Giuseppe Verdi has been epitomized as the master of operatic tragedy. His late work "Don Carlo" has been noted by many scholars as possibly his most complex, with its abundant cast of characters that are often referred to as Shakespearean. A great performance of the massive work is a treat for any opera goer as it paints a vast canvas that showcases eye-popping pageantry, soaring lyricism and unrivaled emotional depth. The Met's cast for this season's "Don Carlo" promised to be one for the ages, but what ultimately transpired was an event of tragic proportions.
Conductor Lorin Maazel is a legend with a major track record that includes a plethora of memorable recordings and performances. But at age 82 (he turns 83 on March 6), the maestro is well past his prime. It seemed that Maazel was intent on bringing majesty to the opera and did so by slowing down the tempi the entire night. The result created the complete opposite effect as the major orchestral tutti usually sounded languid and labored; the propulsion and forward drive that characterizes Verdi's music was non-existent for the four plus hours of the performance. One great example would be the coda statement of the Carlo-Rodrigo duet, which threatened to sound like a funeral march instead of the remarkable ode to friendship that it is intended to be. The same could be said for the introduction to Act 5 that precedes Elisabetta's aria "Tu che la vanità." The introduction climaxes in a ravishing passage in which the violins escalate to fever pitch; this passage easily rocks the listener to the core but Maazel's approach sucked out the drive of the music and made it sound airless. Maazel also had a propensity for overemphasizing the horns and trumpets. There were orchestral tutti in which the only audible sounds were those of the trumpets and horns; one example would be the final coda of the opera where the strings were drowned out by the pomposity of the brass section. Every time there was a punctuating chord, the brass was emphasized to its fullest; the same went for the percussion. This approach made Verdi's lush score sound one-dimensional and burlesque.
Unfortunately, Maazel's problems did not end and perhaps his greatest missteps related to his accompanying the singers. There were countless times where it was clear that the maestro was not attuned to his soloists. During the love duet between Carlo and Elisabetta in Act 1, the conductor rushed ahead of his singers slightly. During the opening to Act 2, the Friar sings a gorgeous melody in unison with the orchestra; during this passage Maazel clearly fell behind his singer creating a rather tense moment on stage for the soloist. During the Act 3 concertato, he created some rough, erratic transitions from Filippo's outbursts to the lyrical phrases of the other singers; it took away all the elegance and suavity of the music. During Filippo's big monologue, "Ella giammai m'amo," Maazel pushed ahead of his soloist Ferruccio Furlanetto; he did the same during the opening phrase of Rodrigo's "Per me giunto è il dì supremo." In both circumstances, he was forced to wait for his singers to catch up. His most noticeable misstep was during the final duet between Carlo and Elisabetta. During Carlo's passage, "Ma pria di questo dì, alcun poter uman," Maazel fell behind tenor Ramon Vargas and only managed to regain status quo when Vargas had ended the passage.
Maazel did have a few moments worth mentioning: he brought out the gorgeous harp arpeggiations during the final Carlo-Elisabetta duet and Rodrigo's final aria. He also created a powerful brutality in the double basses during the Grand Inquisitor scene. Despite these fleeting moments, Maazel's conducting was a major disservice to the evening. The scattered boos he received during his ovation seemed to indicate that more than a few audience members were displeased.
Nicholas Hytner's two-year old production did nothing to help matters. Successful modern productions usually present some new angle on the piece that will stir conversation from ardent traditionalists and modernists (the Met's new "Rigoletto" and "Parsifal" are two great examples). Hytner's production does none of the above; instead it elicits boredom and looks cheap. The first act suggests a forest with four or five trees and a white rug to represent snow. The monastery is shrouded in black with a single tomb reading Carlo V on it. That tomb slides from stage left to right during the opening prelude for no good reason. Four of the seven scenes are enshrouded in black almost suggesting that the director either ran out of ideas or fell back on the now tired cliché of setting dark dramas in black sets. The lone difference is a red garden in Act 2, Scene 2 and the famous auto-da-fé scene. Nowhere are the production's shortcomings more visible than in this grand scene at the midpoint of the work. On stage right is a massive picture of an overweight Jesus akin to a portrait from Colombian painter Fernando Botero. All the way upstage is a golden church and on stage left is a wall with holes (which resembles the Escorial). The rest of the stage showcases the black stage floor; there were no attempts to hide it with anything and it stands out like a massive sore. The chorus comes in and runs to the front of the stage. Guards and monks enter and the chorus shifts to stage left. They eventually make their way to stage right and back around. The main characters stay in the downstage area but any semblance of ceremony and ritual is completely lost amidst the chaotic use of space. Ceremonies of this kind were rituals of supreme formality with the King and Queen having designated places from which to sit and watch the proceedings. In this production, everyone is littered all over the place, making it look like it was thrown together at the last second (it was not much different two years ago when Hytner directed it himself).
Fortunately the singers salvaged the evening with some truly fine moments. Tenor Ramon Vargas was refreshing in the title role. Many doubted whether Vargas, a lyric tenor, would be able to handle some of the heavier passages in the role. While he did start off tentatively in his first aria "Io la vidi," he had a solid evening through and through. Volume was not an issue with him and there was barely any hint of strain during the heavier parts. Instead, Vargas brought what most "Verdi tenors" these days often lack: fluid legato and elegance throughout the voice without emphatic pushing in the upper limits or wobbly vibrato. The tortured soul of the prince came to the fore with every phrase that Vargas sang; one highlight was the second act duet with Elisabetta in which voice wept and pleaded viscerally. In the Act 5 duet with Elisabetta, his voice rang heroically through the blaring trumpets and trombones in the orchestra. His physical portrayal was a bit overemphatic in some instances, but it did create the impression of a raving, frustrated man that lacks the maturity to confront his emotional issues. The real life Carlo was said to be a madman that King Phillip V locked away; Vargas' portrayal certainly referenced it in a few instances. One such moment was when he heard Elisabetta accept the marriage proposal. Vargas brought his arms around himself frantically and moved about the stage as if trying to contain an emotional eruption.
Barbara Frittoli also had a strong showing as Elisabetta. At the start of the opera, Elisabetta ran on stage hunting; the energy that Frittoli imbued in the character gave off the impression of an exuberant young lady in the flower of her youth. During the duet with Carlo, Frittoli shot some glances over at Vargas that indicated her flirtatious nature and her voice rang out with energy and power. However, this all changed when she came on in Act 2 as the newly married Queen. Frittoli conserved her voice throughout adding a dignified approach to the queen who is subordinating her truest emotions; it also suggested a vulnerable woman attempting to put up a front. During her first aria, the voice remained piano, almost as if she were whispering to her departing lady-in-waiting. During the climactic passages of the aria, her voice rang brilliantly; her upper range had a disembodied quality to it that created an angelic impression.
Ferruccio Furlanetto sang the towering role of Filippo when the production opened two years ago and was an authoritative presence throughout the night both vocally and physically. He walked about with a regal gait that made him seem like a true monarch. During Act 4 monologue, the destroyed King hobbled about; there was no sign of the imposing presence. During the Act 4 quartet, Furlanetto held his unconscious wife with such tenderness that his unrequited love was felt more powerfully. His voice only added to these characteristics. His first utterances in the work are brief, but Furlanetto's booming voice made sure to steal everyone's attention. During the famous monologue, the voluminous quality gave way to light vocalizing that drew the listener in. The delicate phrasing suggested contained sobbing that was heart-wrenching. During the final "Amor per me no ha," Furlanetto let all the pent up frustration out with one passionate burst of vocal power and emotion; a truly cathartic display.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky had an equally emotional moment during his final scene as Rodrigo. During the beautiful "Per me giunto è il dì supremo," he sang with a sweeping legato that also hinted at a man restraining his deepest emotions. During the final cadenza, Hvorostovsky sang the high F pianissimo and slowly built up a glorious crescendo that flourished into a passionate outburst on the words "Morrà per te." During the ensuing aria, Hvorostovsky sang with abandon as he pleaded with Carlo to save Flanders and bid him goodbye. This emotional scene was impactful because of Hvorostovsky's character arc throughout the rest of the night. His Rodrigo was poised both vocally and physically, a dominant character that made the Inquisitor's fears believable. The only moments where this power and control was left unchecked were during the scenes of Carlo that oozed with intimacy and brotherly love. This constant struggle between his authority and responsibility to his best friend made for a poignant character arc.
Two years ago, Anna Smirnova made her debut in this production as the Princess Eboli. Back then her voice wobbled wildly and the characterization lacked any nuance. On Friday, Smirnova was a different singer all together; her voice is still massive but there is greater vocal control. She gave a fiery and domineering account of Eboli that counterpointed Frittoli's reserved Elisabetta beautifully. During the great "O Don Fatale" Smirnova blasted her sound with abandon during the aggressive outburst at the start of the aria, but then transformed it into suave phrasing as she wept about her future. During the aria's final section, Eboli decides to run off and save Carlo and Smirnova's powerhouse voice filled the theater with heroic sound that punctuated a triumphant night for the mezzo-soprano.
Eric Halfvarson had an excellent showing as the Grand Inquisitor. Two years ago, his voice was dominated by an uncontrollable wobble that was non-existent on Friday. His tremendous voice matched up well with Furlanetto's and gave their confrontation a titanic dimension. Miklós Sebestyèn sounded insecure as the Friar (Charles V), but his performance was marred by the conductor's mistakes.
"Don Carlo" is a long opera, but it felt eternal under the guidance of Maazel and lackluster production of Nicholas Hytner. Fortunately, the singers brought committed performances that under better circumstances would have created an unforgettable evening. For those who want great singing there is a lot to be found in this performance, but those looking for great Verdi on his 200th birthday celebration should look elsewhere (the Met's new "Rigoletto" and the forthcoming "Traviata" are far superior options).