Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ei segua il suo destin

Auto da fe: (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
With some trepidation and a lot of excitement, I headed downtown to catch the Monday night premiere of Don Carlo at the Met.  I first got to know Don Carlo through what may loosely be called my pre-blog modus operandi: I grabbed a recording in the library because it was there and looked good, found the libretto online, and listened (over and over and over again.)  Nicholas Hytner's production was elegant and emotionally powerful, with stylized sets that recalled the Escorial (and environs) while evoking a powerful sense of a fate that approached inexorably, and imprisoned the complex men and women who struggled so furiously against it.  Here Nicholas Hytner talks about his sense of the opera and his interpretive goals.  In the first (Fontainebleau) act, for instance, it is winter, and a black path cuts a stark zig-zag path through the snow.  Neither Carlo nor Elisabetta use this route, entering; but having agreed to become Filippo's wife, she is carried down it in procession.  The prison-like nature of strong walls with small windows was effective throughout the rest of the opera (such a wall ascending and descending to divide the space of the stage also made scene transitions seamless.)  The set for Elisabetta's garden I found jarring and strange; but that was an exception.  Against this sleek, streamlined backdrop, the costumes and furnishings were deliciously detailed.  Photos from the dress rehearsal may be found here; I'll add more as soon as they're available.  Hytner was on hand to guide the Personenregie (is there an English word for that?) and it was amazing, drawing out the complexities of all the characters, including a hard edge for Martyr to Duty Elisabetta.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin's conducting was, of course, fast, but it was not merely fast.  The orchestra did occasionally outrun the singers, or at least (to my ears) rush them, and did occasionally threaten to drown them.  But there was drama in the pacing, not a mad rush through the score; details were pointed up, and the sheer sweep of Verdi's music was relished (I've said it before: I love the Met orchestra. Nézet-Séguin let them shine here.)  Despite the issues in balance and pacing, I was on the edge of my seat and holding my breath most of the night, so by that standard of measurement, they were doing something very right.  I worried for Roberto Alagna's Carlo during the first act, but whether it was an issue of nerves or warming up, things soon improved and I could relax.  It sounds like a relatively heavy role for him, but he delivered it with passion; he does have a beautiful timbre, and his nervy, anguished Carlo was sung with unflagging energy. "Io vengo a domandar grazia alla mia regina," and the subsequent scene, was a highlight.

Marina Poplavskaya's Elisabetta was also compelling.  She has a bright, strong soprano which she employed with steely focus, with floating lyricism where needed (there were a few moments where her voice seemed to veer out of perfect control, but not enough to make me tense.)  The compositional audacity of putting "Tu che la vanita" at the end of this opera never fails to stagger me, but she pulled it off beautifully.  And her acting was a treat: from the beginning, her Elisabetta had a sense of her own dignity, personal and political, which informed bearing, gesture, and behavior.  Even from the family circle, her remote composure breathed tragedy, and the moments where that composure cracks were made doubly powerful.  About that steely edge: her exile of Eboli was cold, hard anger, not saintly forbearance.  And although she has agreed to become Filippo's consort, she shies away from his attempted demonstrations of affection in Act IV, in a way which clearly wounds him.  Although Anna Smirnova has a powerful, even lush mezzo, her Eboli was less impressive.  I'm tempted to use the word "impressionistic" for her vocal and dramatic portrayal.

Simon Keenlyside's Rodrigo would have stolen the opera, were it not for Ferruccio Furlanetto's Filippo.  I'll admit, I'm biased: Rodrigo is my favorite character.  He's so courageous, so loyal... so nice!  As in last season's Hamlet, Keenlyside's acting was rivetingly intense, and I think his baritone is gorgeous, if not a big "Verdi baritone" sound, and it was certainly intelligently used.  He and Alagna had great chemistry; I watched their scenes with a lump in my throat.  Keenlyside's Rodrigo captured beautifully the compelling intensity of the man's profound, thoughtful decency.  No wonder Filippo values him so highly.  And here, whether it was Hytner's choice or Keenlyside's or a collaborative one, Rodrigo doesn't just love Carlo; he is in love with him.  This is understated, beautifully done, and (of course) heartbreaking, made clear through dozens of small, arrested gestures... the look on the man's face when Carlo confesses his love for Elisabetta, the way he looks at the incriminating portrait found among the queen's things, the expression given to so many of his phrases.  The prison scene, of course, brought me to tears (audio from last year's London performance here.)  From a purely technical standpoint Keenlyside was incredible--I have no idea how he sang "Io morro" that way while crumpled up on the floor--and from an emotional, devastating.  (This was helped by Alagna's Carlo, who was distraught and solicitous rather than vaguely distressed and useless.)  When, almost at the end, he runs his hand through Carlo's hair (repeatedly, at last,) I nearly sobbed.  

Ferruccio Furlanetto's Filippo was one of those performances that I feel simply privileged to have seen.  His very walk was regally imposing.  His reputation, of course, precedes him: but that voice... I have a timid little theory that maybe the greatest voices betray that quality in their potential to continually surprise you, no matter how well you think you know what to expect.  My words are inadequate; if you possibly can, go, watch a master of his art at work.  Not only does Furlanetto have stage-owning sonority, near-whispers or -shouts also gave goosebumps.  An inflexible, but not unreflective monarch, he terrified in Acts II and III and then wrung our hearts in Act IV.  The curtain rises to find him at a prie-dieu, from which he moves to the table where he sits for "Ella giammai m'amo."  The audience, thank heavens, waited until the last note had died (though still, perhaps, not allowing the spell to last long enough) before unleashing the applause.  The scene with the Grand Inquisitor sees Filippo still incredibly vulnerable, eventually getting angry enough for a beautifully snarled "Non più, frate!"  The scene with Elisabetta continued to wring the heart.  He is angry, of course... but it's also poignantly clear that he loves her, genuinely, deeply; he's yearning for any sort of reassurance or rebuttal that she might give him.  Of course, neither is forthcoming.  When she swoons, his "Soccorso alla regina!" is not a punctilious order; it's an anguished cry, as he catches her and cradles her in his arms, holding her, stroking her hair, kissing her forehead, as she will never allow him to do.  I nearly cried.  He is once again the avenging monarch in Act V, credible both in his stabbing Don Carlo (!!) and in his awe-struck acknowledgment of Carlo V's ghost.  This post has wallowed in detail and attained embarrassingly grand-operatic dimensions, but I can't close without another recommendation.  Flaws notwithstanding, it was a great night at the opera.

Here are the curtain call photos, including Hytner and the production team, who were generously applauded.  Note: a man with a big head prevented me from getting Keenlyside's bow.  Then a man whom I suspect of a creepy crush stood up just for Poplavskaya's. But: 


  1. I really want to see this opera. I don't think it's one that would come across as well on a dvd, so I may have to save it for a live performance. I just adore Furlanetto; you're so lucky to have been able to see him live!

  2. Believe me, I'm sensible of my good fortune. :) Here's a DVD I haven't yet seen in its entirety, but excerpts are impressive:

  3. The Hytner production is out on DVD now, in its Covent Garden incarnation, if you don't mind Villazon. The rest of the cast is the same, I think, except for Ganassi as Eboli.

    The Chatelet production (Luc Bondy) is worth checking out because it has some of the things that got edited out, including the ensemble in the Prison Scene that finally ended up in the Requiem.

  4. I am a great fan of SImon Keenlyside too, i just don´t understand how he can play he is in love with Alagna:-))))o.k.i too am biased, it seemed to me, alagna spoke too much in the interview during the transmission of don pasquale and simon had too little time to tell something to his impatient fan(s) :-))
    i think it is quite a logical interpretation to have posa in love with carlo. it really is for me.

  5. I just got hold of Riccardo Chailly-Willy Decker and the Dutch Opera production DVD, and it seems that you can't escape Villazon whatever recording you get. Violeta Urmana as Eboli, now *that's* interesting.

  6. I should also say the Chatelet production is pretty off the beaten track vis a vis the score, since so much of it is pieced together from early drafts. So for instance this:

    vs the score as we know it:

  7. @asperias: "Was koennte dich aus meinem Herzen draengen, wenn es nicht Weiber tun?" (though granted, it's Karl who says that to Posa)

  8. Thanks, S.... a reminder that I should revisit Schiller.

  9. You're wrong Lucy. It sucked.

    Ok, maybe not. A couple of spammy comments though.

    Your description of the production is excellent, it is in and of itself perfectly fine and the Personnenregie very effective. Phil going through his papers after giving the Countess the boot - an allusion to the "Bureaucrat King" is one of a number of nice touches. The problem is that the old production was better - more naturalistic rather than stylized, more effective in certain places - the grandeur of the Auto da Fe scene more effectively matched that of the music - and, obviously much cheaper. Last year's Rosenkavalier, by contrast was very badly worn and begging to be replaced*. It seems the $$$ could have been much better spent there, especially in light of the increased prices.

    Your description of JNS' conducting is also superb and I disagree with none of it but I have to say that speed was a barely noticeable aspect of his take on the score. It could never be described as "plodding", to be sure, and perhaps my reaction was influenced by what one would expect form him but I was much more struck by how slowly (though never excessively so) he led certain passages. In the two performances I went to he never outran the singers but perhaps he was able to reign in his excitement by this point in the run.

    My reaction to Alagna was very similar. He started out almost inaudible but improved dramatically. Before the 3rd Act it was announced he had a cold, but this made his excellent singing in certain places much more noteworthy. Yongboon Lee was very impressive in the other performance.

    SK is indeed an excellent Posa but he was in terrible voice in the 1st performance. Fortunately he was in rather exceptional vocal form on the second night. Acting, movement and charisma are all well and good but exceptional singing is a big help.

    Last, but certainly not least, Furlanetto. One would hardly call Philip a "favorite" character but he is, to me at least, the most compelling and "Ella giammai m'amo" my favorite set piece for male voice. And compelling Furlanetto certainly was. In every move, gesture, look and vocal inflection an unbeatable Philip. It is, as you say, alway a privilege to hear him. Excellent on the first night he was even better on the second, perhaps the best I've heard him since his last Met Don Carlos 5 years ago.

    * Furlanetto is singing Ochs to Harteros' Marschallin in San Diego later this year. Throw in Garanca as Octavian and we have the makings of a cast for that new production which I would at least try to make happen if I had a say in such things.

  10. Not "spammy" at all, marcillac; appreciated. I do realize that YNS' conducting deserves more discerning praise than I'm capable of articulating, and I'm very glad to hear that there was no rushing in later performances. Thanks for your take. My impression of the tempi was also certainly inflected by expectation, and experience previously limited to recordings.

    As for SK: you've caught me out in aural inexperience and a tendency (which I do try to avow in a disclaimer sort of way!) to be sentimentally carried away. I don't have the previous Don Carlo as a point of reference, but I do completely agree that the Met needs a new Rosenkavalier! Furlanetto's Ochs sounds as though it could be revelatory... maybe finally bringing out the nuance to the character that seems to get lost most of the time. Harteros' Marschallin is on my Met wishlist too.

  11. You would certainly be advised to familiarise yourself with the Schiller...I have been fortunate enough to see the play more than once, I hope you get a chance to see it one day. You can also join my DON CARLOS Yahoo group...

    I did like this production, but IMO the Chatelet production remains the best. Pappano's conducting is inspiring, and Hampson is the ideal Posa (yes, better than Keenlyside!!)
    Best of all, as someone already pointed out, it includes the scene for Carlos, Philip and male chorus after Posa's death....which makes much more sense dramatically and musically, AND brings it closer to Schiller.

    Just a brief thought.,....while the opera is the tragedy of Carlo and Elisabeth, the play is much more the tragedy of Philip and Posa.

  12. @Leonora The Chatelet production is blessed with such a strong cast all around. I always looked at the opera as the tragedy of all the principals... but it doesn't surprise me to hear that Schiller emphasizes the moral/political element.

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  15. Very much agree on Rodrigo - he's so in love. And Simon is incredibly expressive and really udnerstands the character.

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