French Don Carlos: Same Five Hours of Doom and Gloom


The unit set -- photo @ Ken Howard

Hardcore opera fans know that Verdi's Don Carlo was actually the five-act French opera Don Carlos. For a variety of reasons, this opera has usually been presented in an Italian translation. The raison d'etre for David McVicar's new production was that Yannick Nézet-Séguin was presenting the opera in its original French for the first time at the Met.

McVicar's set, photo @ Ken Howard
I'll be the first to admit that I do not speak either Italian or French, and I have no idea how the French version is better. The thing I noticed was that the French version is more conversational and less declamatory -- even the big duet between Carlos and Rodrigue ("Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes") or Eboli's aria "O don fatal" were not as barnstorming as I remember it in Italian. The other change I could hear was that after Rodrigue's death there was a duet between Philippe and Carlos that was cut in previous productions. 

Yoncheva and Polenzani
Sir David McVicar's new production was a drab unit set of a curved gray wall and some stone steps. The back of the wall opens up for some ambience -- the auto-da-fé scene of course had a fiery orange background. The costumes were a  facsimile of Inquisition-era Spanish style

The blocking and acting were basic and unremarkable-- this is a very stand and sing opera. McVicar only strays from the "typical" Don Carlos at the very end -- instead of Charles V pulling Carlos into the monastery, Carlos is killed and is reunited in the afterlife with Rodrigue. The curtain comes down on them, uh, consummating their relationship. I just don't hear sex in the music at that moment. It was a disappointing new production.

The casting was competent without being transporting. Matthew Polenzani (Carlos) sang the long and somewhat thankless title role with his dependable and tasteful style. His voice is just not my cup of tea (I find it too nasal and narrow), but it handled the demands of the long role better than expected. 

More simpatico was Sonya Yoncheva as Elisabeth. She has a naturally dignified, stately presence. Her voice has a sad, covered sound that suits the role. Her voice can develop a wobble on sustained tones, but overall she sounded better in this than she has in several years, and her fifth act aria "Toi qui sus le néant" earned a nice ovation.

Barton and Dupuis, photo @ Ken Howard
Jamie Barton (Eboli) got maybe the biggest applause of the afternoon. She has a big, boomy mezzo with a robust chest voice. She came to grief in the filigree Veil Song, but was reasonably exciting in "O don fatal." She just wasn't very seductive. For one, she looks too cheerful. Eboli is a femme fatale, not the girl next door.

Etienne Dupuis (Rodrigue) was the only French-speaking singer in the cast. Rodrigue has the opera's best music -- the big "bromance" melody with Carlos in the duet and the death scene aria. Don't think I've ever seen a baritone fail at this role, and Dupuis was no exception. A few quibbles: he made no attempt to sing the trills written in the score. I remember how well Dmitri Hvorostovsky used to trill in this music. Dupuis also started to run out of steam in the long death scene aria. But he looked nice in leather boots, and the sound is pleasant and, as I said, the role is fool-proof.

Owens and Relyea, photo @ Ken Howard
Eric Owens as Philippe was a disappointment. The role needs a real bass -- when Philippe makes his entrance calling out to Elisabeth, it's supposed to be terrifying. But Owens sounded so unimposing that the moment went for nothing. The role lies in the worst part  of Owens' voice -- he sounds hollow and wobbly. Owens' portrayal was also static and had no inner life. His great aria "Elle ne m'aime pas" had no pathos -- you didn't feel sorry for the King. The scene with the Grand Inquisitor (John Relyea) also brought yawns instead of chills. It was bizarre that the production actually fielded an excellent bass (Matthew Rose) as the Monk. Why wasn't he singing Philippe?

Polenzani, Barton and Dupuis, photo @ Ken Howard
YNS's conducting has evolved in the brief time since he's become music director. He used to be brisk and direct, now he seems intoxicated with creating the lush soundscape that was James Levine's hallmark. He's also become as ponderous as Levine could be. In an opera this long, many of the moments cried out for a firmer shape. Instead, musical motifs sort of meandered to their destination.

Overall, this production made a decent but not overwhelming case for presenting the opera in French. I have no doubt the French libretto makes more sense to those who speak French, but for those who don't this seemed like the same opera. It's long, sober and needs a great tenor, soprano, baritone, bass, and mezzo. This production had good voices, but not great voices.


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