Wait, I know I’ve seen this opera before, you might have thought as you opened your program at Lincoln Center on Monday night. It’s the one with the prince in love with his stepmother, isn’t it? What about his dumbass father, and that great duet with his friend, and the Spanish Inquisition?
But here it is, in black on white: “The premiere at the Metropolitan Opera of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos. »
Rarely has a single letter been as significant as this final “s”. The opera audiences have seen here – one that has been staged at the Met more than 200 times – is “Don Carlo”, its libretto in Italian. Monday’s performance, however, was given in the work’s original French.
In both languages, it’s Verdi’s greatest and darkest masterpiece – and particularly dark on Monday, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continued and the evening opened with the audience rising in silence for a performance of the Ukrainian national anthem by the Met Chorus and Orchestra. Center stage was Vladyslav Buialskyi, a young Ukrainian bass-baritone making his company debut in a tiny role, hand on heart.
It is, after all, an opera that opens with the characters yearning for an end to the fierce hostilities between two neighboring nations, their civilians suffering the deprivations caused by the territorial delusions of a tiny few at the top. The geopolitical battles fueling the plot’s private agonies seemed sharper than usual when David McVicar’s new production was unveiled.
A new production, certainly, but a first at the Met? That’s doubtful, since nearly all of the music will be familiar to anyone who’s heard “Don Carlo” in it over the past four decades.
But it is nonetheless a milestone for the company to finally perform the work in the language in which it was premiered, at the Paris Opera in 1867. Verdi worked with inspired diligence to shape his musical lines on metric rhythms subtly different from Italian. For this adaptation of Schiller’s freely ahistorical play, set at the 16th-century Spanish court of Philip II, he painted the sprawling canvas of French grand opera in his own moody colors.
Alas, “Don Carlos” was a mixed success in France, and Verdi continued to revise it over the next two decades as it premiered and was revived in Italy. (And since this was a time when librettos were commonly translated into the language of the public, it was performed in Italian, under the name “Don Carlo”.) The end result was an assortment of versions, including the companies of opera can now freely take elements. .
But as Will Crutchfield recently wrote in The New York Times, these versions essentially boil down to two: “The first is the one created in Paris, more or less a few bits added or cut before and after. The second is the recomposed score created in Milan in 1884, with or without restoration of Act I of 1867 – set in France and introducing the vexed love of Don Carlos and Elisabeth de Valois.
The Met has more or less done the 1884 version since a landmark production in 1950 reintroduced the opera into the standard repertoire after decades of neglect. The play had circulated widely in Italian and was performed in New York exclusively in that language. The big news came in 1979, when a new Met staging restored that 1867 Act I. Hence the five-act form in which “Don Carlo” – with tweaks here and there – was presented since.
And always in Italian. When Yannick Nézet-Séguin directed a new production in 2010, it was in Italian, and when this production was relaunched, it was in Italian — even though the big houses around the world had broken with this tradition.
But Nézet-Séguin suggested that he wanted to direct the play in French. Now, as the company’s musical director, he has. It speaks to his passion for the score that this is the first opera of his still young career at the Met for which he is conducting a third run, and his conception of it – long-breathed, patient, lightly textured – embodies the vast elegance of French grand opera.
These qualities are crucial in supporting a triumphant turn in the title role of Matthew Polenzani, singing Carlos for the first time in either language. Polenzani is not the Franco Corelli-style swaggering, trumpeting tenor usually associated with the part – though he rises, in style, to fiery intensity – but rather a singer of refinement, interiority and melancholy.
And throughout the work, French conveys all this better than Italian. The classic brotherhood duet between Carlos and his friend, Rodrigue, the Marquis of Posa, is a loudspeaker announcement in Italian, as “Dio che nell’alma infondere”. In French, like “God, you semas in our souls”, it seems much more intimate, a cocooned moment that the public watches. Particularly in this performance, with the suave and seductive baritone Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue, singularly capable of attracting the unfortunate and isolated Carlos.
Like Elisabeth, who is engaged to Carlos before being married to her father as part of the peace agreement between France and Spain, soprano Sonya Yoncheva lacks tonal richness, but her fine and concentrated voice penetrates, and she fits her interpretation of the character as coldly dignified, even chilly, enough to bear the sacrifices she has made.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, her soaring highs and booming chest voice, with just a slight loss of fluency in between, sings generously and acts vivaciously like Princess Eboli, whose unrequited love for Carlos inspires his revenge, then his contrition. As an implacable Grand Inquisitor, bass-baritone John Relyea has an authority of stone.
The only weak link is bass-baritone Eric Owens as King Philip, his dry, colorless voice and expressionless face and presence, issues that have also plagued his recent Met performances in “Porgy and Bess.” He turns one of the most nuanced characters in opera – a man of enormous power, vulnerability, anger and confusion – into a cipher.
Silky, articulate bass Matthew Rose is a deluxe cast as the monk who – stick with me – could actually be Charles V, Philip’s father, who (at least presumably) recently died. Why doesn’t Rose sing Philippe?
This is McVicar’s 11th safe and reliable Met production, with two more (“Medea” and “Fedora”) coming next season. His “Don Carlos” is uncluttered, simple, largely traditional and largely neutral, dominated by ominously rough, curved and menacing stone walls pierced with semi-circular openings, as if the figures – costumed in richly embroidered black – wander into a catacomb.
I wish McVicar and Nézet-Séguin had restored the opening section of the first act, played at the Met from 1979 to 2006, which shows Elisabeth among the suffering in France. This deepens the conflict she faces soon after, when she is forced to choose between her duty to them—the marriage to Philippe that will end the war—and her love for Carlos.
At least that crucial first act is here. There is reason to do the opera in Italian, as will be the case when this staging is relaunched next season. But this revival will also return, for the first time since the early 1970s, to the four-act version, a dismal decision that the Met should reconsider.
McVicar offers some welcome idiosyncrasies. An acrobatic jester figure, his face painted white as a skull, gives the auto-da-fé scene some of its phantasmagorical character. And, after pitting Carlos’ physical distance from Elizabeth against his closeness to Rodrigue all evening, McVicar ends the opera with a dying Carlos being greeted by his already dead friend, who lowers the prince onto the stage in what seems very close to involve posthumously, well, union.
The moment’s score is the most obvious of the few ways this performance deviates from how opera has been heard at the Met since at least the 1950s. Elisabeth’s voice, has an attraction for red meat, in particular if your soprano has such a high boffo.
But it’s otherwise too thrilling a conclusion to a bitter, ambivalent opera that ends best in the sober calm of the 1867 version, with monks softly chanting that Charles V is reduced to dust. It is the sound of history adrift, beyond all human lives, played and sung here with the delicacy and seriousness that made it a special evening for Nézet-Séguin and his company.
Until March 26 at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan; metopera.org.