don_carlo_macbethDon Carlo is truly a grand opera, Verdi’s biggest, no matter if it’s the four or five act version.  It is a bitch.  

For the occasion, I’m wearing my black Chanel ensemble (un cadeau d’un de mes ex-amants), Charles Jourdan stilettos (own money), and Mikimotos (heritees de ma mere la Comtesse) under delicately coiffed auburn hair, not to mention a sadistic combination of two Jo Malone parfums.  I take a glance at the most expensive opera gift shop in the world (while hearing the hopeless cry of the former one’s ghost [Commendatore, is that you?], who used to be a great place to find a huge variety of recordings, but now, alas, a t-shirt and $200-a-bottle perfume marketplace.

I’m full of hope tonight.  I came to the Met to really appreciate this performance.  I promised myself to be positive, happy and gay.  I will not think of the productions I loved, or compare this one to the dream cast I always had in my mind (Bergonzi, Gencer, Nicolai, Christoff, Battistini.)  I am docile tonight.

My trademark family circle seat is made ready for me, and for an evening of 4 hours and 45 minutes.  I told you it is a bitch.  Yannick Nézet-Séguin literally runs to the podium, salutes me, then my subjects and the magic begins.  And yes, he is yummy.

Verdi composed Don Carlos to a French libretto by Camille du Locle and Joseph Méry, based on the dramatic play Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien (“Don Carlos, Infante of Spain“) by Friedrich Schiller. It was premiered in Paris, Opéra, March 11, 1867.  The composer reworked the score of Don Carlo in 1883, condensing five acts into four to a libretto reworked by Ghislanzoni.

The setting is in Spain around 1560.  It is a story of love lost and love unrequited. Don Carlos and Elisabeth are set to be married when Filippo, Don Carlo’s father, decides to take her himself. Elisabeth cannot refuse the request and for to do so would mean continuing the horrible war her country is involved in with Spain. Don Carlos refuses to give up his love of her.  Filippo realizes this and tries to enlist the help of Rodrigo in keeping tabs on Carlos and his new wife.  Princess Eboli is also in love with Don Carlos who has no interest in her. She plots to turn Don Carlos’ indifference to love. In the background, the Spanish Inquisition is occurring with all the struggles between Church and State.

Don Carlo requires five solid voce Verdiane.  One cannot have a good performance of this opera with a very good Filippo and a passable Rodrigo or a mediocre Elisabetta.  They all must stand out and, even though they are different characters, they have to complement each other, thus forming the ensemble, the “concrete” basis on which the music builds.  Verdi was generous to each of them.  It is filled with signature arias and duets.  To quote from the Playbill, the characters “never give up,” no matter what happens.  They know what is coming up, yet their struggle remain, sometimes as a direct expression, but mostly self-reflection.

I promised myself after tonight’s performance that I will not call Roberto Alagna “the smurf” again.  This was the first time I truly was able to enjoy the real Alagna.  He was a marvel in the title role from the first note to the last.  I only wonder what he could do in the original French version, since he has the best French diction since Kraus.  The voice sounded rounder and bigger, and most importantly effortless and with easy projection.  He was exceptional in the second duet with Elisabetta (a.k.a. “call me Liz, no no, call me mom” duet.)  He really surpassed my expectations and got the biggest applause.

As Elisabetta de Valois, Marina Poplavskaya was another highlight.  She has a stunning elegance and beauty that is so “Elisabetta.”  From her youthful looks in the Fontainebleau scene to the mature queen, she owned it.  Her “Tu che le vanita” started with an intention to slightly cover the voice, but ended powerfully with such adorable pianissimo.  We all miss singers like her who can truly sing pianissimo with support.  On the other hand, the voice could use more Italianità and articulation, but there is no doubt those will come in time.  She is still young and sings parts appropriate to her material.  I’m now looking forward to her Violetta.

Ferruccio Furlanetto is “Philippe-du-Jour” for a reason.  First of all, his voice sounds better and clearer than any CD or DVD recording I saw.  The authority is there, yet his portrayal of Filippo differs from other famous Filippos.  During “Ella giammai m’amo” and the duet with the Gran Inquisitore there are essential moments where one witnesses Filippo as an individu. This Filippo already knew his wife will not love him, even before he met her.  His two previous wives did not either.  His struggle is not only with la forza del destino (like all other characters) but also with himself.  He is human.

Simon Keenlyside used to be a very “present” singing actor.  Tonight he was somewhere else, for sure.  He was so not in the mood that the only thing he did was to sing the whole score forte.  Even when he was dying, he was full throttle.  I simply wanted to go on stage slap him and give hima copy of Gobbi’s Rodrigo under Santini, and make him read what Gobbi wrote in his book My Life about his approach to Rodrigo’s dying.

Anna Smirnova is a force de nature.  Alas,  her Eboli was technically insecure, and in the case of “O don fatale” pretty embarrassing, nevertheless she managed to save the last few measures better than she did in the premiere.  She has a huge sound yet she needs to sing less heavy roles before attempting a role of such grandeur.

Eric Halfvarson excelled in the big scene with Filippo.  He has a very extensive and voluminous voice, which made the duet my favorite scene in all the performance.

The production is simple yet powerful.  A co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet, it is directed by Nicholas Hytner and opened first in London.  Don Carlo is special.  It is not just about a protagonist but six of them.  There is so many powerful personalities that one does not look for a rich Zeffirelli-type production.  Period costumes in contrast with bold and simplistic decors become stupendous thanks to the pinpointed lighting by Mark Henderson.

Let’s come to my confusion about the libretto:  I always had different thoughts about Rodrigo and Carlo.  Can anybody deny the sexual tension between them?  Come on, confess it.  Read between the lines.  Even when he dies, all his words are full of love and affection, and that is beyond “loyalty” and Flanders.  And in this production, they hug each other pretty much the whole time.

Finally, if I were Peter Gelb, I would put this production in the original French version.  That would have a huge impact on all audiences and critics.  In any case, this is a must-see of the season.  Don’t miss it.  Take the train to Fontainebleau.

(Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)