Don Carlo, Metropolitan Opera live relay, December 2010Posted on 12 December 2010
When it was over the man sitting next to me said, “It doesn’t get any better than this”, and indeed it was a superb performance of what is arguably Verdi’s greatest opera. The story is based on historical characters, though as Verdi himself said, “Nothing in the drama is historical, but it contains a Shakespearean truth and profundity of characterization”.
It’s a human drama of huge proportions, and Ferruccio Furlanetto in the central role of Philip II of Spain showed to perfection the king’s isolated uncertainty and emotional distress. His soliloquy at the start of Act IV was brilliantly expressive. Here is the most powerful ruler in the world, yet he bows to the power of the Church, embodied in the Grand Inquisitor, a blind priest who exudes furious certainty that the deaths of ‘heretics’ and potential rebels fulfils God’s glorious purpose. Eric Halfvarson sang that role very strongly, approving Philip’s hesitant plan to kill his own son Don Carlo, but then demanding the king yield him his trusted advisor, Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. He was brilliantly sung by Simon Keenlyside whose portrayal of the role is unsurpassable in its sincerity and nobility. The king refuses but has Rodrigo killed later, yet regrets it immediately after. At this point, as Furlanetto sang, “Chi rende a me quell’uom?” (Who will restore to me this man?), I thought immediately of England’s medieval king Henry II and his reaction to the murder of Thomas à Becket. This is powerful stuff by Verdi, and of course Schiller on whose play this opera is based.
Fortunately this was the five-act version, giving us in Act I the initial encounter between Elisabeth de Valois and Don Carlo in the forest of Fontainebleau. Marina Poplavskaya sang Elisabeth most beautifully, with wonderfully soft high notes, amply showing her vulnerability and strength. She is perfect for this role, which she sang on both the last occasions I’ve seen the opera, at Covent Garden in 2008 and 2009. Roberto Alagna gave an intense and spirited portrayal of Don Carlo, singing with great power and conviction. One feels enormous sympathy for these two young people who are betrothed to one another, yet whose love is proscribed immediately after their first meeting. Philip II decides to take Elisabeth as his wife, rather than let her marry his son, Don Carlo, and though the intensity of their love may be dramatic licence, it’s a historical fact that Carlos died young, as did Elisabeth, who was so distraught at his death that she cried for two days. The myth of their undying love is only aided by their graves in the Escurial lying side by side.
This opera has major roles for six principals, the sixth being Princess Eboli who was strongly sung by Anna Smirnova. The machinations of this mendaciously jealous woman are a key to the plot, but why do directors always make her look so unattractive? Her dresses with their lace sleeves were extremely unflattering, yet in real life she was a beautiful woman — and in the opera she’s having an affair with the king for goodness sake. Apart from this one quibble I love Nicholas Hytner’s production with set and costume designs by Bob Crowley — the same production as at Covent Garden. It gives a fine sense of the stateliness of the Spanish throne as well as leaving ample space for the human drama, and the burning of the heretics in the auto da fé scene is a dramatic sight.
The chorus sang powerfully, and among the minor roles, Layla Claire was excellent as the page Tebaldo. The orchestra gave a wonderful rendering of the score under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin whose conducting was simply superb.