveless marriage, Carlo by his position as the king’s son, while King Philip and all of Spain are trapped in a debilitating war in Flanders, where they are trying to impose Spanish values on people of a different culture. KIng Philip is operatively imprisoned by the superior power of the Church, and Posa is shot to death in the courtyard of the prison where he has been sent by the king.
This is effective drama, and Hytner brings out expressive pieces of business among characters. This production undoubtedly will benefit from the close-up cameras when it’s broadcast in high-definition live transmission.
I could quibble over details, like the insertion of some spoken words into the auto da fé scene, or the fact that Don Carlo dies in a swordfight instead of disappearing into the crypt of his late grandfather, King Charles (Carlo) the Fifth. But those details don’t spoil what is, so far, the best Met production of the year.♦
Respond to this Article