The Met Opera’s original five-act French version of Verdi’s epic opera of doomed love among royalty is in fact an amended version of the 1867 Paris edition with some omissions as well as the addition of elements from later Italian versions, but if the intention was to serve up the best version possible then there is no doubt that this comes pretty close with the magnificence of its delivery.
It’s a tough story with far too real parallels to events unfolding in the Ukraine which serves to reinforce the piece’s uncompromising assessment of the ways of human nature as we are thrust via a love triangle into the courtly world of 16th Century Spain complete with its religious Inquisition and destructive suppression of protest in Flanders.
At almost five hours, there is a risk that the heavy underlying tone of David McVicar’s production will weigh us down, but this is far from the case. Charles Edwards’ colourless set is creatively ambiguous enabling us to move seamlessly between scenes with the backdrop of catacombs becoming more prescient at the end with a Giacometti-inspired hanging Christ whilst Adam Silverman’s lighting changes amplify the move from the ornate to the ruined. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes are equally dark yet serve as a palette for explosions of colour that hint at hope against the inherent darkness.
Don Carlos is not an aria-type opera, its point lies in its drama, the interaction of the ensemble and the solo moments which are driven by the plot. From its unexpected opening prelude, there are several substantial solo turns from some great performers: tenor Matthew Polenzani as Prince Don Carlos; soprano Sonya Yoncheva as his beloved (and eventual step-mother) Élisabeth de Valois; baritone Etienne Dupuis as Carlos’ heroic friend, Rodrigue; bass-baritone Eric Owens as Carlos’ father, King Philippe II; mezzo Jamie Barton as Princess Eboli; and bass John Relyea as the formidable Grand Inquisitor, with each delivering gripping, full-blooded and deeply characterised performances.
The circumstances of the story are driven by Philippe’s power and antipathy as well as his own sense of belief and fear of the Spanish Inquisition, with the Act IV scene with the Grand Inquisitor containing some of the darkest and most extraordinary music Verdi ever wrote, and which Relyea sang with gravity, his angry and bitter old man still able to dominate Owens’ wistful Phillipe to brooding effect.
Polenzani expressed the full gamut of Don Carlos’ emotions, from his gentleness to anger, discouragement to mania, leading towards a growing sense of maturity touching on heroism. Yoncheva in turn responded in different shades that built up to her wonderful Act V aria ‘Toi qui sus le néant’ which beautifully illustrated her musical artistry.
It is not the two leads who get the most, and best, arias, but Rodrigue and Eboli, and both Dupuis and Barton were fantastic. In a historical nod, Barton sported an eye-patch and a rockabilly hairstyle that reinforced the independence of her character. Dupuis’ astute portrayal of Rodrigue captured the many sides to his character – loyal and dissident; passionate and manipulative; egotistical yet self-sacrificing – whilst remaining the moral and musical heart. The ghost of Emperor Charles V haunts the proceedings throughout and so the clever reappearance of Rodrigue at the end was particularly moving.
Supporting them all are the chorus and orchestra, led by conductor Patrick Furrer, and we were served up a treat of glorious music full of its own shades of colour with perfect balance, pace and phrasing.
The Metropolitan Opera are live streaming a number of their productions throughout their 2021-22 season, further details https://www.metopera.org/
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 26th March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★