Culture Magazine

Of Princes and Potentates — The Met Opera Presents Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor’ and Verdi’s ‘Don Carlos’ (Part Two): It’s French to Me

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

Verdi's five-act opus maximus Don Carlos is the veteran composer's longest stage-work by far. It was written and conceived for the Paris Opéra in French and, according to the May 2022 issue of Opera News and other books, pamphlets, and journals, was revised, edited, and presented in the French language. Point taken, point made!

That being the case, this writer has always preferred the more familiar Italian version, one that Met Opera patrons, and U.S. audiences in general, have been hearing since the 1950s and beyond. Various attempts at reintroducing this massive work in its elaborate French-style musical setting have been met with the usual fanfare, touting its literary superiority over the standard Italian translation, and so forth.

Okay, I get it. I'm all for authenticity where original works are concerned. As an example, I've spent countless hours and reams of online pages in support of going back to a composer's initial ideas for a subject. The better to elicit a clearer understanding of their work has been a practice of mine for as long as I can remember. I don't know if I've succeeded, but that's been my intention all along.

However, in the case of Don Carlos - also known as Don Carlo but without the "s" - and unlike my review of the Met's Dmitri Tcherniakov production of Borodin's Prince Igor (see the following link:, it all depends on a production team's ultimate goals vis-à-vis the final outcome.

With this new production, David McVicar's immobile direction and Charles Edwards' impractical set designs (two massive column-like structures taking up both sides of the stage) and staircase to heaven-knows-where playing area severely limit the singers' mobility. What these two towers do, in effect, is present an utterly static stage picture. They make each scene resemble the other, with scarcely any variation in between. And for a work that lasts a good five-and-a-half hours - we're talking Die Meistersinger lengths here - boredom and impatience quickly set in. Not only that, but the lack of a true Italianate spark (let alone of the Gallic variety) was absent in an otherwise smart-looking cast, courtesy of costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel.

Another point to quibble over was the head-scratching plan to return this production to next season's lineup, but reverting to the out-of-style, four-act version of Don Carlo - and in the Italian language of all things! How's that for inconsistency? We're at a loss to understand this line of retro thinking. Why go to all the fuss and expense in coaching the cast in French vernacular and singing style? Why have them re-learn their roles en français, then go back to the past and unlearn everything that had been taught in the first place? Is this what they call circuitous logic? What are we missing here?

We're just as puzzled as readers are with this warped line of thinking. Or did the Met management think at all about what it was proposing? We have no clue. If Mr. McVicar's production was worth the extra effort put into it - what's been termed as "authenticity" - I'd be more than willing to stay the course. Wouldn't you? But no! McVicar's prior undertaking of Donizetti's Tudor Trilogy (i.e., Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux) proved just as infuriatingly dull and opaque as this one, despite excellent singing all-around. Interestingly, the music that Verdi initially composed in French bore the unmistakable trademarks of the Donizettian style.

The proof in this Met Opera pudding, though, was that Don Carlos, in any language, is an incredibly enduring masterpiece; surely Verdi's finest effort at out-doing Giacomo Meyerbeer's grandest of grand operas, Les Huguenots, in scope and grandiosity, something that much-maligned composer had once cornered the market on.

One last point: If the Met's advertisement of "completeness" is to be believed, then where was the opening chorus of downtrodden working folk, unearthed for John Dexter's revised 1979 production (one that I was personally privy to, in fact)? Unless my research deceives me, this chorus comprises a key plot element, in that the young and impressionable Élisabeth de Valois (or Elisabetta in Italian) chooses to sacrifice her future happiness with the Infante, Don Carlos, for a marriage of convenience to his father, the Spanish King Philip II.

History, that merciless conveyor of undesirable truths, tells us that Élisabeth was all of thirteen at the time of her engagement. Don Carlos, her intended, was a mentally unstable twelve-year-old, while the "elderly" Philip was in the prime of his early-thirties life. So much for historical accuracy!

By that token, where was the music for La Peregrina, the lavish ballet that Verdi conceived for the opera's Third Act? It's a wonderfully melodic piece, so rich and harmonious, surely one of the Italian master's most satisfying attempts at this type of fare. It tells a semi-related story of the magnificent gemstone by the same name, worn by the tempestuous Princess Eboli, an historical personage. The gem, an enormous pearl, was once owned by another real-life Elisabeth, the British-born actress Elizabeth (with a "z") Taylor - a gift from her on-again, off-again lover and hubby, Welsh actor Richard Burton. That's a story in itself, and worthy of operatic treatment all its own!

The 'Don' is Out

I was serious when mentioning Meyerbeer and his massive Les Huguenots. The similarities in plot, structure, characterizations, and such - five acts, seven principal singers, the religious conflict between French Protestants (called Huguenots) and Roman Catholics, the palace intrigues, and the historical St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 - all combine in a sumptuous vocal and scenic display bar none. No doubt Meyerbeer's extravagant designs, infrequently performed today, went on to heavily influence the likes of Verdi, Berlioz, Wagner, and others.

With all that in mind, I'm uncertain that Don Carlos' central figures, i.e., the emotionally unstable Don (tenor), his fiancée-turned-stepmother Queen Élisabeth de Valois (soprano), her lady-in-waiting Princess Eboli (mezzo-soprano), the page Thibault (Tebaldo, coloratura), Rodrigue the Marquis de Posa (Rodrigo, baritone), Le Roi Philippe II (King Philip II or Filippo, bass), Le Grand Inquisiteur (The Grand Inquisitor, bass), and the mysterious Moine (or Monk, bass), can be compared outright with their counterparts in Les Huguenots.

In point of fact and in casting, they do come close: the Huguenot nobleman and firebrand Raoul de Nangis (tenor), his love interest Valentine de Saint-Bris (soprano), the haughty Queen Marguerite de Valois (soprano), Urbain the queen's page (mezzo), the Count de Nevers (baritone), the Count de Saint-Bris and paterfamilias to Valentine (bass-baritone), and the fanatical Huguenot soldier/servant Marcel (bass). All have corresponding relationships to Verdi's protagonists. In particular, the historical Élisabeth and Marguerite, who were both sisters as well as daughters to King Henri II of France. Their mother was the infamous Catherine de Medici. How's that for an extended family?

While the source for Les Huguenots lay with the prolific French dramatist Eugène Scribe (who also provided the libretto for Verdi's other French-language effort, Les Vêpres siciliennes), the text for Don Carlos, the work of Joseph Méry and Camille Du Locle (whom we'll meet again as the force behind Verdi's Aida), was based primarily on German playwright Friedrich Schiller's dramatic poem Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien ("The Spanish Heir"). Neither opera nor source materials were historically accurate, not by any stretch.

Where the two works differed was in the way that Meyerbeer shaped the individual vocal lines. In Les Huguenots, the singers were given extended cadenzas wherein whole phrases were repeated seemingly endlessly and at will. Artists were encouraged to interpolate as much as possible, which tended to blunt the dramatic aspects of the story. With Verdi, however, drama took precedence over embellishment, resulting in a more coherent work overall, built mostly upon character development and through standard set pieces (solos, duets, trios, quartets, ensembles, and such).

To summarize, there's a lot going on here, and a lot to mull over. So, what was the final outcome? Judging from the March 26, 2022 Saturday matinee broadcast there was also a lot to be desired. Presided over by the Met's music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who last conducted the work back in 2015 (in Nicholas Hytner's stylized production), with Donald Palumbo in charge of the chorus, the Met Opera Orchestra achieved a high level of response. The strings soared and the trombones blared, with everything in between sounding perfectly timed and executed. So far, so good.

Still, the ultimate "oomph" factor, that spark of inspiration that can ignite the flames on stage, went missing from this performance. I couldn't put my finger on it, but the problem might have had to do with the continuing COVID-19 restrictions. That is, mask-wearing, physical distancing, vaccine and/or booster requirements, whatever. Hmm, well maybe. Who knows? I'm not sure what the issue was, but the usual boisterous reaction to Verdi's surefire score was muted, to say the least.

Casting Calls: They're Up, They're Down

Perhaps the artists themselves had something to do with it. Or the fact that unfamiliarity with the French style and language may have prevented this performance from fully taking off.

To start, tenor Matthew Polenzani as the youthful Don has been dipping his foot into the French repertoire for several seasons. He made a perfectly suitable Nadir in the company's Les Pêcheurs de Perles ( The Pearl Fishers). And his assumption of such roles as Hoffmann in Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Werther in Jules Massenet's eponymously titled opera, and Roméo in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette have very much pleased his public, along with this author. Polenzani's got the right touch and enough musicianship in his bones to pull this assignment off.

He's put on a bit of weight since the pandemic began, but vocally that extra heft has added to his abilities, to husband his resources, and to float those top notes into the vast Met auditorium. What did not help was that ever-present staircase, curiously similar to one that Josef Svoboda designed for John Dexter's drab 1974 staging of Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani (in its Italian configuration). I should know since I was present in the audience for the 1982 revival.

As Élisabeth, Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva floated her exquisite pianissimos to startling effect. At full throttle, Yoncheva proved a sensation. Earlier this season, she delivered the goods as a dynamic and sexy as hell Tosca, aided by tenor Brian Jagde (pronounced "Jade"), stentorian in his delivery but who lacked the sensitivity required for the painter Cavaradossi. In Don Carlos, Yoncheva, too, became hampered by that awkward staircase. One wanted to shout at both her and Polenzani to stay put, people!

Fine passage work, and vocal fireworks galore, were supplied in abundance, courtesy of mezzo Jamie Barton (a substitute for the previously announced Elīna Garanča), who threw off her eyepatch in Act Four to reveal Eboli's missing eyeball, a nice touch many directors overlook. Barton stopped the show with "O don fatal," hurled full throttle into the highest reaches. But she, too, was a frequent victim of the sets swallowing up her sound. In her intermission interview with Nadine Sierra, Barton mentioned the late, great Tatiana Troyanos, who similarly ripped off that eyepatch to terrific effect in the 1980 PBS broadcast of Don Carlo. Imitation, I felt, was the sincerest form of flattery.

With his impressive physique du rôle, French-Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis won the Legion d'Honneur award for his masculine portrayal of the virile Don Rodrigue. Such elegance and verbal panache has not been heard at the Met, nor in this part, for quite some time. Certainly not since the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky graced the stage. Dupuis was close, though. His was the lone authentically French-sounding portrayal among this cast. Likewise, his Mohawk hairdo, shaved sideburns, and full-length beard may have had a hand in winning the crowd's favor. Touché and away!

Our biggest disappointment, however, was with bass-baritone Eric Owens as a dull, placid, and seemingly out of sorts Roi Philippe. Can you say underpowered? What gives with Owens these days, anyway? Where was that massive output Met audiences have come to expect, and be spoiled by; that darkly-shaded timbre that made his Alberich and Hagen in Wagner's Ring cycle so frighteningly potent? Ever since his listless delivery of Porgy's lines in The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess production two seasons back (due to a debilitating head cold), Owens has been, well, holding back. We pray he can overcome this vocal crisis, for indeed he's in a crisis of sorts.

Case in point: Owens' "Elle ne m'aime pas," the Francophile version of the bass aria, "Ella giammai m'amo" ("She never loved me"), went by the boards. Again, his clenched-teeth style of vocalizing can grate on one's nerves, so often that he employs this technique to inconsistent levels. Open it up, Eric! And let it ring! Audiences want to hear you shout - over and out. To be fair-minded, Owens was another last-minute replacement, this time for German basso Günther Groissböck.

His opposite number, Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea, portrayed the Grand Inquisiteur with relish and single-minded intent. Perhaps a role reversal was called for? Just saying. To be honest, Relyea has been electrifying Met audiences for years. I can recall his potent Gessler in Rossini's Guillaume Tell, along with his entertainingly sly Méphistophélès in Robert Lepage's multimedia incarnation of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust. Oh, and let's factor in his unctuous interpretation of Don Basilio in that riotous Il Barbiere di Siviglia from a few years back. He'll be making another "appearance" this season as the Ghost of Hamlet's father in Australian composer Brett Dean's startlingly modernistic take on Shakespeare's Hamlet.

As the page Thibault, Meigui Zhang warbled her lines pleasantly. This was one of Verdi's few ventures into travesty parts, whereby a female singer portrays a young man (in the mode of Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera, or Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro). The black-robed Monk's sepulchral outpourings (in reality, he's Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in disguise - don't ask!) were intoned by British basso Matthew Rose.

We certainly were more than delighted to have Don Carlos back, especially in its original conception. Well, as "original" as audiences are likely to get. But seeing snippets of Hytner's earlier production on You Tube, the one this McVicar version replaced, with a sterling cast headed by Roberto Alagna, Marina Poplavskaya, Simon Keenlyside, Anna Smirnova, Ferruccio Furlanetto, and James Morris, made one ponder the imponderable: Why, oh, why couldn't the Met leave well enough alone and make better use of an existing production?

That is a shame. Verdi's longest, most fascinating creation holds many lessons for our times. The most obvious - and, certainly, the most telling - lies in its depiction of a religious state that exploits and oppresses those who hold contrary beliefs. "Donnez la liberté," shouts Rodrigue at the conclusion of his bold speech to Le Roi Philippe. "Give them liberty!" The King muses on this strange dreamer. What can he be thinking? Liberty, you say? Why, the King has given peace to the known world. To that, Rodrigue has a disgusted response: "La paix du cimetière!" - "The peace of the grave!"

Point taken, point made.

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog