(Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
***This review was written in collaboration with David Salazar***
But before we get to the opera, let’s kick things off by addressing the elephant in the room.
Last season, the Met Opera opened this very opera with a potent political act – the performance of the Ukrainian national anthem. In a time of war and destruction, it was powerful to see an organization like the Met take a stand and show its support for a country that was just days into what has now turned into months of massive tragedy and trauma.
Fast forward eight months and the revival of this “Don Carlo” (albeit in the four-Act, not faux “original five-act French” version), has made that major action a distant memory. And one major decision for this revival has served as an immediate contradiction of it.
A Mezzo, Politics & the Met
Mezzo-soprano Yulia Matochkina is at the core of that choice. The mezzo returned to the Metropolitan Opera for this production, only two weeks removed from performing at the Putin-run Mariinsky Theatre under the direction of Putin supporter Valery Gergiev (the man whose performances throughout Europe and the U.S. have been all but eliminated).
Throughout the past eight months, the classical music world has had to grapple with the question of politics and where opera fits into it. This week the New York Times published an essay noting that the assassination of conductor Yuri Kerpatenko was a reminder that classical music and opera are not irrelevant in politics. And watching “Don Carlo,” an opera that is infused with politics and its consequences, some are reminded of the power of politics in music.
That is why you can’t ignore Matochkina’s Mariinsky Theatre performances throughout this war. From the onset of the war, the Metropolitan Opera has had a political stance and has insisted on condemning Putin-supporting artists and cutting ties with Russian organizations. General Manager Peter Gelb himself said, “we can no longer engage with artists or institutions that support Putin or are supported by him.” In an interview with The Guardian, he went into greater detail adding, “We had to immediately sever relations with Putin-backed organisations, which sadly included the Bolshoi. I greatly admire them artistically, but it is Putin who literally signs the contract of my counterpart there and so the decision was clear.”
The Mariinsky Theatre and many Russian organizations have canceled performers, performances, and productions from Russian artists who have condemned the war and have become a basis for spreading Putin’s propaganda in this war. Putin even proposed to his supporter Gergiev to unite the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi and make them one entity. Performing in Russian theaters is essentially profiting from Putin’s government and is sending a clear message of where you stand politically.
It’s hard to stomach artists performing in Russia after the raids in Kyiv this week, the destruction of Mariupol, and the assassination of Kerpatenko. It’s also hard to excuse given many Russians are attempting to flee their country after Putin installed a draft and the Russian government continues to strengthen anti-LGBT laws.
The silence of these artists speaks volumes given that many have quit their ensemble positions in Russia and have decided to perform elsewhere. But it is even more resounding given the platform someone like Matochkina has at the Metropolitan Opera. To be fair, you can’t blame her. If she was offered such a major role at the Met, why should she turn it down?
Instead, this falls on management’s inconsistency across the board on this issue and how surprising it is that when Anita Rachvelishvili canceled this production, the first instinct was to call in someone performing in Russia (under Gergiev no less) up to two weeks before this production opened on November 3.
A Dominant Force
The irony in all this is that Matochinka is very deserving of a place on the Met stage and on the evidence of the opening performance, she made an argument for herself as the most compelling Eboli the company has had in decades.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Russian mezzo and her incredible voice dominated each scene she was in. Usually, when a mezzo performs the role of Eboli, she can sing one of the two arias well and manages the other. The first is always a challenge for the more dramatic mezzos and the second is difficult for the more lyric mezzos. However, Matochinka has the coloratura and the dramatic bravura to manage both arias powerfully.
The mezzo-soprano started off the evening confidently showing an imposing character and a flirty persona playing with her veil and dancing with Tebaldo interpreter Erika Bailoff. She opened “Nel giardin del bello saracin” with a striking tone that was playful and easily captured an array of dynamics from forte to a mezzo-piano. Her coloratura runs were incredibly clear and flexible. The aria asks for lows and highs and Matochinka sang with a resonant chest voice and then rose to the higher register with light and vibrant high notes. On the second repeat the mezzo had fun playing with the coloratura, extending some of the runs and demonstrating her virtuosic power; during the line “Mohammed sclamò,” she floated her legato lines and flirted with her coloratura roulade, adding some extra notes that brought a laugh from the audience.
In her following scene with Elisabetta and Rodrigo, Matochinka dominated the scene with her intriguing character; during the trio of Act two, the mezzo demonstrated an impeccable technique as she sang every phrase with precision and attention to the text. Her voice stuck out amongst the ensemble of Peter Mattei and Russell Thomas, and while the tempo threatened to ruin the duet, she always seemed to be in control of her instrument. Her “Trema per te falso figluolo” was hair-raising as she let out a roar of volume showcasing her Eboli’s power and control.
The “O Don Fatale” was another powerful display of force as she opened the aria with an explosion of sound that emphasized Eboli’s torment. One could hear Matochinka really play into her lower chest voice. However, there were moments where she cut higher notes short such as the climatic “o mia beltà,” undercutting their power. It was a surprising moment from the mezzo given how potent her other high notes had been throughout the night and it did feel like she was being a bit cautious with by comparison. The middle section, “O mia Regina, io t’immolai” was sung with a warm and expressive sound even if at times the aria was too fast for its own good. Still she phrased with a depth of colors and her diction was spot on. On the repeat of “dovrò celar il mio dolor” she also seemed to rush through the phrase, lacking in the pathos that this moment is supposed to create. But during the coda “Oh ciel! E Carlo! a morte domain,” she moved the tempo forward bringing the aria to an arresting finale.
A Missing Leg
One year after the Met presented a gimmicky French version, the company opted for the four-act version. The result was an uneven choice that demonstrated the holes in this version of Verdi’s masterpiece.
Over the past 50 years, the Met has consistently presented the five-act version of “Don Carlo” and there is a reason why. The five-act version establishes Elisabetta and Carlo’s relationship to perfection. We get a duet that showcases the two lovers meeting for the first time, falling in love, and finally having their hearts destroyed. It’s a half-hour of music that means the world to the structure of this opera. It establishes the Carlo-Elisabetta dynamic as the core of the opera, especially when you consider that their duets bookend the work.
Without that opening act, we have to construct the pieces for ourselves. Verdi does that with the aria, “Io l’ho perduta” which is three minutes of music and while it reclaims some of the musical motifs of the opening act, it isn’t enough.
But what’s more, David McVicar’s production, which is rather monochromatic and monotone to begin with, didn’t help with supporting this cut; to be fair, it was never conceived as such and it showed throughout the evening. The irony of all this is that the Act four version centers the Carlo-Rodrigo dynamic even more. It’s the first relationship we see in this version of the opera and it impulses Carlo in the final acts of the opera. And in his original conception, McVicar played up that dynamic by having the ghost of Rodrigo show up and cradle the dying Carlo as the music drew to a close. That staging decision, which arguably made even more sense in THIS four-act iteration, went missing and the entire show just fell apart.
Its impact was felt most heavily on the characters of Elisabetta and Carlo and its performers. It was especially unfortunate for Eleonora Buratto, who was making her role debut as Elisabetta. While she demonstrated that she can shape lines beautifully with gorgeous floating notes and a delicate mezzo piano, she seemed to be disconnected and unsure on many occasions with the music and the character, her eyes constantly fixed on the prompter / conductor throughout the evening.
Perhaps it was not all her fault as she was missing the aforementioned First Act which establishes who Elisabetta is. For the first half of the opera, it seemed like Buratto was in the background and a passive character.
In Act one, she had some great moments like her duet “Io Vengo a Domandar grazia alla regina,” which saw her sing with an appealing middle voice and bring some heart-wrenching moments of drama in her lower voice during the lines, “Compi l’opra a svenar corri il padre” where you could see that Buratto was really torn by her Carlo’s aggression. Her “Clemente Iddio – così bel cor” was also gorgeously shaped with delicacy, if at times it did feel a bit rushed and lacked that ethereal quality of the line. But then there were moments in her lower voice, particularly in her legato phrases like “Clemente Iddio, la vita manca” that seemingly sounded guttural and lacked in focus of tone. It seemed like she was stretching her voice to the maximum.
Her aria “Non pianger mia compagna” was also unsteady. The chosen tempo sounded too fast to really capture the longing, sorrowful, and contemplative state of Elisabetta. Buratto also seemed to be low on breath throughout the aria especially as she had to move from her middle voice to the higher tessitura on one breath, resulting in some strident high notes. That being said, the soprano did shape some of the lines with great care, especially during the second verse, where she started with a haunting piano on “Ricevi estremo pegno.” Here she really found an emblematic, plush sound.
Things really improved during Act three as Buratto had some of her strongest work in the confrontation with Groissböck; you could really feel the tension between the two. She was defiant when she sang “Ed ora si sospetta. L’onor d’Elisabetta!.. Si dubita di me…” delivering a strong powerful sound; she was conversely tender in her legato phrases “Io l’oso! Sì! Ben lo sapete, – un dì promessa.” Perhaps it was in this scene that you finally go to see Elisabetta’s conflict between duty and love. And when Groissböck slapped her on stage, as she was lying on the floor, you finally got to see this Elisabetta’s pain.
But in the final act of the evening, which is undeniably Elisabetta’s moment to shine, Buratto had mixed results. “Tu che le vanita” is a massive 10-minute aria that requires stamina. It’s also effective when we know what Elisabetta has gone through in the past three or four acts, depending on the version. However, as noted, Buratto’s characterization was not quite obvious and the result was an aria that felt disengaged from the rest of the work; in this aria in particular, her eyes seemed glued to the conductor.
Still, Buratto had some sublime moments including her entrance “Tu che le vanità conoscesti del mondo,” which was sung with abandon, and “Per me, la mia giornata a sera è giunta già!,” which seemed like she was questioning herself. The “O Francia, nobil suol, sì caro ai miei verd’anni! Fontainebleau! ver voi schiude il pensiero i vanni” lines didn’t seem to hit whatsoever, because neither her nor tenor Russell Thomas ever really established a relationship through their blocking or their interactions in the evening.
Buratto’s voice also lost some luster in the lower notes. Her chest voice has garnered some strength but in an aria that has so many lows, you could hear some struggle from the soprano, especially on the climatic “i fior.” That said, the end of the “Addio, bei sogni d’ôr, illusion perduta! Il nodo si spezzò, la luce è fatta muta!” moved with precision and she sang with dramatic incisiveness. The recapitulation of “Tu che le vanità conoscesti del mondo” once again saw Buratto spin gorgeous phrases with beauty and emotion and the final “il pianto mio” was a powerful lament.
But by the time Buratto arrived at the duet “Ma lassù ci vedremo in un mondo migliore,” she seemed set on pushing the tempo at such a quick pace that she had no time to hold some of the notes, continuously looked at the conductor. It also seemed again like she was losing breath and cutting many of her high notes off quickly. In all, it lacked the sensitive qualities that this duet has and that nostalgic feel for these two characters.
To be fair, this was her first at-bat in this role and it stands to reason that she’s going to sound much different in subsequent performances.
From his first entrance, when he moved about the stage with an intense pain in his visage and body, you could tell that tenor Russell Thomas was committed to making as much as he could out of the little on offer from the production. His opening aria, “Io l’ho perduta!” was sung with intensity from the word go, the tenor throwing everything into those opening phrases, pushing his voice to its limits with the first high A flat on “il re.” He made a gradual diminuendo throughout the ensuing passages leading toward the Andante “Io la vidi e il suo sorriso.” That passage was sung with elegant legato phrasing that would be a trademark of Thomas’ performance throughout the night. His voice blossomed on the high notes, including the high B flat and high A at the apex of the aria, which were solid throughout the night (there were a few early on, particularly during the duet with Posa in this act, that sounded a bit pushed).
The tenor was equally passionate in the ensuing duet with Peter Mattei’s Rodrigo though there were several sections where the two didn’t seem to be together. Thomas was in top form throughout the duet with Elisabetta in Act two, his voice managing to find the mix between intense fortes and more muted pianos.
But it was also evident in these earlier sections that Thomas’ earthy and grainy middle and lower registers didn’t always cut cleanly through the thicker textures of the orchestra and often sounded a bit small in the large theater (bear in mind that we were seated in the orchestra section of the cavernous Met); inversely, his high notes rang through quite cleanly. This came to the fore in the Act two trio where, despite having the main melody of the ensemble, he was hard to hear. Not only was he overpowered by the orchestra (which is doubling his line), but his colleagues, particularly Matochinka, came through with greater clarity.
Thomas was excellent in the final act of the opera, not only managing some powerful singing throughout “È dessa;” particularly beautiful was the gentle qualities he brought to “Vago sogno m’arrise” and the gradual build in his sound as he exploded on “A lui andrò beato,” surging with intensity as he hit the high A on “plauso, o pianto.” His ensuing entrance on the Marziale was even more ferocious, and the tenor continued to build through the passage, climaxing into two bright and vibrant high A’s before descrescendoing the passage to a mournful G sharp on “né ad essa mancherò!” His entrance on “Ma lassù” featured his most gentle piano singing, which he sustained throughout the passage.
There were a few miscues throughout the night with Russell and the orchestra losing each other during one of his entrances at the top of Act two and even in the final duet, Thomas seemed a bit insecure about the tempo (Buratto had pushed it a bit forward from the original one that she started with), but more on that later. In all, this was a solid turn from the tenor.
Mattei’s Mixed Night
Solid would also be the word to describe the start of Peter Mattei’s night. The baritone’s gentle and sweet timbre seems like a match made in heaven for the benevolent Rodrigo, a man whose idealism is matched by his loyalty and kindness to almost every single character in the opera. His bright sound, coupled with a lightning fast vibrato, and fluid legato phrasing was perfect for those opening moments where he consoles Carlo and then pledges eternal loyalty to him throughout the duet. It was perfect for the “Carlo che sol il nostro amore” with the tessitura generally in the upper reaches of the voice where Mattei could phrase with grace and elegance. It was perfect for passages where the orchestral accompaniment was on the lighter side, such as the second half of the Filippo-Rodrigo duet that closes Act two, “Inaspettata,” another passage that hangs out in the upper reaches of the baritone range and allows Mattei to sing with a lighter texture.
But he was less suited for the heavier sections of the role, especially those where the orchestra was at its thickest. That was most evident during the first part of the Rodrigo-Filippo duet, which is text heavy. Unfortunately, Mattei was virtually buried under the mounting orchestral forces throughout “O signor, di Friandra arrivo;” he found some respite during “Ah! sia benedetto Iddio,” where the orchestral accompaniment receded to allow his melody to shine. But even then, the ascents to the highest notes, particularly the high F sounded a bit uncomfortable, the note sounding close off and lacking any vibrancy. Forte high notes at the climax of longer phrases were all approached similarly with all of them coming off as muffled; this was the case with the F sharps on “Carlo che sol il nostro amore” and, most disappointingly, throughout “Per me giunto,” where the phrases never quite blossomed to their maximum expressive potential because of this.
Mattei did end his night on a high note with a solid rendition of “O Carlo, ascolta,” where he threw caution to the wind and unleashed his voice to its maximum potential. Here the higher notes, including the high Gs, were allowed to ring out.
Mattei did the most with the staging, embracing Carlo ferociously in Act one before bowing to him on several occasions to show his reverence. He did much the same with the King, which further emphasized his politeness and general good spirit. The lone moment where he strayed from this was the confrontation with Eboli where Mattei lunged at her with the sword, his glare determined and frightening. Matched by Matochinka’s aggressiveness, there felt like a true potential for some real staging fireworks.
Like the other singers, Mattei seemed unsure of numerous entrances, most notably his arrival during that very Act two trio and “Ti serba alla grand’opra,” the passage that bridges his final two arias in the opera. But more on that later.
As Filippo, Günther Groissböck cut a reserved figure, his firm sound given a snarly and rough texture throughout the opening scenes as he scolded everyone around him. His sound projected well, but we didn’t really get a sense of its range or potency until half-way through the Filippo-Rodrigo duet when he invoked the heartbreaking “Nulla val sotto al ciel il ben ch’ei tolse a me!,” with sound erupting with passion and pain, especially on the fermata C natural. His delivery of the repetitions of “Ti guarda” was increasingly chilling, with the last one full of anger and aggression.
The big aria at the top of Act three is Filippo’s big moment. “Ella giammai m’amo” takes us on a tour of Filippo’s pain and insecurities, from the weight of wearing the crown to the pain of losing love. Groissböck, sounding good with a steady legato line, never quite managed to unpack all of those layers and colors; his dynamic and emotional range was limited, seemingly stuck on mezzoforte the entire way through. This undercut the emotional shifts in passages like “Se il serto regal,” which starts forte, and “Se dorme il prence” which is indicated as piano and “parlata a mezza voce;” there didn’t seem to be much parlato or mezza voce in this case. It was until he arrived at the climactic FF on “di leggere nei cor,” which climaxes on a high D that we truly heard an overwhelming emotional shift. From there, the final “ella giammai m’amo” was riveting, leading to another anguished forte eruption on the high E of “Amor per me non ha.” The arrival was definitely thrilling, but the journey there was not quite as riveting.
What was riveting was what happened right after that aria, which is where Groissböck took things up a notch. The scene between Filippo and Grand Inquisitor was, full stop, the best scene in the entire performance. He possessed tremendous chemistry with bass John Relyea, the two trading vocal blows with ferocity. Even if Relyea’s high notes (especially the high Es) never flourished and often imploded the intensity of his forte singing. You could feel the desperation in Groissböck’s singing and how it contrasted nicely with the implacable firmness of Relyea’s.
Groissböck was also fiery during his duet with Elisabetta – his physical abuse of her was built up very intensely, the bass-baritone’s voice snarly and sarcastic before becoming increasingly brutal and aggressive.
One of the standouts of the evening was Alexandros Stavrakakis in his Met debut as the Monk or Carlos quinto. “Carlo il sommo imperatore” was sung with a booming bass that was rich in sound and even balanced in his highs and in his lower voice. His final entrance “Il duolo della terra” was frightening.
Erika Bailoff was also a standout and sang Tebaldo with an attractive soprano as she danced and strutted around the stage with an incredible presence.
Toni Marie Palmertree sang a gorgeous line as the voice from heaven, though toward the end of her line, she seemed to be unsure of the tempo. That’s been a common theme, hasn’t it?
Speaking of which…
Off the Marker
Carlo Rizzi’s conducting could be summed up as brash and swift. After a lush “Tosca” and revelatory “Medea,” Rizzi seemed to be in a rush with this “Don Carlo.” For context – the Met’s program had the opera ending at 11:20; the performance ended 10 minutes earlier. Verdi’s music can be dramatic if it’s swift and propulsive but there are moments when the music needs to breathe.
Moreover, that need for relaxation of tempi is more tantamount when it’s clear that most of your leads are struggling throughout the evening. If one singer was missing entrances, then fine, we might pin it on that singer potentially having an off-night. But when you hear sloppiness at the start of the Act two trio; or Buratto not able to get comfortable with the tempi in her opening aria; or the orchestra falling behind Thomas during “O tu cagion del mio contento” after the opening phrase of that passage had been right on cue; or Groissböck entering the concertato tentatively; or the final duet “Ma lassu ci vedremo” sounding rushed and uncomfortable for the soloists; or, in one of the most tense moments of the night, Mattei and pizzicato strings completely disconnecting on “Ti serba alla grand’opra,” to the point that the woodwinds entrance only made it worse; then the buck stops at the person in the pit.
But I think there’s one particular moment that is most emblematic of Rizzi’s night – the start of the Auto-da-fe scene. It’s the chorus’ big moment. Even on nights when soloists struggle, you can depend on the Met Opera Chorus to deliver. But the descending triplet figures on “o nor al più grande dei Regi!” were a mush of sound, the sloppiness accentuated by the fact that those lines are doubled by the ENTIRE orchestra. The ensemble just seemed rushed and uneasy throughout this opening passage and things turned musically bizarre during the ensuing “Il nostro amor ovun que laccompagna,” a section where the melody is passed around the choral sections. The entrances were so sloppy that the music lacked harmonic or rhythmic direction. The march of the monks improved matters and even the Cantabile section, with the soaring legato cello line (which is later taken up by the voice from above) was also well played, but the arrival of the banda was cause for more concerns as, not only did the ensemble backstage not sound together, but the tempi were clearly different when the orchestra in the pit entered with its iteration of the fanfare. Following another iteration of the Cantabile line, the banda kicks in with a dance-like rhythm of a dotted eighth note / 32nd note that is eventually passed onto the orchestra and then climaxes in a restatement of the opening theme of the passage; the tempi were so off that the transition from banda to orchestra was far from seamless. The ending of the passage climaxed with more mushy chorus lines.
That’s not to say that there was no good in Rizzi’s performance. What’s most frustrating about all of this is that when he was on, he was every bit as good as he was in “Medea” or “Tosca.” Many conductors taking on late Verdi tend to lean heavily on brass sounds, often resulting in a banda sound for the entire orchestra. Not Rizzi. He knows how to balance the brightness of the brass and winds with an earthier texture of the strings to really create a more grounded sound. The results can be absolutely unreal, such as THE Chord during the Filippo and Rodrigo duet which was cataclysmic and unreal in its explosiveness and dramatic weight. He also got some of the more gentle textures beautifully, particularly at the start of Act two and during the final duet. The very final notes of the opera, with the violins in a frenzy over a menacing fanfare were all you could ask from any conductor.
And then there was the Fillipo and the Grand Inquisitor duet with the orchestra matching the two singers, blow for blow, the balance of brass and the strings was perfectly in synch with both Relyea and Groissböck. This scene really hit hard.
Despite a solid cast on paper, this “Don Carlo” felt underrehearsed and ultimately disappointed. There are numerous performances remaining and the hope is that as the group develops chemistry, the performances will be much stronger.