Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Verdi's Don Carlo at the MET

Arguably Giuseppe Verdi's greatest work, Don Carlo is a massive five act affair that started its life at the Paris Opéra in 1867 as Don Carlos, with a French libretto that was later translated into the Italian version that is often performed these days. An intense, brooding, dark work set in stern, despotic Spain during the reign of Philip II, the opera examines the conflicts between the personal and the political, and the often clashing relationship between religion and the monarchy during the time when the Inquisition tried to maintain Spain loyal to the Vatican and Holy Mother Church.

The current Nicholas Hytner production (a co-production of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden) is pretty tame when it comes to the direction and costumes by Bob Crowley.  However, the sets, also by Mr. Crowley, tend towards the minimalist in a geometric sort of way in some scenes, while in others, shafts of light, coming through windows, lend an air of expressionism. It is a production that does not offend the sensibilities of the conservative New York opera crowd, but neither does it propel the drama into an epic level.

This opera lives or dies by its principal singers, and the MET has assembled a cast of impressive soloists headed by the amazing Ferruccio Furlanetto, who these days owns the role of Philip II. His deep bass has matured into the kind of instrument that is able to express the anguish of a character who has married a woman who has never loved him, and raised a son who threatens his power. His failure as a husband is now compounded with the thought that in order to save his kingdom he might have to sacrifice his son. Mr. Furlanetto beautifully conveys the character's agony as he realizes the church might not be able to absolve him of the murder of his first born. His is one of the great opera characterizations of our times.

Rounding out the cast is a splendid Yonghoon Lee in the title role. The young Korean tenor was in amazing voice on Monday night, and delivered a memorable performance. Dmitri Hvorostovsky was also in good voice as the faithful Rodrigo, although I have always found his intake of air before launching into a phrase to be, at times, as loud as his singing. On Monday night it was louder than I can remember in a while. Ekaterina Gubanova was a sonorous, memorable Eboli, while Barbara Frittoli took longer than I wanted for her to settle into the role of Elisabeth. Finally, it's great to see James Morris still singing these days. In the autumn of his years the bass-baritone has settled into the comprimario world effortlessly. But I don't think that the Grand Inquisitor is the role for him. His voice always had a light timbre and this character requires a threatening cavernous voice. When the Philip is darker than the Inquisitor then there's something wrong.

But that might be a little too much to protest about. The orchestra, under the direction of the great Yannick Nézet-Séguin, played beautifully, offering a sonorous cushion for the cast. It is great to have him as the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which means that he is only two hours away from New York City. In the unlikely event that he were to become the new music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2017, after Alan Gilbert leaves, he would only be steps away.  But that just might be way too much to ask.

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