Spanish Lesson: What the New Don Carlo Tells Us About the Met

don carlo furlanetto and alagna 1978a Spanish Lesson: What the New Don Carlo Tells Us About the MetDon Carlo is Verdi’s longest opera, and perhaps his greatest. Sweeping and ambitious, a story of romantic, religious and political clashes at the 16th-century Spanish court, it is the most nuanced of the composer’s explorations of the interaction of private obsessions and public, even national, responsibilities. Aida, which followed it and which it resembles, may have a tighter plot, but Don Carlo is unique in both its scale and its humaneness, its classically Verdian cast of riveting characters who are impossible either to love or hate.

It has been said that in its scope and the subtlety of its characterizations, it is the most Shakespearean of Verdi’s operas, even more so than the three based directly on Shakespeare. So it’s no wonder that the Metropolitan Opera has long entrusted it to directors whose experience is largely in non-operatic theater. The famous 1950 production that opened Rudolf Bing’s tenure as general manager was by Margaret Webster, the Met’s first female director, who had enjoyed major successes on Broadway, including Othello starring Paul Robeson. In 1979 came a production by John Dexter, who had arrived at the Met as director of production a few years prior after a distinguished theatrical career in London and New York.

The burning of the heretics was accomplished with projections of fire and a brief shot of mannequins tied above some weak flames. The effect was cheesy rather than frightening.

The Met’s newest Don Carlo opened last week and is by Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of London’s National Theatre and a noted director of theater and film (The Madness of King George, The History Boys). Mr. Hytner is, in many ways, the ideal director for Peter Gelb’s Met: a “name” in Broadway and Hollywood circles, he is the creator of handsome, unobjectionable, literate popular plays and movies–up-to-date versions of Merchant-Ivory correctness. His sensibility is modern (those multiethnic History Boys did like to talk about sex) yet ultimately traditional, stylized yet ultimately realistic.

There are gorgeous moments in his Don Carlo. The second act opens in the monastery of St. Just, which Mr. Hytner and his set designer, Bob Crowley (also responsible for the exquisite period costumes; count on the costuming at the Met to shine as the HD era progresses), have imagined as a dark, smoky, impenetrably enormous hall dominated by a gilded monument and sharp shafts of light coming through small, square windows spread evenly over a huge wall. Before a word is sung, the scene immediately gets at the essence of the opera, what Virgil Thomson, reviewing the 1950 Met production, called its “sombre splendor.” The seemingly endless walls of windows–an elegant stylization of the Escorial, King Philip II’s palace outside Madrid–return in later scenes of the king’s study and the prison, somehow both airy and claustrophobic.

It would have been fascinating to see the entire opera staged in variations on this box of windows, and there are indications that this was Mr. Hytner’s impulse; a fourth-act scene in which the back wall rises to allow a mob to enter shows how flexible the set could have been. But he and Mr. Gelb would doubtless have been accused of penny-pinching. (A unit set! Perish the thought.) So variety is introduced, in the form of odd lapses in taste and tone: an opening act with spindly winter trees and a rather twee winding path; a garden dominated by a wall constructed, everyone whispered at intermission, of oversize red Legos; an auto-da-fé overseen by a bizarre, enormous painting on a scrim of Jesus wearing his crown of thorns. Sombre splendor there is frequently not.

That auto-da-fé scene, strangely passionless, points to Mr. Hytner’s major weakness: In the crowd scenes, he loses clarity. The opera’s finale was confused; I wasn’t sure just what was happening. In the mob scenes, there was little sense of menace or threat, and those qualities are central to lending an urgency to the opera’s setting of the personal against the political. The burning of the heretics was accomplished with projections of fire and a brief shot of mannequins tied above some weak flames. The effect was cheesy rather than frightening, and without a vivid evocation of the gloomy, awesome power of the Inquisition, the opera, its characters and their struggles can’t make their full impact.

Mr. Hytner did draw convincing performances from his cast. The star of the evening was Ferruccio Furlanetto, as the conflicted tyrant Philip II. Rich-voiced and eloquent, Mr. Furlanetto portrayed the king as both aggressive and fragile, an aging monarch making the slow transition from the youthful idealism of Rodrigo and Carlo to the decrepit, faceless evil of the Grand Inquisitor.

Roberto Alagna, as Carlo, was characteristically enthusiastic and ardent. His voice, after a shaky first act, sounded full in the house, but was more obviously labored in an audio clip released by the Met. Simon Keenlyside, as Rodrigo, threw himself and his smallish voice into the part. Anna Smirnova, making her Met debut as Princess Eboli, was a sympathetic presence but struggled vocally.

The soprano Marina Poplavskaya is having her Met coming-out this season; after starring as Elisabetta in Don Carlo, she leads the company’s new Traviata on New Year’s Eve. Though young, she has a firm command of style; a single motion of her hand–slowly, coldly opening to receive back her crucifix from Eboli–was a model of operatic gesture: stylized yet true, tiny yet able to register across an auditorium. She gets it. Vocally, there were passages in which her large, dark-toned soprano shone. Yet her voice sometimes disappeared in ensembles, and she had trouble making it through Verdi’s long phrases. Elisabetta’s big, lyrical aria near the end wasn’t her finest moment. It was a puzzling performance, but one thing is certain: You never stop paying attention when she’s onstage.

That the premiere of Don Carlo was a memorable evening despite an inconsistent production and cast was due largely to the brilliant conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. His tempos were often brisk and his textures light and transparent, but he and the orchestra (sounding glorious) never sacrificed power and lushness. In the pit, if not always onstage, you heard the opera’s magnificent interplay of intimate confession and grand gesture. You got what Verdi wanted.

editorial@observer.com