Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Review: Don Carlos
Matthew Polenzani, Sonya Yoncheva & Etienne Dupuis Shine in Disappointing David McVicar ProductionBy Francisco Salazar
The night of Feb. 28 turned out to be a big night for the Metropolitan Opera on several fronts. Not only was it the reopening of the 2021-22 season after a month-long hiatus, but it was also the first-ever performance of the French version of Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” But, perhaps most importantly, this performance was the first to take place on the company’s stage since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a war against Ukraine.
The Met has been quite vocal in its support of Ukraine, so it was quite moving to see General Manager Peter Gelb come out at the beginning of the evening and introduce the chorus, who performed the Ukrainian National Anthem. And rightfully, the entire audience stood up and clapped for this display of solidarity.
And with that, the performance got underway.
The “Original” French Version?
“For the first time in company history, the Met presents the original five-act French version of Verdi’s epic opera of doomed love among royalty,” says the company’s official page for the opera. Would you be blamed for suddenly thinking that this historic event would feature the original 1867 Paris edition or most of it (it’s a very long opera to be sure and cuts would be understood)?
And while the company undoubtedly succeeded in presenting the opera in French, it did not follow through on that marketed promise of presenting the “original” French version or anything resembling it. This was more like the Five-Act Italian version from Modena, with a couple of additions from the earlier French version.
For this production, Rodrigue and King Philippe’s duet came from the Italian version, as did the Quartet in Act four. Additionally, there was no opening prelude or chorus, nor was there any switching of the veils at the beginning of Act three between Eboli and Elisabeth, all staples of the original French version. And there was no trial scene at the end either. For lovers of the opera, you had to wait until Act four and five to get a true taste of what the French version offered, and even then it was short-lived. Other than a slight alteration in the Act two duet between Carlos and Rodrigue (the original version’s first half is markedly different from the latter iterations we have come to know), the big changes came at the beginning of Eboli’s aria, the “Lacrimosa” after Rodrigue’s death (the music was used for the famed Requiem’s “Lacrimosa” after Verdi cut it out of the opera in later revisions), the Spanish mob, and the final duet between Elisabeth and Carlos.
Of course, the intention was arguably to present the best overall version of the opera, and there’s no doubt that Verdi’s final say on the work, which comes from the 1886 version, is ultimately the sturdiest. But that leaves us at a crossroads as to what the intention was with the French version and the surrounding marketing? When Verdi made his major changes in the 1880s, he did so in Italian, and thus his new music was fitted to the nuances of that language. Suddenly trying to shove the French into that doesn’t always work. Ditto for trying to retrofit Italian text to some of the music intended for the French language (Don Carlo’s monologue preceding the “Lacrimosa” ensemble, for example). As such, this new rendition on the Met stage, while definitely satisfying in some respects (having the “Lacrimosa” back in the opera is a gift), is a bit gimmicky given the context of how it was marketed. Ultimately, if you went in expecting “Don Carlos,” what you really got from a musical perspective was “Don Carlo”- plus.
It has become a directorial cliché to present Verdi’s dark work about the Spanish inquisition in dreary blacks and grays (that was pretty much the conceit for the production that this one replaces). And for his 11th production with the Met, Sir David McVicar didn’t choose to buck that trend but to further it, staging the work in catacombs and entrapping the characters in those surroundings. The idea was to emphasize the power of the church, but unfortunately, it seemed utterly predictable and unoriginal; shockingly, it closely resembled Willy Decker’s production at the Dutch National Opera. That one was also set in the Catacombs of the Escorial, and while this one was darker in its texture, the visuals were practically identical; there was even a hanging Christ in Act four of McVicar’s production, and while Decker’s only shows the feet of the hanging Christ, it was impossible to see this one and not immediately think of the other.
Unfortunately, compared to that production (which I don’t particularly like if I’m honest), this one was full of static and uninspired blocking. Most of the singers ended up upstage singing stage right and never really interacting with their surroundings. I never felt the characters were truly feeling the oppression of the church or the inquisition. As a matter of fact, I felt I was watching a mishmash of many McVicar productions in one. There were distracting moments like a dancing jester in Act three at the burning of the heretics and puppets that made clanking sounds in Act two as Eboli sang her Veil song. The burning of the heretics also seemed like a throwaway moment, never quite managing to portray the tragedy taking place onstage (or off).
There were, however, some glimpses of genius, like the final moment where Rodrigue comes out from the back of the stage immersed in light and hugs a dead Don Carlos. Unfortunately, it felt like too little too late. And, of course, there’s the choreography at the end of Act four as the Spanish mob came to save Carlos. That was thrilling and quite chaotic, but also effective in creating a distraction that let Carlos escape. The costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel were gorgeous and detailed but unfortunately got lost in the chiaroscuro setting.
A Powerless King
Bass Eric Owens took on the role of Philippe, a role he has performed in Italian before. However, on this evening, Owens seemed lacking in vocal heft and projection, emptying his character of any semblance of true authority. It’s where the arc of Philippe ends up, but the tragedy comes from seeing him as formidable and then slowly stripping away the layers. During his entrance, when he chides Elisabeth’s lady-in-waiting for leaving her alone, Owens’ voice came off as muffled. During the duet with Rodrigue, he displayed confident legato and even fluidity in the runs but still got overpowered by the orchestra. In his big moment, “Elle ne m’aime pas,” Owens sang with gorgeous pianos and subtle phrasing, but there was restraint in his singing, ultimately leaving the aria somewhat static in its musical development. During the climax of this scene, as Philippe repeats “Elle ne m’aime pas” the voice never matched the orchestra’s crescendo.
The lack of vocal potency was most striking in the ensuing Inquisitor scene, as it never felt like a battle of wills between two powerful men; John Relyea’s voluminous bass relegated Owens’ quite noticeably. Perhaps it worked in showing how powerless Philippe was in this moment, but given everything that led up to this moment, it didn’t feel like a revelatory tragedy as much as a dramatic and musical shortcoming. That said, Owens’ gentle phrasing in this duet really came through, especially as he descended into his lower notes.
The highlight of the evening for Owens was the “Lacrimosa” because it is the one moment where the king gets to indulge in his lyricism, and here Owens’ gentle legato lines expressed his sorrow with palpable yearning in his voice.
The Booming Bass
John Relyea was a formidable presence as the Grand Inquisitor. He embodied the blind character walking with two canes and a limp, wearing a bloody red vestment. He was always direct and his body movements projected strength.
Vocally, his high notes did sometimes strain, and it seemed as if he could barely reach some of them; inversely, his low notes were incredibly effective and his volume was enormous in the cavernous Met auditorium. Relyea was most impressive as he crescendoed into the lines “And me, the Inquisitor; I who often raised Above all, I hold my mighty hand.” Here he showed authority in the scene and brought grit to his grainy bass, emphasizing the text with anger.
In the finale of Act four, Relyea once more dominated the scene as he entered from the center of the stage and sang out, “You prostrate yourself.” Here both Owens and Relyea coupled well as the two blasted their sounds into the auditorium in a display of vocal supremacy over the entire chorus.
The Gutsy Princess
In the role of Eboli, Jamie Barton had a solid evening releasing a powerful mezzo into the auditorium.
During her entrance, the mezzo came to the scene with charisma and charm, flirting with her court and showcasing an imposing stage presence. However, she took some time to warm up as her first aria “Au palais des fées” wasn’t very precise. Her coloratura runs lacked precision, and they had a sense of languid pacing. And her high notes in the cadenza portion were a bit squeezed and lacked the bright sound Barton is known for. However, in the passages when she sang in her lower register, there was a resounding chest voice.
In her subsequent scene with Elisabeth and Rodrigue, that charisma and allure were on display as she flirted with Rodrigue in an attempt to get close to the queen, continuously throwing glances toward Sonya Yoncheva. In Act three, Barton sang with passion as she declared her love for Matthew Polenzani’s Don Carlos. There was a sensuous color to her timbre that came through at this moment and was nicely contrasted with a darker and more accented one when she was subsequently rejected. In the ensuing trio, Barton’s voice towered over Étienne Dupuis and Matthew Polenzani’s, her chest voice and impeccable coloratura runs potent and clear. Her lines “Tremble for you, false son” were sung with muscular strength and incredible drama, making her the undeniable center of that moment.
In Act four, Barton received one of the biggest ovations of the night as she sang her aria “O don fatal.” The mezzo opened the aria with great pain and remorse, which one could hear as her sound grew during the repetitions of “I curse you, I curse you, o beauty!” until she climaxed on a high note that was filled with tremendous yearning. And then in her “O my Queen, I sacrificed you,” the mezzo sang with a caressing legato line that showed her expertise in Bel Canto. It was a moment of introspection and calm as she floated the notes with delicacy and care. And in the coda section of the aria, Barton released her powerful mezzo with resolve, concluding a climactic point in the opera. In this French version, Barton was given a few more phrases during the Spanish mob that resolved Queen Elisabeth and Eboli’s conflict; this was a welcome addition, as it gave Barton’s Eboli a true conclusion.
A Star Performance
In the role of Rodrigue, Étienne Dupuis gave a star-making performance.
During his entrance, the baritone established his kinship with Matthew Polenzani’s Don Carlos with tenderness and a loving embrace. During the duet “Le voilà! C’est l’Infant!,” the two sang with ringing voices and strength. Dupuis gave Polenzani’s Carlos valor as he was forced to accept the loss of Elisabeth. This opening duet established a relationship that became the center of the opera and which one felt most aligned with.
In his first aria “L’Infant Carlos, notre espérance,” Dupuis sang with elegance and suave phrases, connecting each line with an even tone and gorgeous pianos. Dupuis really emphasized the mezzo pianos and also showcased a flexible trill. In his high notes, there was a brightness to the sound. In the aria’s repetition, Dupuis emphasized the piano singing even more and extended some lines with great ease. In this scene, Dupuis was also playful as he constantly pulled Eboli away from Elisabeth.
But in the ensuing scene with Philippe, Dupuis’ Rodrigue, turned heroic and confrontational. His solo “O mister, from Flanders, arrival, That country one day so beautiful” was delivered with passion and resolve. His “Horrendous, horrendous peace! Peace is of sepulchers!” was powerful, and as he sang “The world is glad for you! Give freedom!,” he accented the word “liberté;” given the current world situation, it was hard not to separate Dupuis’ delivery from the cries for Ukrainian liberty. Here Dupuis delivered the line with desperation but never lost composure.
In Act three, Dupuis was in command while threatening Eboli with a sword, his voice full and potent. His entrance in the heretics scene was heartbreaking as he took Carlos’ sword and looked at Polenzani with that same tenderness as he had in their opening exchange.
But it was in Act four that Dupuis got his moment to shine with his double aria. In his first aria “C’est mon jour suprème,” the baritone brought caressing legato phrases and wrapped them up with ethereal pianissimi that floated into the auditorium. Dupuis’ attention to the text was even more astonishing, as one could understand each line with clarity as he said goodbye to Polenzani’s Carlos. And then in his second aria “Ah, je meurs, l’âme joyeuse,” Dupuis’s delivery was heartbreaking but subtle. Unlike the Italian version, where it is the moment baritones sing with all their power and might and end on breathless phrasings, Dupuis used the French text to sing with elegance and pianissimo lines. There was one moment where he started the phrase on a piano and crescendoed to a forte that was utterly heartbreaking and filled with agony. It was perhaps one of the most beautiful moments of the evening.
As noted, the relationship between Carlos and Rodrigue was perhaps the best established, and, as noted, Dupuis came out at the end to bring Carlos to heaven with him. It was a perfect conclusion to their story.
On the podium, Yannick Nézet-Séguin had a mixed evening.
The conductor began the evening with lethargic tempos in the Fontainebleau scene that never really emphasized the passion or love of Carlos or Elisabeth. He was a bit too slow as well in their second duet as he continuously grew slower by the second. Eboli’s “O Don Fatal” seemed like it was running out of steam as opposed to the forward momentum that Verdi wrote in his music. The conductor also had a tendency to create spaces in many of the arias, which felt awkward and disconnected from the fluidity of the music. There were also some very bombastic moments like the Act three fanfare and choral march, as well as at the end of almost all the exciting orchestral codas that concluded each scene.
But then there were some very powerful moments, like the final chords, which he crescendoed beautifully before fading out. Then there was the duet with Philippe and Rodrigue, which was filled with tension thanks to his emphasis on rhythm and the heavy brass sounds. Another key moment was the end of Act four, where Nézet-Séguin and his orchestra really brought out the chaos in the runs from the strings with precision and movement.
To this point in his Met career, there can be no doubt that this is Nézet-Séguin’s best Verdi and he will likely get better with more performances and with more rest, especially after stepping into three concerts at Carnegie Hall at the last minute over the weekend. One also has to give props to the chorus which thundered all evening from the opening act to the Act three Heretics scene and, especially, during the Act four mob scene.
Verdi’s “Don Carlos” is, in many ways, the story of Carlos and Elisabeth’s lost love. Throughout the opera, they share three duets (more than any other pairing) that are crucial to understanding the title character’s unraveling and which motivates some of his actions.
On this evening, Sonya Yoncheva and Matthew Polenzani portrayed the lovers. During the Fontainebleau scene, Polenzani and Yoncheva sang with gorgeous pianissimo sounds and beautiful mezza voce. And for all the incredible musicality, there was a lack of passion that told that these two had fallen in love at first sight. It was too regal, and the two had little interaction with one another. Of course, one could argue that they were meeting for the first time and were not fully comfortable with one another or with their own feelings. But by the time the second duet in Act two, “Je viens solliciter de la reine,” came along, both singers brought their passion to the scene. Polenzani’s stage presence became more erratic and unpredictable, with his opening lines filled with heartfelt expression and ringing high notes that really conveyed his undying desperation for Elisabeth. Meanwhile, Yoncheva’s tone was an imposing and round middle voice. But as they entered into the middle of the duet, their voices brought back that gorgeous mezza voce singing from that first duet, blending it beautifully with the angelic violins in the orchestra. The voices answered each other with ardor and pain, and as the duet came to its climax, there was a confrontational aspect to their singing. Polenzani was all intensity as he accented each line, climaxing on a very aggressive “Fils maudit.” Yoncheva retorted that he kill his father and carry her to the altar with his “blood-stained hands” with chilling power before scaling her voice to a restrained but anguished “Signour.” It was in this duet that we saw these two characters’ complex relationship come to fruition and the tension built here carried throughout the drama.
The final duet in Act five was sung with resignation as the two used their floating mezza voce sounds to sing the parting legato phrases. The voices blended beautifully as they both embraced for one final “Adieu.”
Individually, there was so much to admire about Yoncheva’s performance as she gave Elisabeth a regal interpretation. She never gave in to the emotional pull of Verdi’s music, as her singing and physical movements were reserved. Yoncheva’s first aria “Oh ma chère compagne” was sung with an angelic and tender voice that displayed the soprano’s flexibility in her middle and her upper range. And in her “Toi qui sus le néant,” the soprano was commanding as she entered the stage and let out her weeping lines with crisp diction and a booming middle voice. As she remembered Fontainebleau, the nostalgia seeped into the instrument with great care and delicacy. During her reprise of the opening melody, there was resolve as she drove the tempo forward and ended with a gorgeous piano line.
There were some moments of tension in Yoncheva’s voice that sounded a bit wobbly and out of tune, particularly in her higher range during the quartet in Act four. Her chest voice also seemed a bit forced at times, especially in the Act two duet with Carlos.
Meanwhile, Polenzani surprised in every way. The tenor who is better known for his lyric roles has been moving into heavier repertoire. While Don Carlos is a middle ground between dramatic and lyric, Polenzani displayed a heroic timbre throughout, especially as he reached numerous high notes in the Act three Heretics scene and his duet with Rodrigue.
Then there was the moment before the “Lacrimosa,” which Polenzani sang with desperation, each time increasing his volume and his movements becoming more unhinged. That climaxed with a ringing high B natural that transitioned into the “Lacrimosa.” This moment in the opera was one of Polenzani’s greatest as he sang with agony, his voice taking on a yearning tone. Another point that stood out was his Act three duet with Eboli, during which he matched Barton’s fervor, creating a sensual moment at first, followed quickly by one of tension, with Polenzani’s voice growing in strength. His duet with Dupuis in Act two was another wonder which started with resignation before evolving into pure heroism as Polenzani’s timbre boomed out with rich power.
In all, the soloists shone in a production so overburdened by chiaroscuro that it almost blotted out their resonant star power.