Even with a magnificent Furlanetto, the Met’s “Don Carlo” is a royal mess
Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo, a relatively unfamiliar work in 1950, was the opera that Rudolf Bing chose to launch his tenure as Metropolitan Opera intendant. John Dexter’s austerity-era Don Carlo grew tattered in the twenty-odd years after it bowed in 1979 but also hosted towering portrayals by Renata Scotto, Tatiana Troyanos, Samuel Ramey, and other greats.
Nicholas Hytner’s 2010 production of Don Carlo, revived at the house on Friday, looks cheap and nasty and makes a travesty of Verdi’s sprawling masterpiece, which the composer revised several times following its 1867 Paris Opera premiere. With sets and costumes by Bob Crowley and lighting by Mark Henderson, directed in this revival by J. Knighten Smit, this Don Carlo draws repeated and unintended guffaws: when Ramón Vargas as Don Carlo gives a goofy grin and shrug upon revealing his identity to his fiancée Elisabetta; when Princess Eboli in the manner of a sitcom hussy feels up the page Tebaldo; and on several other occasions.
Many elements of the staging sabotage Verdi’s brooding and humane drama. In the opening scene, the chorus that begs Elisabetta to accept Filippo’s hand is a group of courtiers swathed in fur; the starving and war-weary country folk whom the princess feels duty-bound to succor are nowhere in sight. The second scene of Act II, set outside the monastery of St. Just, looks and unfolds like a B-movie parody of Bizet’s Carmen, complete with brandished fans, quivering hips, and lurid red lighting; the auto-da-fé scene, bitterly horrifying as wrought by Verdi, here goes for nothing. The mysterious friar revealed in the opera’s closing moments to be Charles V, Don Carlo’s grandfather, has previously ambled about the stage with all the menace of a chap out for his evening constitutional—and given that Carlo in this staging dies in a swordfight at opera’s end, his grandfather’s deus-ex-machina apparition has no point.
All of that said, this Don Carlo’s dramatic shortcomings are of little consequence in comparison with Lorin Maazel’s wayward, untidy reading of the score. A Verdi bicentennial factoid: there is only one degree of separation between Maazel and Verdi, who both knew Arturo Toscanini. A searching and admirable musician at his best, Maazel in this Don Carlo sorely needs his legendary champion’s exactitude and ironclad authority.
One can go a lifetime and never hear a performance at a company illustrious or obscure that so often found stage and pit hopelessly out of synch. Maazel summons immense beauties, among them a dulcet, phosphorescent cloud of sound for Carlo’s O prodigio in Act II; and a sublime prelude to Act III, in which the gentle, ardent filigree of clarinets, horn, and bassoon conjures memories of Carlo and Elisabetta’s love, a moment of grace that melts away in the shimmers and sighs of the strings. The performance’s fundamental disorder, though, trips up both soloists and chorus and multiplies as the opera proceeds. At Friday’s curtain calls, nearly all the singers very pointedly acknowledged the prompter, suggesting that skimpy rehearsal time may also be behind this muddled Don Carlo.
The Filippo II of Ferruccio Furlanetto is a wonder of this or any other operatic age. He seems to doze during the first part of Ella giammai m’amò, his voice growing weary and wan, his misery stalking him even as he sinks towards the sleep that finally eludes him. His every word tellingly weighed and sculpted, his imposing but fragile mien telling of emotional need so overpowering that it threatens to shatter his austere facade, Furlanetto in Verdi’s most inspired scenes—those transcendent encounters with Rodrigo and the Grand Inquisitor—musters a level of greatness that inspires awe.
Don Carlo is significantly less compelling as an Italian opera than in its French original, with its unerring fusion of words and music. The French Don Carlos also makes us aware that Eboli, nowadays sung in the squally, leather-lunged manner of Mascagni’s Santuzza, is in reality a suavely Gallic creature straight out of Meyerbeer. If however you like your Eboli lusty and loud, Anna Smirnova will please. She is able to sing softly, as we hear in O don fatale, but mostly ladles on her pungent voice forte, fortissimo, and a fraction of a tone sharp. A striking presence on stage, she badly needs a strong director’s guidance to make more compelling use of her somewhat incontinent theatrical energy.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s oratorial style well suits Rodrigo, and he has a stunning moment in Act II when he challenges Furlanetto’s Filippo, who recoils and then draws himself up to his full height and bears down on Rodrigo, who stands dead still, his gaze firm and unflinching. “Enter the Grand Inquisitor, aged 90 and blind,” is as famous a stage direction as Shakespeare’s “Exit, pursued by a bear,” and Eric Halfvarson musters all of the old mummy’s vocal and spiritual darkness.
Barbara Frittoli and Ramón Vargas, both with voices marginally too small for their roles, make a moving couple as Elisabetta and Don Carlo. They hit all their notes, though neither manages to make the highest and loudest ones sound easy. A queenly actress, Frittoli is at her best in her Act IV scene with Filippo—all injured innocence and she faces the king’s accusations (and how despairingly Furlanetto’s Filippo clutches and caresses his unconscious wife after she faints). Vargas’s scampering and scenery chewing ill befit a Spanish prince, but like Frittoli he has a sure grasp of Verdi’s style and sings with fervor and an open heart.
Jennifer Holloway is a delicious Tebaldo; Miklós Sebestyén sings well as the friar; Lori Guilbeau’s celestial voice sometimes sounds a touch earthbound; and Eduardo Valdes is a strong Lerma. Alexey Lavrov, Paul Corona, Eric Jordan, Evan Hughes, Joshua Benaim, and David Crawford are earnest, sure-toned Flemish deputies. With no offense meant to the capable Maxime de Toledo, the priest inquisitor’s liturgical ranting needs to be dropped like a hot stone. Donald Palumbo’s chorus sings beautifully. In the end, though, for all its occasional beauties, this rudderless Don Carlo is a shameful booby prize for Verdi in his two-hundredth year.
Verdi’s Don Carlo is in repertory through March 16. metoperafamily.org; 212-362-6000.