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In the Presence of a Master

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
11/22/2010 -  and November 26*, 29, December 3, 7, 11, 15, 18, 2010
Giuseppe Verdi:Don Carlo
Roberto Alagna*/Yonghoon Lee (Don Carlo), Marina Poplavskaya (Elisabeth de Valois), Ferruccio Furlanetto (King Philip II), Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa), Anna Smirnova (Princes Eboli), Eric Halfvarson (Grand Inquisitor), Jennifer Cheek (Celestial Voice), Layla Claire (Tebaldo), Alexei Tanovitsky (Friar)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Conductor)
Nicholas Hytner (Production), Bob Crowley (Set and Costume Design), Mark Henderson (Lighting Design)

M. Persson (© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Don Carlo, Verdi's magnificent meditation on power and its limitations, is vast in every sense of the word. Most obvious is its length; in the version used by the Met (with the Fontainebleau scene but without the ballet), the performance clocked in at just under five hours. For most of the audience and certainly for me, being in the presence of Verdi's genius and seeing and hearing his vision realized with imagination, splendid acting, and marvelous musicianship, made the time seem to fly by. In Don Carlo, the deeply personal stories and struggles of its six main characters are set against and within the grand tapestry of history – the warring destinies of countries, the battle for control between monarchs and princes of the church, and the yearning for freedom of the people of Flanders. Somewhat ironically, despite their exalted station, every one of the main characters is also a prisoner – of history, of fate, or of duty.

These superbly individualized characters also play public roles and the tension between the conflicting demands is explored, with particular poignancy in the case of Elisabeth, the daughter of the king of France, betrothed to Carlo and in love with him, but persuaded by her sense of duty and her father's wish to marry King Philip, Carlo's father. Verdi explored the clash between love and duty to country in Aida as well, but the psychological complexity of Elisabeth, indeed of all the characters, is just so much richer here. Greatest credit goes to the composer, of course, but the director of this production, Nicholas Hytner, who leads Britain's National Theatre, informed every character and virtually every scene with psychological insight and dramatic truth. Musically as well, this Don Carlo was an absolute triumph. The Met has given us great art made accessible -- to the audience in the house and also to an enormous worldwide audience through the live HD broadcast of the performance on 11 December. This immersion in glorious music and total theater is not to be missed.

Don Carlo is a co-production with Norwegian National Opera and Ballet and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, where it was first staged in 2008. For the New York run, two of the principals from the original London cast, Rolando Villazon as Carlo and Sonia Ganassi as Eboli, were replaced here by Roberto Alagna and Anna Smirnova. Hytner's conception, realized with the able assistance of set and costume designer, Bob Crowley, is suffused with the spirit of seventeenth century Spanish painting. The mysticism and religious fervor are almost palpable. The set is quite spare as is the color palette of muted tones of black and gray, with splashes of color, particularly red, allowing for stunning and dramatically-telling emphases.

A memorable example is the blood red lighting that accompanies the auto da fé. The most stunning set was the representation of the monastery at San Yuste with its dark, almost murky atmosphere, and enormous columns. The dramatically striking Caravaggesque lighting by Mark Henderson, with its shafts of light crisscrossing the vast space, was splendid, as were all of Henderson's efforts. Lurking behind a column was the flamboyant Bernini-like tomb of Carlo's grandfather, Carlos V. Periodically, throughout the evening, black panels descend, isolating Carlo far downstage and effectively mirroring his political and emotional state. Spurned by his true love, Elisabeth, with his idealism hopelessly incompatible with the ruthlessly pragmatic worldview of his father, the king, Carlo is simply trapped.

The cast assembled by the Met was very strong, but top vocal honors clearly go to Ferruccio Furlanetto – the King Philip of our time. He utterly inhabited the role of the all-powerful ruler who was curiously powerless to hold onto what was dearest to his heart – his wife, his son and his only friend, Posa. The musical highlight of the evening, Furlanetto's "Ella giammai m'amo", the aria that opens Act IV, distilled the entire character into a gorgeously sung lament. His deep, round, resonant voice, with its unforced power and capacity for dynamic nuance, literally stopped the show. Dramatically, Furlanetto's performance was full of marvelously telling gestures which illuminated Philip’s emotional state. Unable to articulate his love for Elisabeth, he is limited to expressions of jealousy and anger at her perceived betrayal. When she faints, he gathers her up in his arms and caresses her, gently stroking her hair,showering affection on the young wife who – conscious or not – is utterly unresponsive to him.

Also splendid was Furlanetto’s scene with the Grand Inquisitor, whose brutal unyielding power and religious zealotry Verdi brilliantly embodies in the terrifying chords which accompany his entrance. Ninety years old and blind, yet he controls the king who, fearing Carlo, has decided to kill his own son. Philip asks for absolution from the Grand Inquisitor but, in exchange, is ordered to sacrifice his best and only friend, Posa. As the Grand Inquisitor, Eric Halfvarson was marvelously malevolent, with his black bass, chilling presence, and shuffling walk.

The character of the Marquis of Posa is at the center of the opera. He's a rather paradoxical figure, an idealist but also a master manipulator. How else could he be the closest friend of both Carlo and the King? Simon Keenlyside, a consummate singing actor, made much of Posa’s affection for Carlo. His nuanced portrayal was always dramatically compelling and full of restless energy. In Hytner's conception, Posa's idealism verges on the saintly. In the moving death scene, a kind of pieta, he asks Carlo to take up the cause of Flanders. Keenlyside sang with beautiful, resonant tone, lovely legato and utter conviction. His duet with Furlanetto in which Posa speaks truth to power and thereby gains the king's trust, was rich in vocal color. However, during the evening, Keenlyside was intermittently drowned out by the orchestra, not because the conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin was not attentive to the singers; he was. But because Keenlyside's voice was not as large as those of the other lead singers.

In the Fontainebleau scene, Marina Poplavskaya and Roberto Alagna were deeply in character and quite moving in their evocation of the naïve hopefulness of young love. Her portrayal of a young woman torn between love and duty was richly detailed. Throughout her performance, she sang with a beautiful, luminous tone, projecting vulnerability, despair and estrangement from her husband. Poplavskaya particularly excelled when singing softly but she had plenty of power when needed. She also projected an ethereal spiritual quality, but often seemed emotionally disengaged in her scenes with Carlo. There is a curious coolness, almost a detachment about her which, here, actually fits a character trying to distance herself from her stepson, yet feeling no love at all for her husband. Roberto Alagna, new to this production, and singing the role of Carlo for the first time in Italian, was very convincing as the young idealistic and rather bewildered Carlo, who -- as were his father and stepmother – was helpless in the face of forces and emotions beyond his control. He sang with color and a sweet tone and a vibrant and blooming top. Smirnova was a daunting and powerful Eboli, full of passion. She has a big voice but overall exhibited rather more force than finesse.

The Met Chorus, under the leadership of Donald Palumbo, was simply fabulous. As they always do, they assumed various incarnations with vocal beauty, excellent ensemble work and convincing characterization. In the auto da fé scene, the chorus metamorphosed into a mob of zealots waving crosses – a manifestation of religious fervor run amok. When they prayed for mercy for the people of Flanders, the heart-stopping beauty of their singing was reminiscent of “Va pensiero.”

The young conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Music Director designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra, led the Metropolitan Orchestra in a magnificent performance. So much is required to do justice to this score. And he did it all, bringing out the gorgeous details of Verdi's glorious score. He negotiated the quick shifts in texture and mood. He was contemplative when required, producing a luminous sound so evocative of the ethereal side of religious faith. But he also had the requisite drive and dynamic power, unleashing the passionate playing of the orchestra to give full expression to the ferocity and zealotry of the inquisition. Nézet-Séguin is a singer’s conductor, ever attuned to the singers to help them do their best but not subservient to them. Don Carlo marks his second appearance at the Met in as many years. Rumor has it that he will be back for several new productions. That is good news indeed.

For information and tickets to the Live in HD broadcast of Don Carlo

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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