It’s hard to imagine a more gripping opera to close the MET’s Summer Encore season than Verdi’s Don Carlo. The young Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted with the passion and vigor necessary for such emotive music and was able to inspire the same passion in the musicians of the MET orchestra. With Roberto Alagna in the title role of Don Carlo, Ferruccio Furlanetto playing Carlo’s father, King Philip, Marina Poplavskaya as Philip’s bride, Elizabeth, Simon Keenlyside as Rodrigo, and Anna Smirnova as the jealous Eboli, one could not ask for a better cast for the drama.
Alagna sets the standard of excellence with his opening aria which resounded powerfully. Within minutes of being onstage, Alagna was already being greeted by warm and lengthy ovations from not only the recorded MET audience, but theater goers as well. From newfound love and hope to crazed desperation, Alagna acted his part to perfection without sacrificing pitch or tone. In fact, his intensity only made his singing all the more heartbreaking.
Poplavskya, in the role of Elizabeth, the woman promised to Carlo, but given, instead to his father King Philip, was much more cool and levelheaded in her characterization. Elizabeth is not the passionate wreck Carlo is, but rather a timid, yet strangely strong woman who lets duty and honor guide her and assuage her suffering. Poplavskya sang with heart-rending passion, but was not quite as convincing in her acting. Poplavskya was amazingly expressive in her eyes and facial expression, but was at times basically immobile from the neck down. Her engagement with the rest of the cast were exceptional, however, and overall was able to portray a complex and evolving character.
A part of what makes this opera so gripping is not just the story, but the development of characters. Verdi gives insight into the hearts of each of his lead characters, making them dynamic, sympathetic, and endearing. Don Carlo, the heartsick protagonist, finally understands what it means to be a hero and a leader, if not a little too late. Elizabeth is developed through her torn heart. Her honorable faithfulness to the King, despite her love for another shows her truly noble caring heart and her ability to stand up to the King’s confrontation show her growth since her days of timidity and fear. The most intriguing, however, is the treatment of King Philip, the antagonist. King Philip could easily have been left as the villain who stole Carlo’s bride and put him to death without remorse, but Philip’s beautiful aria, “Ella Giammai M’amo” and the following scene between the King and the Grand Inquisitor, played by Eric Halfvarson, bring out a compassionate and pitiful side of the King.
King Philip, played by Ferruccio Furlanetto, could easily be the most complex character of the piece, torn between compassion for a fellow man and the demands of the callous Inquisitor and jealousy towards his son for stealing the love of the woman he loves. It is next to impossible to remain completely unsympathetic towards Philip after his touching aria “Ella Giammai M’amo” where he reminisces on his futile love for his wife whose heart is closed to him. Furlanetto’s transformation from oppressive and closed hearted King to a vulnerable man was pitifully moving as well as his fervent defense of Rodrigo against the Grand Inquisitor.
The turbulent confrontation between the King and the Grand Inquisitor was charged with passion and fury and created only more sympathy for the King. The scene was very dark in subject as well as musically, with two strong bass voices. This scene reveals the King’s true isolation. He clings to Rodrigo as his only friend and is filled with horror and remorese at his own actions after obeying the Inquisitor (“Chi rende a me quest’uom? O abissi crudeli, salvate lui dagl’error miei fatali!”/ Who will bring this man back to me? Oh cruel abyss, save him from my fatal errors!).
As secondary characters, Rodrigo, Eboli, and the Friar all made lasting impacts on the drama and were anything but forgettable. Keenlyside’s Rodrigo was not only key in the relationships between Philip and Carlo, but a compassionate and heroic figure. Keenlyside’s singing, although not as effortless as Alagna and Furlanetto, was captivating, particularly his death scene which was enough to bring tears to anyone’s eyes. Smirnova’s voice was large and lush, although not as controlled as the rest of the cast. Her acting, although decent, was a little stiff and uncomfortable. Alexei Tanovitsky, on the other hand, was the most chilling figure of the opera. Tanovitsky’s lines, although few, were powerful, mysterious, and haunting. His dark, robust voice, pierces the somber cloister eerily with lofty and foreboding adages. His final appearance in the final moments of the opera chills not only the blood of the shocked Inquisitor, King, and his entourage, but also the audience. The Inquisitor’s revelation, “È la voce di Carlo!” (It’s the voice of Carlo!), and its ensuing reactions from the people and the King coupled with Elizabeth’s soaring cry of desperation and confusion, with the young Carlo dying in her arms, is the perfect drama soaked ending to close this masterpiece. Performed to perfection, this finale, disorienting in its power, left nothing to be desired.