Spanish Inquisition arrives as expected (Don Carlo)

I kid, I kid. Don Carlo (better yet, Don Carlos) might be Verdi’s grandest tragedy, it also might be my favorite Verdi opera. This current Met revival unfortunately features turgid conducting and a cast that, with the exception of Ferruccio Furlanetto as Filippo, is adequate at best. But I have to give them some credit, which should be shared with Nicholas Hytner’s production. This is a work that easily slips into Bad Opera Comedy. You know: we’ve got a fainting tenor, a veil swap, an abduction by dead emperor, and the nineteenth century’s idea of incest. (The Met titles seemed particularly sensitive about the latter point. Whenever Elisabetta or Carlo said “figlio” or “madre,” they just didn’t translate it.) But this performance never went into laugh zone and stayed tragic and dignified. While rarely inspired, it’s basically credible and unlike the Carlo I saw in Vienna in June, never threatened to put me to sleep.
Since I might be the last person in the world to see Nicholas Hytner’s production (which is also in London), I’m not going to describe it in detail, though this was my first experience of it. I don’t mean to damn it with the faint praise of “effective,” but that kind of pared-down traditional, vaguely modern, no really big ideas style is kind of its thing. The sets are simple and stark, the costumes mostly black, white, and red. Everything moves along quickly and it’s handsome without being indulgent, which is good. The Personenregie tended towards the cliched at many points, but there were enough original touches to suggest it was once better. The production doesn’t seem to have particularly strong perspectives on any of its characters, so there was that. And I’m not sure why the priest in the auto-da-fé scene was quite so chatty. And I wish the final Carlo ex machina had been preseved instead of the monk instead just appearing and looking scary. But the story is told in a straightforward, uncluttered way and for the Met this is an achievement.
So if we’re going to give up on Big Ideas, and we’re going to have to (I’m going to only say it once, but Peter Konwitschny’s production of Don Carlos was one of the major things that got me into this whole racket, and if you haven’t seen it you owe it to yourself), let’s get onto the performances. With more good ones this production could be really grand. All were hampered by the lugubrious baton of Lorin Maazel, who never met a tempo he didn’t want to slow down. The orchestra had, sometimes, an impressive solidity, but mostly it just seemed to wander, and the singers struggled to stay with it. Since the first run of this production at the Met was conducted by speed demon Yannick Nézét-Seguin, I vaguely wonder if Maazel was obliged to restore the cosmic balance of the Don Carlo continuum. I’d have preferred if he hadn’t. The orchestra did fine, the cello solo was excellent, but the chorus sounded out of sorts and there were some major coordination issues.
Overall I found Ramon Vargas’s Don Carlo more convincing than his take on the role last June, but nature gave him the voice (and face) of a lyric tenor, and ultimately I don’t think that makes a Carlo. (He couldn’t help but play “yeah, that’s a picture of me, HI” for laughs.) Carlo’s singing is mostly in the ensembles, and he just didn’t power through the other voices, particularly in his upper range. He’s always stylish and never exactly inaudible, but never particularly compelling either. As Rodrigo, Dmitri Hvorostovsky sported some unfortunately vintage (though not the correct vintage) facial hair–which does not appear in the official production photos–and didn’t sound that great either, a considerable step downwards from when I heard him sing this in around 2006. The sound is forced and gravelly, somehow squeezed.
On the ladies’ side, listening to Anna Smirnova do her best with the Veil Song is a bit like watching a football player attempt yoga. It’s not really in her very loud, metallic mezzo’s skill set. I guess “O don fatale” is, but then you notice that the voice is quite shrill. She brought decibels, but not much in the music or acting departments. Barbara Frittoli probably knows how Elisabetta should sound, but I don’t think she’s got the voice to deliver it anymore, and sounded awfully wobbly, particularly at louder volumes and higher pitches. She was also not an actress of insight in this particular production.
That leaves us with Ferruccio Furlanetto, the best thing about this performance bar none. He was the only one who has created a complex character. His Filipo is not entirely happy to be king, but doesn’t want to follow in Carlos V’s footsteps either, and is very very lonely. His entire “Ella gianmai m’ammo!” was incredibly introspective and vulnerable, yet sung with true basso depth and warmth. (This was a particular contrast to René Pape’s take on the aria last June, which was, despite the claims of the text, a declaration of vocal supremacy. Listen to how amazing my legato is!) Eric Halfvorsen was a chilling Grand Inquisitor, and their scene together was a highlight. Supporting roles were uneven, with Miklós Sebestyén a weak monk and the Voice from Above following up on the Parsifal Voice from Above’s act by being exceptionally out of tune.
I’m glad I saw this because I’m almost always glad to see this opera, but a more convincingly lifelike conductor would have helped a lot. If you want to talk about how this opera is even better when it’s in its proper French, we can do that in the comments.
Don Carlo runs through March 16. Photos follow the break.

Don Carlo, Met Opera, 3/6/2012. Production by Nicholas Hytner (revival), conducted by Lorin Maazel with Ramón Vargas (Don Carlo), Ferruccio Furlanetto (King Philip II), Barbara Frittoli (Elisabetta), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Rodrigo), Anna Smirnova (Princess Eboli), Eric Halfvorsen (Grand Inquisitor)

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

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1 Comment

  1. I have always been a fan of frittoli it's sad to hear her sing so poorly. You should check out the dvd of this production from covent garden the cast, while possibly on the same level vocally (except keenlyside) are really exciting to watch onstage(the personage is excellant) and the camera prevents us from seeing too much of what is, imo, a kitschy set.