Metropolitan Opera House, New York – January 7, 2002–Don Carlo is Verdi’s longest, and in some ways, most multifaceted opera. In it, he tackles several of his favorite themes: The conflict between church and state, patriotism, and public vs private issues in the lives of his characters. For generations it was known largely in its four act version; additional material belonging to the original first act was discovered 30-or-so years ago and was included in this performance of the complete five-act work. To be sure, since it introduces us to the betrothed Don Carlo and Elisabeth de Valois and we watch them fall in love before the world-changing announcement that, in fact, Philip II, Don Carlo’s father, will be taking Elisabeth as his own bride, it greatly helps us in our understanding of the emotions of the two later in the work. But in all honesty, the newly-found first act’s music is not as strong as the rest. Still, the work is remarkable in it scope and the grandeur of the Auto-da-fe scene is outdone only by the searing intimacy of the confrontation between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor; this is theatre at its most gripping and Verdi at his most inspired.
The Met’s current production dates from 1979 and has held up well. David Reppa’s sets still reflect the stateliness of the Royal Court, with the oppressive gloom of King Philip’s study in stark contrast; only the Auto-da-fe scene, worthy of Aida-like pageantry, lacks pizzazz. And John Dexter’s direction is still honest and straightforward. Where the opera’s revival mostly fails – in one degree or another – is, sadly, on the musical end.
Valery Gergiev leads a strangely uninflected performance for the opera’s first three acts, with little of the ebb and surge of Verdi’s accents. There’s excellent playing from the Met orchestra but they’re keeping time for Gergiev; one need only listen to any of the available recordings to hear what’s missing – a true Verdian line. His cast, too – with an exception or two – has the same problem. In the title role, tenor Richard Margison has all the notes and sings gracefully and with a keen ear for Verdi’s dynamic markings. But he’s emotionally disengaged except at the most obvious moments and the voice itself does not have an Italianate ring to it. Veronica Villaroel, substituting for an indisposed Galina Gorchakova as Elisabeth, has a beautiful voice, but she seemed to be on automatic pilot for most of the evening, showing emotion only in the confrontation scene in Philip’s study in the fourth act, and her vibratoless sound is, furthermore, unsuitable for Verdi.
From here the cast gets better: Dolora Zajick’s Eboli was a powerhouse, which grew in stature as the evening progressed; if her Veil Song was rhythmically cautious and strange, her “O don fatale” more than made up for it in passion and sheer glorious sound. Samuel Ramey’s King Philip was moving and wonderfully sung, and if the voice is not quite a pliable as it once was it doesn’t matter; he has great insight into King Philip and the sound itself is still very impressive. Indeed, his scene with Paata Burchuladze’s fierce, cruel Grand Inquisitor was the high point of the evening: Even Gergiev was inspired by its drama. Best was Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s gorgeously sung Posa – he seems to have the Verdian idiom in his soul and he threw himself into the part, singing with long line, exquisite legato, and true nobility. But this Don Carlo was a strangely disaffected affair, a shell of what the opera should be. Gergiev led a potent Otello at the Met some years ago so one can’t accuse him of not understanding the composer, but he was only partially present for Don Carlo, and it’s an opera that needs one’s full attention and commitment.–Robert Levine