(Note: I've coined SN@TO as shorthand for Saturday night at the Opera. It's produced as circumstances suggest topics.)
Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlo was the latest of this season's Metropolitan Opera's HD transmissions of live performances to movie theaters around the country today starting at 12:30 pm EST.
I was surprised by the poll in last weeks' diary where I was the only one (out of 13) to vote for Don Carlo as my favorite Verdi opera. Well, favorite is a very personal thing and not really subject to reason, but after today's performance my admiration for the work is only increased.
Though I can (and will) quibble with particular details, in my experience it very rarely gets much better than this. For starters, the performing version is the one that seems to be most preferred by enthusiasts:
The Met's new production is played in five acts with two intermissions, the first between Acts 2 and 3, and the second after Act 3. The version used is Verdi's final revision from 1886, sung in Italian, including the act that takes place at Fontainebleau (Act 1). It is almost identical to the version used in the Met's previous production by John Dexter, with the exception of the opening section of the Fontainebleau scene. Instead of the longer scene between Elisabeth and the woodcutters which opened the opera in the Dexter production, the new production uses the abbreviated version with which Verdi replaced the original just before the Paris premiere in 1867.
This is the same version used by Giulini, Solti and Abbado in their several recordings. The Fontainebleau scene (Act I) provides too much musical and dramatic context for the rest of the work to be dispensable, besides containing some of the most ecstatic love music that Verdi ever wrote.
The question most on my mind after today's show is:
Who is Yannick Nézet-Séguin?
I was not previously acquainted with today's conductor, though after a little research it turns out I just haven't been paying attention. From the Met's own website we learn that he's 35, from Montreal and conducted Carmen there last season. On top of that we learn from Google search that's he's openly gay and the next music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra!
Lucky Philadelphia! He provided an exquisite reading of the score precisely weighting every turn in the music and building the climaxes with relentless line. We got a little footage of him conducting the opening of Act III (the Garden Scene). You could see him take a big breath right before launching in. And it came to me in a lightbulb flash. Just as James Levine sings the music, Yannick breathes the music. I was on the verge of tears at several points.
I wonder what Simon Rattle thought. The cameras picked him up sitting in one of the side boxes.
Nicholas Hytner's production has been much praised, but I went in with a show-me attitude. There was a lot to like. The quite varied settings were effectively differentiated while maintaining an appropriately brooding atmosphere overall.
The characterizations were all convincing, down to the Countess of Aremberg (a non-singing role played by Anne Dyas). I got a real kick out of the page Tebaldo (Layla Claire) whose erotic play with Eboli gave real life to the scene of the ladies passing time (opening of Act II, Scene 2).
Sometimes the stage movement felt a bit unfocused, above all in the auto-da-fé scene (Act III, Scene 2). The treatment of the heretics to be burned was particularly unfortunate. They had white robes with little fire insignias printed on and matching dunce caps. They were marched off and the crowd looked out as though the burning were taking place in the audience (fine), but then we were treated to a little bodies at the stake and fire show at the back of the stage. Yuck.
My least favorite of the singers was Anna Smirnova as Eboli. She had the range and the vocal agility for the role, though with rather more vibrato than I find enjoyable. But in such a first-rate environment I was willing to 'work with her'.
Simon Keenlyside sang beautifully as Rodrigo and gave a more nuanced interpretation of the character than I have seen before. A manipulative streak that I had never seen before, but that is fully justified by the text was on display from the first moment.
Marina Poplavskaya must be ranked a first-rate Verdian soprano. She has a beautiful and seamless voice. The high notes are all there and so are the low notes which are crucial at several important turns of the music (cf. È l'angoscia suprema). And she is splendid to watch, a beautiful figure with regal bearing and an expressive face. I long to hear her live.
Roberto Alagna was thoroughly sympathetic as Carlo, every bit up to the taxing demands of this long role. He reminds me a bit of Bergonzi rather more portamento than I consider ideal, but executed with such consistent good taste that it becomes endearing.
Going in, Ferruccio Furlanetto is the singer I had the most doubts about, but he was certainly up to the demands of the role. It's a rich and dark instrument rather reminiscent of Matti Salminen, but a bit coarse to be an ideal Philip.
And I loved watching Eric Halfvarson in his red cardinal's robes and convincing impersonation of blindness. He dominated the stage appropriately when he was on.
The Backstage Stuff
Deborah Voigt was the hostess once again, and she does the job well. As I first appreciated when I saw her as Ariadne in San Francisco a number of years ago, she's a natural comedienne and I enjoy her presence.
But am I the only one who wishes they would leave the poor singers alone when they're coming off the stage? They almost never say anything interesting and it kind of spoils the spell of enchantment cast by the performance.