As we all know, last year the Metropolitan Opera finally presented Don Carlos by Giuseppe Verdi in the original five act French “Paris” version.
The Metropolitan Opera first presented Don Carlo over 100 years ago in the 1920-1921 season in a five act version in Italian with an abbreviated Act I Fontainebleau scene but egregious cuts elsewhere (Act III, Scene 1 grotto scene and the entire Act IV Filippo/Grand Inquisitor confrontation!) Even Ponselle, Martinelli, De Luca, Matzenauer and Didur failed to establish it as a repertory staple.
Rudolf Bing’s November 1950 opening night (which was the premiere of the Margaret Webster production and the first performance of Bing’s new management), presented Don Carlos as Don Carlo in the four-act 1882 “Milan Version” minus the Fontainebleau Paris Act I. It played for another 22 years.
Later, the five act 1886 “Modena Version” was introduced in 1979 appending the original Act I “Fontainebleau” scene (translated into Italian) to the 1882 four-act revision. This performing text was introduced with the John Dexter/David Reppa production and included a section cut from Act I before the Paris premiere in 1867—a woodcutters’ chorus and a scene where Elisabeth gives alms to the starving peasants.
I always felt this section is important since it presents the background issues that necessitate Elisabeth’s political marriage and gives the prima donna a grander entrance establishing her sense of duty and altruism. This opening has since been cut in the two succeeding new Met productions in Italian and French.
Last year’s new production conducted (and presumably arranged by) music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin used a curious conflation of the original 1867 Paris version expanded with material that was cut before the Paris premiere and Verdi’s 1882 revisions (which were composed to a revised French text). One thing that was not carried over into the Met’s French edition was the Act III “La Pérégrina” ballet but also the exchanging of the veils and Eboli’s short aria “Pour une nuit me voilà reine”.
This was performed on the 1867 original production and establishes why Carlos mistakes Eboli for the Queen as the princess is dressed in her mask and cloak. I miss it and feel it should be restored even when the ballet is omitted for dramatic credibility purposes.
Where the 2022 new production (conducted by Nézet-Séguin and directed by David McVicar) focused their idiosyncratic edition of the original Paris was in expanding the scenes between Don Carlos and the Marquis of Posa. This included a longer introduction leading into the duet “Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes”, short additions in Act III and the originally cut choral mourning over the murdered Posa “Qui me rendra ce mort ?”. This ensemble includes magnificent music that Verdi later reused in the “Lacrimosa” of the Manzoni Requiem.
McVicar and Nézet-Séguin, both out gay men, may have used the expanded music establish a homosexual romantic attachment between the Infante and the Marquis. This came to a literal climax and consummation at the end of Act V, where the fatally wounded Carlos sees a vision of the dead Posa approaching him from upstage in a halo of light. The two men embrace and then lie down together on the floor for some posthumous canoodling. For those curious Posa (Étienne Dupuis in black leather and mohawk) was on top…
Evidently and thankfully this blasphemous display right there on the monastery floor by the tomb of Charles V was invisible to Carlos’ father Philippe II and his stepmother and putative true love Elisabeth de Valois. (From what is rumored about Catholic monasteries, perhaps this was business as usual—but in private and among the living.)
Anyway, this revival which opened on November 3 restored the translated Italian text and the cut 1882 four act revision not seen at the Met since Bing’s last season in 1972. I think one reason for this reversion was that the French language and some of the eccentricities of McVicar’s original production (the homoerotic element) would cause problems casting ordinary repertory revivals.
Also in April 2021, the Russian superstar diva Anna Netrebko had added the role of Elisabetta di Valois, in the Italian 4 act version, at the Bolshoi Theater. The event marked Netrebko’s role debut but also turned into a COVID-19 superspreader event. The diva was hospitalized in Moscow when she came down with the virus.
As we know, Netrebko was to bring her Elisabetta to the Met in this revival which included a de rigeur HD transmission. First Netrebko was cancelled and fired by Peter Gelb for her refusal to denounce Putin after his invasion of the Ukraine, then the HD was cancelled as well replaced with Falstaff on the schedule.
Anita Rachvelishvili who was to have made her Met role debut as Eboli, also was sidelined last year with COVID-19 infection, apparently with lingering symptoms. The Georgian mezzo also struggled with a difficult pregnancy and the pressures of new motherhood. These personal and health issues have impacted her vocal estate and she was obliged to relinquish the taxing role to Mariinsky mezzo Yulia Matochkina.
How do I feel about the four-act Milan revision? Well, it is a legitimate performing version arranged and sanctioned by the composer and intended as his final word on Don Carlo/Don Carlos. Most of his revisions improve the opera musically giving it greater concision, cohesion and “sinew” to use his words.
However, the “Fontainebleau” love theme is quoted in the opera in the Act II duet with Elisabetta and Carlo and in “Tu che la vanità” in Act IV. If we have not heard this theme before, we cannot connect it to Carlo and Elisabetta’s lost love which is now only narrated as backstory and not enacted.
Also, Elisabetta (and Carlos) gain new dimensions of tenderness and regret later on if we are introduced to them and actually see them as innocent young lovers eventually shattered by power and duty. As for making a shorter evening, the show started at 7:30 pm and the final curtain came down close to 11:30 pm—still a Wagnerian playing time.
As usual my musicological dissertation is delaying my review of this particular performance. I really found it a mixed bag—I had reservations about every performance and the production has changed but hasn’t improved since last year. I suspect that all the singers will improve over the course of the run as they settle in.
As the titular antihero, Russell Thomas’ Don Carlo has a robust, darkly burnished tenor that was largely secure. But the tone is covered, with a lack of contrasting bright head tones that robbed the role of youth and innocence and his music of light and shade. Also, exciting heroic climaxes sounded sturdy rather than trumpet-like.
Thomas attempted but didn’t really succeed in modulating his grainy robust sound into a piano or pianissimo dynamic. He is a rather limited actor was well. Some of these changes in timbre may be due to adding the title role of Otello to his repertoire. The combination of Otello and Don Carlo is not unheard of—Francesco Tamagno introduced the role to Milan in 1882 and five years later created Otello at La Scala.
Eleanora Buratto, one of two replacements for Netrebko, made her role debut on Thursday night as Elisabetta di Valois. The voice is inherently warm and beautiful and Italianate, the diction native and her musicality often acute. However, this is yet another instance of Elisabetta being cast with a Mimi voice which is a historically recent trend gaining traction with Von Karajan casting Mirella Freni in the role at Salzburg in the late seventies.
Buratto has some similarities with Freni in tone and personality and is capable of singing heavier lyric and lighter spinto rep. But as I found Freni often stretched and blanched of tone in the 1983 Met telecast, Buratto seemed to be working very hard and too often out of her comfort zone.
This version of the opera does a particular disservice to Elisabetta by bringing her onstage in her tortured duet with Don Carlo in Act 1 (Act 2 in the Paris version) without properly introducing her character vocally or revealing her inner life. I found Buratto declaiming the text in a veristic manner and having to break up the vocal line into smaller units to save breath and conserve vocal capital.
Her melancholy aria “Non pianger, mia compagna” was marred by messy and pitchy attacks on the exposed and tricky ascending climactic piano phrases (the late Monserrat Caballé was peerless there). She improved in Act IV’s confrontation with Filippo and the ensemble after she is struck by her husband demonstrating command over those tricky high floated passages.
“Tu che la vanità” was also a mixed bag with warm tone and incisive phrasing with an overarching sense of how the long episodic sections hang together. But the big broad climaxes taxed her breath control and one could sense the voice was stretched to its limit.
Buratto is also a forthright personality—direct, earthy and spirited. While this was good for Butterfly, Elisabetta needs more internalized sorrow and emotional repression. This was hard to detect in her stage manner which seemed tough and confrontational rather than resigned. I think that over a run of performances, Buratto will learn to pace herself better with better vocal control. More direction certainly would focus her interpretation. A lot of the pieces are there but they haven’t been fully assembled.
Günther Groissböck was supposed to have debuted as Philippe II in this production when it premiered last year. He canceled and was disastrously replaced by Eric Owens, a weak-voiced cipher in this crucial role. Groissböck finally showed up and was naturally a big improvement but still far from definitive. The voice is grainy and short on the bottom, the timbre fairly light.
Comments were made about his side mouth singing when a poster shared teaser video the Met released. It is totally correct that when his mouth is not twisted to the side, the tone is rounder, more sonorous and has greater presence in the house. Both his manner and his timbre lack nobility and gravitas—he seemed a bitter, abusive wealthy businessman, not a tortured tyrant of a king.
Veteran bass-baritone John Relyea returned as the Grand Inquisitor and found the change of language amenable. He projected a dark, penetrative tone with high vocal energy. Relyea alone among the cast had a larger than life voice with real heroic impact. Both basses were short on the bottom of their ranges. However, their confrontation in Act IV was one of the highlights of the evening where the human drama came alive. Relyea was also rapturously received by the audience at the final bows.
Matochkina as Princess Eboli has a pleasing timbre and smooth vocal emission with no harsh edges, no wobble or glaring steel in the tone typical of Russian singers. She sings on pitch. The “Veil Song” was delivered smoothly but not excitingly—she lacks vocal impact on either extreme of her range. “O don fatale!” was delivered with more vocal largesse but Matochkina only glanced at the high C-flat and climactic notes were carefully portioned out. It was well sung, highly professional and a little dull. I have been spoiled by the likes of Dolora Zajick.
The most striking and dramatically insightful performer, if a bit vocally unorthodox, was the consistently superb Peter Mattei as Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa. Now this isn’t strictly a Verdi baritone in color and weight. His bright mellow tone is rather straight and his sound is cool and linear where a conventional Verdi dramatic baritone would be expansive, rich and broad. (Though Mattei is a more direct and less mannered singer, I was reminded of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recorded Verdi in the 1960’s).
On the other hand, Posa’s beautiful music brought out Mattei’s command of legato and expressive shaping of vocal line. He colored the text sensitively and his height and aura of mystery enhanced his characterization. There was a sense of a man apart from other men but also a deeply engaged humanitarian. The doomed idealism of the ill-fated political revolutionary came across clearer than I have ever seen it.
All the men suffered from a lack of Italianate timbre and Verdian vocal thrust and expansive phrasing. However, the most powerful dramatic scenes in the evening were the fateful interview duets between Filippo and Posa in Act II and Filippo and the Grand Inquisitor in Act IV. The duo scenes between Filippo and Carlo were also moving with Peter Mattei always bringing out the best in his scene partners. No special relationship was detected in their scenes except brotherly friendship and solidarity.
In smaller roles, debutant Alexandros Stavrakakis was a sonorous true bass Monk (one wonders if he is covering Filippo and the Inquisitor) and Erika Baikoff a bright Tebaldo.
Ubiquitous this season on the conducting podium, Carlo Rizzi led a rather slow, expansive reading without the subtle details and dramatic points that Nézet-Séguin brought to this epic last winter. Broad lyricism and epic sale were the hallmarks of his reading. The orchestra played well for him as they have all season.
I wonder if McVicar returned to restage the opera and if he did how long he worked with the cast. Characterizations were standard or “come as you are.” Blocking suggested a tired production at the end of the run. The prancing obscene jester (a new and egregious performer) was stealing focus constantly with cartwheels and humping one of the doomed heretics from behind during the Act II auto-da-fé. The production remains visually dreary with Charles Edwards’ black on black with occasional highlights of dismal gray unit set.
The final scene was totally different. Carlo still dueled with Filippo’s guards and was fatally wounded. Posa did not arrive in ghostly guise. It was the Monk who appeared in the halo of light dressed in royal robes as Carlo V. It was a suddenly contrite and grief-stricken Filippo who cradled the fallen Carlo in his arms in a moment reminiscent of the dying Siegmund in Die Walküre (or the “Luke Skywalker I am Your Father” scene in The Empire Strikes Back). It made for a moving finale.
I suspect that the singers will improve as the run progresses. Angela Meade takes over as Elisabetta on November 23. Her voice may have more of the spinto grandeur required that Buratto hasn’t yet mastered.