Wookiee Hut Theatre Reviews presents:
Don Carlo
Review by Diana, Snorrlax, BunchBox, Pakirish, FengShui

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto: Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, based on a dramatic poem
Infant von Spanien by Friedrich Schiller

Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Production: Nicolas Hytner

Set and Costume Design: Bob Crowley

Lighting: Mark Henderson

Cast: Ferrucio Furlanetto (King Phillip II); Roberto Alagna (Don Carlo); Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo, Marquis de Posa); Marina Poplavskaya (Elizabetta de Valois); Anna Smirnova (Princess Eboli); Eric Halfvarson (Grand Inquisitor)

Rating: Super Star Destroyer — intimidates and pleases!

This is a grand, big, long opera that is easily parodied. In five acts, it tells the story of Don Carlos, crown prince of Spain, who is to enter a political marriage with Princess Elizabetta de Valois, of France. Like the opening of the musical Camelot, Carlos travels to the French countryside to spy on his betrothed, and the couple are besotted. However, Elizabetta's father pledges his daughter instead to King Phillip (the father of Carlos), and the couple accept this fate in the face of destiny, their sacrifice in exchange for a permanent peace between their countries. This the the set-up, with the rest of the story unfolds from this point onward.

The opera can be up to six hours long, if the long version with scene change intermissions is used between each of the five acts. Mercifully, the Metropolitan's new production had such clever transitions that there were two intermissions only, and the long opera was so interesting that it actually did not drag in the least. The time went by rapidly and the packed house was mostly in admiration.

Of course, there are naysayers. Some (notably elderly snobby) people in the audience kept whining about the tomb that moved across the floor ... or how Alagna sounded like he had a cold (he did, and he asked for the audience's indulgence at the last act) ... or how the sets were not ornate enough. To us, it just showed how very little they knew, how close-minded, and how they are likely bitching for the sake of bitching. They, ironically, as the story points out, don't like change.

This new set was both sumptuous and spare. It was tyranny embodied, and gorgeous at the same time. The love triangle here — ostensibly between Phillip, his son, and Elizabetta — was actually among the three men: the unstable, emotionally weak Carlos; the strong, noble, able, passionate Rodrigo; and the tyrannical, aging, and vulnerable Phillip. The women embodied much of what was wrong with the world of the Imperial court, and provided depth to the story, reflecting in the court what was going on in the world ... but in the end, it was the story of the love of both Phillilp and Carlos for Rodrigo, and his love for Spain.

This was total theater — the director (Nicholas Hytner) has worked on Broadway spectacles (Miss Saigon); set and costume designer (Bob Crowley); and let us not forget the genius lightning person (Mark Henderson!) created a world that triggered the imagination with its gloominess, oppression, and hope, displayed like visible, visceral things. There was much psychology heaped onto the sets, but if you missed those parts, it's okay — it's a rich experience anyway. The way things were staged was imaginative — the Queen's garden with a forced perspective, or moving the scene across the room by having the actors stand still and the tomb travel stage left; by lowering of the curtain based on the facade of the Escorial (Phillip's palace and tomb), seeing — yet not seeing — the auto da fé and the execution of heretics ... it's hard to describe how perfect it all was, and how fast this whole 4½ hour opera flew by.

The costumes were designed by Crowley as well and evoked the period, but with a clean spareness and elegance and restraint that perhaps never happened in reality. The contrast was startling and emotive, and totally beautiful and believable. The only colors worn or presented throughout were black, gray, and red, except when the scene was set in France (white and blue), or when symbols of the church dominated (gilded gold and red). The middle act's set featured the richness and garishness of glittering gold, symbolizing the wealth confiscated from sentenced heretics, and the highly polished sparkling metal of the Spanish soldiers' armor.

The singers were really super, too — in fact, we signed on to watch this opera for the four male leads:
  • Ferrucio Furlanetto (whom we first saw as Don Giovanni's Leporello);
  • Simon Keenlyside (our first glimpses of him were as Don Giovanni and Papageno in Zauberflote);
  • Roberto Alagna (who was the unhappiest Don Jose to the iciest Carmen last year in the Met production); and
  • Eric Halfvarson (we saw him in Ingmar Bergen's movie Zauberflot as Papageno, and as Dr. Malatesta in the Beverly Sills presentation of Don Pasquale).
It's notable that the roles we saw some of these men sing first were in comedies, or in buffo roles. In contrast, Don Carlo is a total tragedy, and none of the roles has any humor in them, but these men played their parts excellently, in a totally absorbing way. Actually, all the men sang beautifully, even those who sang minor roles, like the Flemish men who braved Phillip's wrath in Act 3, were sung with beauty and precision. You could hear tears in their chorus, and horror as they were forced to watch the burning of heretics before they were taken away to the dungeons.

In particular, Furlanetto — as the tyrannical, God-fearing, yet trapped and human king — kicked the gluttonous butt off of everything he sang, especially his aria when he laments that his queen does not love him, and how he can never rest till he's in his grave. He could act with his voice alone, so nuanced and emotive is his singling of the role. That's why his recordings are so rewarding to listen to — it's a bonus that he is a very fine actor, making his performance even better.

Of the women, one of us has seen Marina Poplavskaya in Turandot last year, and we had not seen Anna Smirnova. We have to agree with many opening night critics who felt Smirnova's Princess Eboli was vulger rather than delicate; a jealous fury rather than a victim. But that was really perfect here — does a receding type of woman, no matter how jealous, do the awful thing she did to her friend and benefactress? Smirnova was convincing as the woman scorned, who lashes out impetuously, misestimating her worth to the court as her resentment boils over, affecting everyone around her.

Poplavskaya played Elisabetta as strong, noble, and pure — and eminently human, but imbued with the duty that is her birthright. As a young girl, she is forced into choosing to marry the father over the son — for the good of her people. Not that it was a free choice, with her people begging her to say "yes," so that they may stop the war with Spain. There was a lot of angst and torment in every phrase sung by every cast member. Her clear, sharp voice has a magnificent piano, which demonstrated her tragic strength in this most dangerous of situations and times.

The chorus was restrained through most of the production, and that was the point, for the contrast of being in full throat when appropriate — such as during the storming of the prison, or more significantly during the auto da fé and the burning of heretics. This middle act was truly spectacular and all the more terrible for its historic accuracy, depicting victims of the Inquisition dressed in sanbenitos — tabards stamped with red flames, with dunce caps jammed onto their head which advertised their fates, and their wrists tied and mouths gagged — they were paraded and dragged, then thrown onto the streets by the churchmen who claimed to be saving their souls, demanding they repent. Whether they did or not, those tortured, beaten men were going to be burned at the stake — depicted with great horror as the reflection of the flames consumed the crowd. It was a spectacular effect enough, but then unexpectedly, a wall with a garish painting of Jesus Christ's face on it became transparent and the bodies of the burning heretics could be seen plainly. It was impactful and horrible, and extremely effective.

Drama was the core of this long, interesting production, such as in the encounter between the Grand Inquisitor and the King — it was a dramatic and plain display of who really holds the power over Spain, which ruled the whole known world at that time. Tensions followed tensions to an inevitable explosion again and again, and kept things so interesting and rich. Like when Elizabetta and Carlos were forced to concede their happiness for the good of the world. Or as when Rodrigo sacrifices himself for the good of Flanders.

It was horrifically dramatic, but above all, the singing was beautiful — lilting and soaring when it should be, and deep and sonorous, too. The singers interacted crisply, and all were effective actors who were surprisingly accomplished (considering they were trained to be singers first), and they all physically looked their parts. It was an incredible drama, and the time went by so quickly that I wondered why anyone would complain about the full five-act version shown.

It turns out that the first act is often cut out — the only act taking place in France and setting up the melancholy of the prince; the remainder takes place in the King's court in Madrid. The "moorish song" by Eboli and the ladies and waiting is also usually pruned, but it tells the story of Eboli's ambitions, and without it, thngs make less sense later. We are so glad that none of these were trimmed.

Also, the original opera was written in Frnech, but is often sung in Italian, as it is here. While there are definite textural differences between the two languages, in this case, I doubt it made a difference. After all, neither language was Spanish ... and at least in Italian, it's not sung in the native language of either the French or Spanish characters. An oddly democratic thing!

A production of this scale cannot be undertaken easily by one opera house; the Met pays from two to four million dollars per production, and it was obvious that more was needed for a show of this quality and opulence. This was a joint effort between the Metropolitan Opera in New York; the Royal Opera and Covent Garden in London, and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet; it was first performed two years ago in London with a similar cast,and is available as a DVD. There are differences in the production in the different locations, and it's worth noting and seeing / hearing all of them.

We went twice! And bought the DVD. And wanted to see the HD projection in movie theaters. We love this show!

Production images from www.nytimes.com and www.metopera.org

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