'Don Carlo,' reveling in the characters of a conflicted court

SLIGHTLY STYLIZED: The set design by Bob Crowley marks his Met debut.
SLIGHTLY STYLIZED: The set design by Bob Crowley marks his Met debut. (Ken Howard/metropolitan Opera)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

NEW YORK - The Metropolitan Opera got one right. It takes a bunch of really good singers to bring off Verdi's "Don Carlo," with voices loud enough to drown out the opera-lovers mourning the decline of Verdi singing. Admittedly, not all of the singers at Monday's "Don Carlo" premiere were able to change our minds. But there was enough solid singing, and Nicholas Hytner's first Met production was good enough, to make a satisfying evening at the opera. Or maybe I just love "Don Carlo" so much that I'm willing to be optimistic about the proverbial half-full glass.

Hytner adopted what is becoming a formula for European directors at the Met: the "put them in traditional costumes and create slightly stylized sets" plan of attack. The sets, by Bob Crowley (also in a Met debut), ranged from serviceable to evocative, starting with stylized white trees in the snowscape of Fontainebleau (where the opera's five-act version opens) and extending to a dark space shot through with shafts of smoky light, the vault of the monastery of St. Just, dramatically awe-full. Some of the stylization was a little trite (the female chorus sported big fur cuffs in the Fontainebleau scene, bright red fans in the red-and-black garden scene), but the general idiom of big dark spaces, large columns and military severity was effective.

The real reason it worked, though, was Hytner's attention to the characters. It's always hard to know how much inspiration comes from a director and how much from the singer: Ferruccio Furlanetto, who has become one of the great portrayers of King Philip, had some of the same tender, telling touches on Monday that he showed in the live broadcast of La Scala's opening night in 2008. After accusing his wife, Elisabetta, of adultery, he grabs her fainted body and cradles her head, pouring out all the affection he can't figure out how to give her when she's conscious. But Hytner certainly had a hand in it.

And his conception of Elisabetta was one of the best things in the opera. The future queen burst onto the scene at the very start of the opera with a strong-willed, loose-haired, proud tomboy of a princess. After she fell wildly in love with Carlo, and then learned she had been betrothed to his father, you could see the sudden shock as for the first time in her life, she couldn't do exactly what she wanted.

Marina Poplavskaya embodied this free spirit, and her subsequent proud sad life at the Spanish court, so convincingly, and sang with such a lovely supple warmth, that you could sometimes overlook the fact that the part was two sizes too big for her. She couldn't fake this in the big passages, though she tried to temper her delivery of the final aria, "Tu che le vanita," with artistically quiet singing. Yet again, the Met is presenting a voice that's too small for a role in the house but that I predict will sound great in the HD broadcast (scheduled for Dec. 11).

Vocally, the evening was sustained by Furlanetto and Roberto Alagna, who, singing the title role in Italian for the first time, sounded ragged in his opening aria but quickly sang his way into a firmer, ringing delivery. Simon Keenlyside's Posa was more a work in progress. Here's another singer who doesn't quite have the vocal heft for the role, though he sang it with artistry; he also overcompensated for vocal lightness with a kind of physical restlessness that's become widespread among many of the Met's "singing actors." There's been a lot of criticism of the old-school approach of "park and bark" in the past few years, but the ability to keep still onstage conveys a kind of authority and strength that excessive gestures seldom achieve - as Furlanetto's King Philip demonstrated in his magisterial Act 2 duet with Keenlyside's shifting Posa.

Making her Met debut as Eboli, Anna Smirnova showed a hefty, penetrating voice without a lot of elegance and with some intonation issues. A happier debut was the sunny Tebaldo of Layla Claire. Also successful was Alexei Tanovitsky as the mysterious Monk, who in this production was indeed Charles V, watching by his own tomb as son Philip kills grandson Carlo. However, the veteran Eric Halfvarson was a disappointment as the Grand Inquisitor; it sounded as if he was purposely trying to make his voice sound older in a few passages, which wasn't a great idea.

In the pit, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the music director-designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra, showed he is a fine orchestral conductor and has a ways to go as an operatic one. He is energetic to the point of exaggeration, drove a good sound from the players and was sensitive to the music. But coordination problems with the singers persisted throughout the evening, across the board, though the audience acclaimed him loudly after each intermission, regardless.

This may seem like a lot of caveats to be piling on a purportedly good evening. Indeed, the bar has been set so low for Verdi performance these days that the simple fact that most of the people involved seemed to get what the composer is about, and no one was actively unpleasant to listen to, could be accounted a strength.

But it's a pleasure in any opera performance to find moments that illuminate the fusion of music and drama - like the moment where Elisabetta, emotionally drained by her confrontation with her husband, sat numbly as Eboli launched into her own histrionics and revealed her own betrayal. Poplavskaya absorbed the final blow almost without affect and groped her way offstage, weary and beyond caring, exactly as the music shows it might happen. The reason we keep doing masterpieces of the past is not just that they're great, but that they can, in the right hands, provide moments of insight or truth. They may be few and far between, but we'll take them where we can.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company