Eddie Pensier* writes:
I’ve always had big problems with Verdi’s Don Carlo. It always struck me less as a cohesive music-theatre piece and more of a collection of scenes and arias, rather like a concert program. It never really juggles the political drama, family drama, and romance aspects to my satisfaction. The title character is rarely done justice. The million different editions provoke infuriatingly pedantic arguments among opera nerds over which is best and Most Authentic™. And it features possibly the lamest, most pathetic cop-out of an ending to soil a major opera by a genius composer with (usually) unerring theatrical instincts.
Shame then, that the music is so damn good. Pretty much the perfect mix of arias, duets, and ensembles. Just the right amount of mid-period Verdi grandeur balanced with hushed moments of introspection. I love hearing all the parts of Don Carlo, but I hate sitting through Don Carlo, if that makes sense.
I did though, on the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Nicholas Hytner’s production on March 31. It’s described on the Met website as “handsome”, and I guess that’s true in the way you tell an 8-year old “My, aren’t you a handsome boy!” Nothing particularly pretty or striking about it, but nothing hideously ugly either, and it mostly allows the action to hew closely to the text, for which one ought to be grateful in this day and age. There wasn’t a whole lot of stage direction, and the singers engaged in more than a little “park and bark” without a theatrical hand to guide them.
The exception was Ferruccio Furlanetto, who is justly famous for his portrayal of King Philip. Furlanetto’s coal-black bass has the right authoritative weight to deliver Hardass Philip, but manages to soften with the sadness/humiliation/old-man exhaustion necessary to make Romantic Philip genuinely empathetic.
Barbara Frittoli is the real deal: a serious Verdi lyric soprano with a glittering voice and a lovely, regal bearing. Is her voice a teensy bit more tattered than it was a decade ago? Sure. But she sang with such exquisite attention to detail that I was willing to forgive the occasional pinch in tone.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky is a known quantity, he of the flowing white hair and velvety chocolate-brown baritone and sadomasochistic music videos and inhumanly long phrasing. The thing about that last one though: you get so seduced by the entire paragraphs sung in one breath, that you don’t notice the hilariously loud, labored gasps for breath in between them, until you purposely listen for them. And once you do, you can never un-hear them. Even so, there’s probably nobody on earth singing Posa this well, and he was a credit to the cast.
The Eboli of Ekaterina Gubanova was well-sung but a bit cold: she lacked the vengeful, bitchy touch that elevates the best Ebolis. Yonghoon Lee cut a dashing figure as Carlo and has a real, proper Italianate voice (if only mediocre Italian pronunciation) but he was the one most handcuffed by the lack of effective direction and often looked adrift.
Veteran basso James Morris was a great if not hugely elegant Philip in the prime of his career. Here he took the role of the Grand Inquisitor and made a growly, menacing meal of every line.
At this point I could easily churn out more words about how impeccable, stylistically correct, and sympathetic the conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin was. But I’ll simply quote my seatmate, who got it in a nutshell:
He did everything he was supposed to do, and nothing he wasn’t supposed to do.