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13 April, 2013

Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Don Carlo by Verdi at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Conductor - Lorin Maazel
Title - Ramon Vargas
King Philip II - Ferruccio Furlanetto
Eboli - Anna Smirnova
Elizabeth - Barbara Frittoli
Roderigo, Marquis of Posa - Dmitry Hvorostovsky

This opera has always been one of my favourites yet until this outing I really had little idea what went on between all those beautiful and haunting arias, duets, choruses, etc.  I even once thought that the ‘Don’ of ‘Don Fatale’ was one of the menfolk (don is actually the Italian word for ‘gift’, Eboli’s beauty - and her curse).  Like all his later operas, every nuance of the story is used dramatically and vocally by the Verdi genius.  This is his longest and most complex opera if not his most ‘extravagant’ (which is probably Aida).  I attended the last two performances of the run, considering my own limited attention span, worsened by jet-lag the first time.  Even without ballet, the 5 acts finished near midnight. 

The opera raises Q&A about the Holy Roman Empire, an English connection, German, French, Italian and Spanish speakers and their rulers.  We also learn about the relation between church and state circa 1560.  An auto-da-fe scene is the centre of the work, all in a day’s activities in the Spanish Inquisition it would seem. 

So how was the singing?  Before all else opera is about big, beautiful voices in wonderful musical drama … and we had a dose-and-a-half of that in this production at the Met.  Most thrilling and novel for me was the mezzo-soprano Ms Smirnova who has a fine, penetrating velvet voice which fills the auditorium to the distant rafters.  Her act II ‘teaser’ aria and chorus was superb as was most of ‘O don fatale’.  She just seemed to run out of breath a second too soon on the final note, despite a magnificent rendition of this soul-searching and vocally taxing aria. 

Ramon Vargas sang creditably, possessing an even vocal facility into the high range needed for this long role.  This may have contributed to the downfall of Rolando Villazon and his lovely voice, pushed perhaps beyond its natural limits in this and other ‘Olympian’ vocal feats.  Strangely, Carlo has no more than one discrete aria early in the opera (Io lo vidi) … yet lots more concerted singing.  Some of Mr Vargas’ ‘r’ sounds were imperfect yet they did not affect the vocal line. 

While soprano Barbara Frittoli is also a fine singer, few of today’s singers have ‘everything’.  As Elizabetta she produces much elegant mid range vocalising, yet, despite having the facility to sing loud high notes, at times these seem to come out of nowhere and they do not always meld with the preceding vocal line, none of this made easier by Verdi’s taxing score.  There is also a beat in some of her open exposed notes. 

As the Spanish king Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sang and acted superbly.  His nine minute aria which opens Act IV received a well deserved rapturous ovation from a packed Saturday night Manhattan opera audience.  ‘Ella giamai m’amo’ is the aria which episomises the work while Don Carlo’s early exclamation ‘Io lo perduto’ equally underscores the hopelessness of the entire plot which has to end badly as father has married the son’s betrothed. 

Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang and acted deliciously.  He is one of today’s few super stars who can tick all of the boxes [I ignore his terrible recording of Neapolitan songs!].  Initially I thought he sounded slightly under-powered but by his last scene, finishing in the famous ‘double aria’ culminating in his death, the Russian rose to phenomenal artistic and vocal heights.  This may reflect advice from Maria Callas who said that the audience only ever remembers the last act.  His breath control is phenomenal and enables him to sing entire phrases seamlessly and with unhurried elegance. Even the famous ‘duet’ with Vargas, ‘Dio, che ad alma infondere’ is actually part of a complex chorus cloister scene.  And its melody and sentiment of brotherly love returns more than once in the drama. 

The supporting roles were superbly sung: Eric Halfvarson as Grand Inquisitor; ‘celestial voice’ of Jennifer Check (from the rafters); Flemish deputies; the friar and voice of Carlos V. 

As is traditional there was a major ovation for the conductor Lorin Maazel at the start of the third part.  However, there was also some noisy booing, ‘tisk-tisk’ and banter in opposition as some clearly did not like his tempi.  He certainly chose some atypical speeds from recordings and other performances I have heard.  But that is part of being one of the world’s best - trying new contrasts, etc.  At one point just before his death, Roderigo continued singing an optional long note and timing went awry - something which is usual blamed on the conductor.  Mr Maazel entered the pit from the left, unique in my Met experience where conductors normally enter from the ‘prompt’ (right) side. 

The production is a joint venture with London and Oslo, first seen in 2008.  Nicholas Hytner’s production has a consistent tension and is true to the libretto details, even to the burned down candles at dawn in the king’s chamber.  Some of the religious scenes in Don Carlo reminded me of the Papal voting process which was going on at that very time.  There were rectangular stage shadows in monochrome, snowy exteriors, back-lit trees, austere walls with small palace windows emitting various colours and a magnificent gilded cathedral fa├žade, and miniature font/confessional in the King’s chambers … these can all be seen and heard on Met broadcasts and telecasts.  A marvellous artistic endeavour in every respect. 

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

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