The Metropolitan Opera returned to performances after a month-long hiatus on February 28th with three firsts: Managing Director Peter Gelb’s call for a moment of silence in honor of the war-victimized Ukrainians; the singing of the Ukrainian National Anthem by the Met Chorus; and the first-ever performance of Verdi’s Don Carlos, the original, five-act, French grand opera first heard at the Paris Opera in 1867.

Verdi agreed to cut the too-long opera and revised it several times over the years in addition to “approving” an Italian translation. With the first act eliminated, the standard performing edition became a four-act, Italian language work. Now, at the Met, the edition used is an amalgam of the 1867 and 1884 editions, with additions and subtractions. The first act, set in France, was restored, but without the Hunter’s Chorus. The scene between Carlos and his father after Posa’s death, which was later used in the Requiem’s Lachrymosa, was a revelation.  Don Carlos is Verdi’s most broadly painted canvas, with great depth to both personal and political situations, musically and textually, and it came across as the masterwork it is.

The use of French was wedded to conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s reading. With a sharp, native French-Canadian ear, the maestro played on French’s vowels, longer than Italian’s (which are more abrupt, often final), and his orchestra adjusted and played exquisitely. The long melodies were filled with shaded dynamics and facets of pacing that made the words count without unnatural underlining. To hear the second verse of Rodrigue’s farewell aria sung entirely softly, almost in a dream, you suddenly realize what can and cannot be done with language and subtlety.

Charles Edwards’ huge sets will do nothing to stop detractors from thinking the Met is a museum: a huge Botafumeiro, or hanging incense burner, sways oppressively over the stage as a bell tolls for almost three minutes as we sit in the dark awaiting the first bit of music. The mood it sets is gloom–quite rightly–but it is a combination of obvious and dull. The walls on stage are floor-to-ceiling gray stone, with what look like alcoves; later, during the Auto-da-fé, they are peopled with dignitaries. Philip’s chamber is overwhelmed by a gigantic, vaguely impressionistic crucifix with a distorted Christ. Nothing was new, but we get it–gloom and doom, murk and menace.

At least the sets make scene changes utterly fluid–no dawdling. Director David McVicar, who shows up as often as Bartlett Sher at the Met, works well in the gloom and his characters invariably react to one another honestly. Movement is natural and organic, and for a change the Eboli-Carlos confusion at the start of Act 3 is well-handled. But I saw no new creative, insightful arrow in his quiver, despite his having added a dancer-death-jester-in-orange-paper-flames for the first few minutes of the Auto-da-fé. Obnoxious, distracting, foolish, and in fact, the whole scene had a so-what effect.

With only one big exception, this was an evening of great singing. I plead guilty to thinking that the fine tenor Matthew Polenzani might be too light for Don Carlos; I was simply wrong. He was magnificent in The Pearl Fishers a few seasons back, but would his lyric, ardent gifts translate? I suspect that if the Italian edition had been used, with its more aggressive–indeed, louder–normal presentation, he might have failed. Here, he was ideal. Carlos is a complex character–in real life a somewhat sadistic epileptic, in Verdi, an eager, emotional man-child under the thumb of his hateful father. Polenzani was alternately appealing, enraptured, desperate, enraged, and dispirited. The voice rang true and free in all situations.

As Elisabeth, Sonya Yoncheva may lack the type of Verdi sound that blossoms at A-flat with great warmth–I’m thinking of Renata Tebaldi and Montserrat Caballé–but it is a beautiful voice and she uses it tellingly. A victim of so many circumstances, she is nonetheless no cipher here. Yoncheva’s Elisabeth grows into a tragic figure, her farewell to her Lady-in-Waiting in the first act was still and sad; her last-act “Toi qui sus le néant” was epic and received a deserved ovation.

The evening’s greatest ovation, almost wild, was kept for Jamie Barton’s Eboli. Dressed all in black, with an eye patch and a dreadful hair-do, she can dominate a stage in silence. Although a bit unsure vocally in the Garden Scene (and with far too many children at her feet during the Veil Song), her fourth-act outburst was filled with such regret, power, and glorious sound, that by the grand, final note, the audience was shaken.

What is one to make of Rodrigue, the Marquis of Posa? Sporting what looked like a Mohawk haircut–not very 16th century–and dressed severely in black, baritone Etienne Dupuis cut a profile of more than a loyal friend and a servant of King Philippe. Posa can seem hackneyed in his devotion, but not here. He is a man of quality and sacrifice, of an almost ferocious goodness, a passionate friend. And Dupuis’ impeccable French and control over dynamics (and almost a trill in Act 1) and focused, handsome sound clarified Posa’s inner strengths.

Every performance was thoroughly committed, but what a vocal disappointment was Eric Owens’ Philippe! His Porgy last fall boded ill–raspy production, what sounded like weakened resources–and it turns out that’s what we now have. An imposing, almost unmovable figure, he sang all the notes and did what he could but it was not enough; he seemed distracted. John Relyea’s Grand Inquisitore was desperate vocally, with wear at both ends, but at least he seemed involved. A bare spot in an otherwise vibrant evening.

The final moments were as confusing as they normally are and Verdi’s instructions never make much sense. Here, a monk (in the person of the sonorous Matthew Rose) showed up suddenly as Charles V, and the spectre of Rodrigue was reborn to take Carlos into the next world.

It didn’t matter. The evening was mostly riveting. Next season, back to the Italian, four-act version.