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Poetic justice: Don Carlos METinée 03/13 (Lontano, lontano)

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

The Met's editorial mash-up of Verdi's great French opera, honorably performed.

Plus bravi comprimari Zhang, Woodbury, Ferring, Kang

Don Carlos

2022.III.13 Sunday METinée

Metropolitan Opera premiere production of «the original French 5-act version» [sic]

Don Carlos • Matthew Polenzani

Thibault • Meigui Zhang

Élisabeth de Valois • Sonya Yoncheva

Le comte de Lerme • Joo Won Kang

Un moine (Charles V) • Matthew Rose

Rodrigue, Marquis de Posa • Étienne Dupuis

La princesse Éboli • Jamie Barton (replacing Elīna Garanča)

Philippe II • Eric Owens (replacing Gunther Groissböck)

Un héraut royal • Eric Ferring

Six députés flamands • Vladyslav Buialskyi, Samson Setu, Msimelelo Mbali, Christopher Job, Jeongcheol Cha, Paul Corona

Une voix d'en haut • Amanda Woodbury

Le Grand Inquisiteur • John Relyea

conductor • Yannick Nézet-Séguin

From «up in the gods» on a generously attended Sunday METinée, one savored Don Carlos's unique alchemy of French poetry and Verdian inspiration, unencumbered by the crudities, approximations, and platitudes of the far-too-common Italian translation. It can never be sufficiently asserted that throughout its near-two-decade-long compositional history, Don Carlos was conceived, composed, and amended as an opera in French—with the exception of a couple of Rodrigue / Philippe exchanges composed in Italian for the 1872 Neapolitan revision, ultimately superseded by the familiar final versions of the 1880s (1883 Scala four-act and 1886 Modena five-act, identical except for the latter's reinstatement of the Fontainebleau act and the first part of Act II, Scene I).

But for this Met premiere of a Francophone Don Carlos just what music was made? Program annotator Susan Youens's claim that «In this production, we hear what is largely the French version of 1867 [i.e. the five-act grand opera complete with ballet which eventually made it to the Opéra stage]» holds true only to the extent that throughout the opera's compositional history, Verdi left most of his opening-night score untouched. Closer inspection proves the current performing version to be an editorial jigsaw puzzle in which various pieces have been whittled down to fit odd corners, conflating elements from almost every step of the opera's compositional journey. (Specifics are listed below in the Appendix.)

Regarding two staging points in Act III,

• un pregio: Carlos's realization of having mistaken Éboli's identity was handled tactfully enough to avoid unwelcome audience mirth

• un difetto: the ghastly imposition of a saltimbanco gyrating, stomping, and taunting on the auto-da-fé plaza

(That said, praise to the uncredited saltimbanco for his unquestionable skill and zest.)

What of the music-making?

Glory, laud, and honor to the Met's home forces: the chorus, facing the demands of a new performing text—literally, in the sense of mostly familiar music mixed with unfamiliar music all according to the scansion of a different language—in a new production; the orchestra-cum-offstage musical complements unflagging in rhythmic responsiveness, accuracy of intonation, and fullness of ensemble sound throughout a long performance. Company MD Yannick Nézet-Séguin steadily handled the auto-da-fé's antiphonal trading off between orchestra (in the pit) and banda (offstage). In the score's copious tutti sections, one wished he'd resist the temptation to pile on sheer decibels and please leave the voices room to project!

Much of the principals' singing was honorable: physically smart and observant of the score's ongoing intermingled demands of pitch, rhythm, and word—no mean feat.

Bravi to the four briefest roles:

• une voix d'en haut (familiarly known as «The Celestial Voice»), Amanda Woodbury, supple-voiced through the part's rangey phrases and with good trills;

• un héraut royal, Eric Ferring (praised in a Prior Hotspot Installment for his Beppe in Chicago Lyric's summer 2021 Pagliacci film), clear of tone, text, and tuning in his crucial a cappella solo;

• the Comte de Lerme, whom Élisabeth refers to as «elderly» yet here—happily—nothing of the sort, ringingly voiced by robust-toned baritone Joo Won Kang;

• and in that gem of a trouser role Thibault, ripe-toned young lyric soprano Meigui Zhang.

I bassi:

The six Flemish deputies who explain their plight to Philippe in unison were suitably solemn-toned, though it took them a few phrases to achieve rhythmically unanimous consonant onsets.

In the crucial role of the friar who is recognized in the opera's final moments as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Philippe's father / Carlos's grandfather), Matthew Rose betrayed a puzzling vocal habit of droning the onset of each phrase's initial note straight-tone, i.e. senza vibrato.

John Relyea's Inquisiteur was satisfyingly craggy-toned up to D above the bass staff; the requisite extension beyond (up to high F) did not acquire further climactic impact.

As Rodrigue, Étienne Dupuis prioritized musical suavity, observing his written trills and frequently opting for mezzevoci (e.g. concluding his prison scene Andante sostenuto with that phrase which starts on baritone high F, «o mon Carlos!»). Yet although he was generally audible throughout, Dupuis could not match the role's non-negotiable demands for outspoken vocalism: full-voice acuti could not expand, there was more text than tone in the strong syllabic writing of his duet with Philippe («Est-ce la paix que vous donnez au monde?») and trio with Carlos and Éboli (right from his entrance «Que dit-il?»), and his command for Carlos's sword during the auto-da-fé («Votre épée!») was startlingly wide of vibrato and pitch.

Hearing Élisabeth de Valois sung in real time reminded me of the role's frequent call for unlabored flexing between middle and bottom registers as well as its insistence on that central F-to-A-flat just-north-of-chest-voice zone where a soprano must project without belting or roaring. Sonya Yoncheva handled her instrument astutely, reinforcing her lower-to-middle voice gestures with dusky pettosità—e.g. two surprisingly stern responses to Éboli: «Levez-vous!» and «Rendez-moi votre croix!» between E-flat and G-flat above middle C.

On the other end of the voice, acuti were queered by degrees of oscillation—particularly noticeable on the G-sharps right above the treble staff in the opening and concluding sections of «Toi qui sus le néant»: «la paix douce et profonde; si l'on répand encore des larmes dans le ciel». (Already during Yoncheva's Donn'Elvira in Monte Carlo seven years ago, that vocal zone evidenced an «abrupt widening of pitch and intensifying of vibration», as mentioned in this blog's survey of «Mi tradì» performances.) In between, she worked at keeping the tone flowing even at the expense of forthright enunciation, but Yoncheva's phrasing throughout was appreciably informed by her fluency in the language.

The three remaining principals are among the most esteemed alumni of this nation's young artist cultivation system, uniformly fulfilling their responsibilities at a high-level professional level: earnest stage deportment, thorough musical preparation, and even if lacking the verbal flair of passionate Francophones, taking pains to clearly articulate the libretto.

«Charmante princesse Éboli» was Jamie Barton, hearty-toned in her range extremes but more gathered in the middle, vocally and scenically committed to this volatile character. A late-in-the-game casting replacement in the role, she merits serious plaudits for never getting tongue-tied! One encourages her to further relish the sounds of the language: Éboli's very person announces itself via successions of vowels such as «s'abreuver à pleins bords à la coupe où l'on boit les plaisirs de la vie!» and sibilants such as «Mais je suis, moi, une ennemie dangereuse» and «Tous les tourments jaloux, les tourments jaloux déchaînés dans mon cœur!»

Tel père, tel fils—like father, like son: heartening to witness Eric Owens's and Matthew Polenzani's penchants for expressing male vulnerability! Owens's ever so human Philippe was neither divo nor demigod: he calmly inhabited his role scenically and vocally, scrupulous musically and linguistically, never grandstanding nor flinging the voice in the direction of the pitches and missing.

Perhaps Polenzani could have benefited from being more of a divo—communicating on a broader scale Carlos's levels of heartsickness, energizing his movement patterns with greater character intent, bypassing linguistic correctness in favor of linguistic enthusiasm—yet with his own artistic arsenal how honorably he carried the taxing role across the hours! His tone is not a stout one, and he slims it down further to execute of central-through-passaggio mezzevoci—e.g. the penultimate cadence of his opening aria, descending scalewise from high A: «Dieu bénit nos chastes amours». (Would that Polenzani have maintained the same tonal substance en route towards piano as en route towards forte, and would that he resist the occasional urge to rant—i.e. fling his voice in the direction of the pitches—at plot moments of high dudgeon.)

Polenzani's vocal ace is that top register which stands out from the rest of his voice for its automatic gain of carrying power. Such is his top-register command that he can equally finesse with diminuendi (e.g. the B-flat at the peak of the Act III trio «Quel mystère à mes yeux s'est dévoi?») and cleave through dense orchestration at full cry (e.g. likewise in the Act III trio, the repeated outburst «Oublions l'univers, la vie et le ciel même!» and the lament «Qu'ai-je fait? qu'ai-je fait?»; immediately afterward, all the defiant phrases in the auto-da-fé, especially the ascent to B-natural «Je serai ton sauveur, noble peuple flamand!»).

Solitary Francofoible: in Fontainebleau, after Carlos and Élisabeth hear the cannon shot announcing peace between France and Spain, Polenzani pronounced «Bois dépouillés, ravins, broussailles» as if it rhymed with «Marseille» instead of (correctly) «Versailles».

Obligatory voice of yesteryear: Marseille-born Italian baritone Eugenio Giraldoni, son of Leone Giraldoni, colleague of Verdi's and role creator of Simon Boccanegra (first version) and Renato in Un ballo in maschera. Here is Giraldoni junior's recording of Rodrigue's first prison scene romanza (in Italian), made in November 1902, a couple of years after he originated the antagonist role in an opera by Puccini entitled Tosca. Easily robust voice, generous yet never gratituitous portamento, room and ring in the top even at mezzavoce, a full rippling trill («i suoi fedel»), and in the final phrase a high A-flat divo interpolation («mo-or-rà per te»).


A reader-friendly guide to what actually was performed in the Met's

«original French 5-act version» premiere production of Don Carlos

P (Paris): 1867 Parisian world premiere edition as a five-act grand opera with ballet, including changes and cuts made during the extensive rehearsal period.

R (Rehearsal): passages cut during the premiere's rehearsal period, rediscovered in the Opéra archives over a century later.

S (Scala): final familiar versions composed for the 1883 Scala revision in four acts. The 1886 Modena version in five acts is mostly identical except for reinstating from the 1867 the initial Fontainebleau act and the first part of Act II, Scene I in the monastery.

1. Act I (Fontainebleau) – P

2. Act II, Scene I. Carlos / Rodrigue duet «Le voilà! c'est l'Infant!»

R beginning, including Rodrigue's «J'étais en Flandre».

The a due reprise of «Mon compagnon, mon ami, mon frère» was cut and replaced with

S mid-way cadence (Carlos: «O mon Rodrigue!» | Rodrigue: «Mon Carlos!»)

P immediately afterward and continuing to the end of the number.

3. Act II, Scene II. Rodrigue / Philippe duet «Restez!» – S

4. Act III, Scene I. S, beginning with the orchestral prelude expressly composed to replace the original opening of the act.

5. Act IV, Scene I. Élisabeth / Éboli / Rodrigue / Philippe quartet «Justice! justice, Sire!»

and Élisabeth / Éboli scene «Pitié! pardon pour la femme coupable!» (through Élisabeth's exit) – S

6. Act IV, Scene I. Éboli «Ah! je ne verrai plus la Reine!» (phrase preceding «O don fatal») and orchestral introduction to the aria – P

(The original version of Éboli's peroration is less flamboyant than the familiar one, a more even descent in pitch over a more even chordal orchestral accompaniment, and the original version of the introduction lacks the familiar brass triplets charging towards each downbeat.)

7. Act IV, Scene II. Carlos / Philippe / chorus finale «Mon fils, reprenez votre épée» – R

(The full original extended version of this finale, including the lament «Qui me rendra ce mort?» which Verdi reinvented as the Lachrymosa in the Messa da requiem, and including both Élisabeth's appearance and Éboli's farewell.)

8. Act V. Élisabeth / Carlos duet «C'est elle!»

S beginning through the Marziale «Oui, voilà l'héroïsme»

P Carlos's «Hier, hier encor» continuing to the end of the number, the final part of the duet a half-step lower than the familiar final version.

9. Act V. Élisabeth / Carlos / Philippe / Le Grand Inquisiteur / chorus finale

Abrupt shift to S: beginning of number through Carlos's outburst («Ah! Dieu me vengera!») until

Abrupt shift to P: le moine / Charles V's solo («Mon fils, les douleurs de la terre») through to end of opera.

The opera concludes in A major instead of the familiar final version's B major.

Finally, in the auto-da-fé (Act III, Scene II), a cut specific to this production—the 12-bar A-major banda episode between rehearsal letters F and G—and unauthorized by the composer.

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