opera review

Don Carlos, a Dark Opera for Glum Times, Brings Plenty of Musical Brilliance

From Don Carlos at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera

A ghoulish tyrant, his private grievances magnified to European scale, tries to crush a plucky rebellious outpost of empire. A much younger leader, who first appears as a lightweight with a pretty smile, puts up an unexpected challenge, threatening to bring down the entire superstructure of power. When the opera ends, he seems unlikely to succeed or even survive.

A few weeks ago, those elements of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos would have seemed like a geopolitical subplot to a love triangle; the fate of 16th-century Flanders matters far less than the tribulations of a Spanish prince in love with his French stepmom. But on opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production, the overlap with current events was unmistakable, especially since the Met chorus filed onstage before the show began and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. When the curtain went up, an immense censer slowly swung above the stage like a pendulum, and for a couple of minutes the only sound in the house was the tolling of a funeral bell.

The mood of the news jibes with the opera’s somberness. It’s a tough story undergirded by death and spangled with glorious music. The slow march of the Grand Inquisitor, the choir of supplicant Flemish envoys, Countess Eboli’s arias of vengeance and remorse, the grim solemnity of the auto-da-fé, Carlos’s epic flights of self-pity, King Philippe II’s meditations on power and old age — all these dark-toned stretches in the score make it the perfect non-distraction from days of intense anxiety. David McVicar’s new production amps up the gloom. Adam Silverman’s lighting is muted to the point of murkiness, and Brigitte Reiffenstuel has costumed virtually everyone in shades of opulent black with a few brushstrokes of mother-of-pearl and dashes of clerical scarlet. Charles Edwards’s set — two massive walls of stacked arches, one curving to embrace the stage, the other a round tower plunked in the middle — looms sepulchrally. The idea, presumably, was to emulate stone, but the effect is closer to concrete, so the tower gives off a certain air of nuclear reactor.

What saves this five-hour night at the opera from being an unadulterated bummer is the music-making, which transforms suffering into pleasure. Verdi wrote a high-thread-count score; the sheer abundance of luxuriant tunes makes it one of the richest works in any company’s repertoire. It also contains genuine characters and relationships. Verdi allows us to hear all the king’s layers of self-doubt and the yearslong petrification of the heart. He marks the friendship between Carlos and Rodrigue with a richly rousing passage that is part anthem, part drinking song, and part love duet, hazing the line between camaraderie and homoeroticism. At the Met, Yannick Nézet-Séguin pilots the cast through that complicated musical landscape with a sure and sensitive hand so that nothing feels overlooked or overworked.

Nézet-Séguin persuaded the Met to perform the first of the handful of versions Verdi oversaw, the one Parisian audiences saw in 1867 — in French and largely unabridged here minus a ballet that even the composer considered extraneous. Most singers have only ever performed (and most operagoers have only ever heard) the Italian translation (referred to as Don Carlo), which is full of contortions in the elevated style of the 19th century. Hearing it in the more direct French original is like seeing someone in a tailored suit: The music drapes neatly over the words, allowing the singers to glide more naturally through a phrase. It’s not a dramatic difference, though, and the effect is dampened by the lack of native French speakers: The marvelous soprano Sonya Yoncheva clothed the role of Élisabeth in silver and damask, but her French sounds a lot like her native Bulgarian. Matthew Polenzani, a lyric tenor of vast experience and a light touch who has lately been edging into more heavily armored roles like Carlos, shone through a grueling evening with undimmed elegance. But he sounded like he’d be more comfortable singing the crisp Italian phonemes “Io la vidi” than the round-cornered French “Je l’ai vue.”

Fortunately, there was Etienne Dupuis, the Quebecois baritone, whose astute and shaded portrayal of Carlos’s buddy Rodrigue almost made him the opera’s moral and musical spine. Athletic, warm-voiced, and given more to purring than to hollering, he delivered both the character’s scheming and sincere sides. A consummate courtier and confidant of the king, Rodrigue is also a passionate dissident, manipulative, loyal, self-aggrandizing, and self-sacrificing — complexities Dupuis never lost track of. (His mohawk is another story; I choose to think of it as an homage to the Ukrainian Cossack oseledets.)

Casting this great brocaded tapestry of an opera is always a feat, and the Met draws on deep reserves of talent: Eric Owens mulling gravely (but a little uncomfortably) as Philippe II; Jamie Barton thundering and sparking as Eboli; John Relyea summoning brimstone as the Grand Inquisitor. And supporting them all are the Met’s enduring twin marvels, the chorus and the orchestra, which have returned to the company with some new members and a freshly transparent sound and keeping all the old sinew and depth.

A Dark Opera for Glum Times Brings Musical Brilliance