Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo(s)’ Given Both Treatments In New York, Chicago

Don Carlo
A scene from the Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo.’ (Photos by Ken Howard / Met Opera)

PERSPECTIVE — This month, both the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago have revived one of Verdi’s greatest operas both musically and from the point of view of psychological depth. New Yorkers, having finally heard Don Carlos (the French-language original) last season, experienced the work in its traditional but inferior Italian translation — and also in its inferior four-act revision. Chicagoans heard the French libretto for the first time ever, though allied to Verdi’s so-called Modena text of 1886, and thus with not one note of the intriguing extra material Verdi wrote for Paris.

Both shows suffered from maladroit and often trivial direction, in two separate, barely related productions by the overexposed David McVicar. But, at least solidly cast and well performed by the excellent orchestras, better led by Enrique Mazzola at Lyric in Chicago than the perhaps overworked Carlo Rizzi at the Met, both stagings provided considerable musical pleasure and were well worth experiencing. To me, this is one of those operas of such high essential quality that — as with Lohengrin, Un ballo in maschera, and Eugene Onegin — one almost always comes away rewarded.

Like Giovanna d’Arco (at least in general terms), I masnadieri, and Luisa Miller before it, Don Carlos is based on a drama by Friedrich Schiller. And like those three predecessors, Don Carlos deals with themes of duty versus personal happiness (Verdi’s frequent stock in trade), as well as traumatic familial and amatory dynamics. Devised for the specifications, tastes, and artists of the Paris Opéra of 1867, it has a textual history as complicated as any work in the canon, up there with Khovanshchina and Candide. Typically shorn of the ballet demanded of a Parisian grand opéra, Don Carlos is left with a largely dark, serious “tinta” (coloration). Only Princess Eboli’s flamenco-fueled Veil Song and the all-flags-flying brass-and-choral launch of the auto-da-fé scene (parodied by Bernstein in Candide, written after the Met’s 1950 new production under Margaret Webster made Don Carlo a repertory item) dial up the energy. But the score contains a string of  profound and insightful solos and colloquies, for two, three, and four participants.

Russell Thomas as Don Carlo and Eleonora Buratto as Elizabeth in the Met production.

The Met revival began Nov. 3 and plays through Dec. 3. As the company has always done some variant of the five-act version since John Dexter’s visually beautiful 1978 staging, omitting Act One here seemed a major step backwards, even if Verdi condoned it in some Italian performances. Russell Thomas became the only Met tenor to have taken (for his 2005 company debut) the small but telling phrases of the Herald and then moved on to the title role. In the years since he’s joined the company, he’s earned a considerable reputation in Europe as well as Los Angeles and sung two other Met Verdi leads, Attila‘s Foresto (2010) and Nabucco‘s Ismaele (2017). His singing lacks something in the way of nuanced light and shade (though he did register some lower dynamics alongside the sturdy, impressive top), but no one can dispute that this is a Met-sized Verdi tenor, and one looks forward to hearing him there in works like La forza del destino and Simon Boccanegra.

What Thomas lacked in detailed italianità we got in the best moments (generally, the floatable phrases) of Eleonora Buratto, in her first-ever Elisabeth. Elsewhere, including for much of the stressful interview with Carlo, she seemed to be less communicative than usual due to working near the limit of her vocal capacity. With some extra breaths, she made something exciting of the final “Tu che le vanità.” The ampler-voiced Angela Meade takes over the role as of Nov. 23.

Russell Thomas as Don Carlo and Peter Mattei as Rodrigo in ‘Don Carlos’ at the Met.

The standout vocally and artistically was Peter Mattei’s noble Rodrigo, really a superb if non-traditional account of the beautifully written part. At 57, the Swedish baritone sounds fresh and forward of voice; he produced one sculptured utterance after another, never forcing his tone. Strong-voiced mezzo-soprano Yulia Matochkina was a fully capable Eboli without being an especially memorable one as to timbre or interpretation. Like many in the role, she fared better in the second aria — where she pulled out some theatrical stops and earned an ovation — than in the first, which demands great agility.

At the Met: John Relyea as Grand Inquisitor, Günther Groissböck as Philip.

Though rather vigorous and glamorous for the elderly King Phillip, Günther Groissböck enacted the part with bold strokes, a relief after Eric Owens’ near walk-through last spring. Though the lower end of his voice has audibly diminished in the last few years, he achieved some vocal impact, but it’s a craggy, resolutely frosty sound, with little legato — a throwback to Teutonic Phillips like Josef Greindl and Gottlob Frick. Bass John Relyea has had a particularly busy autumn at the Met. If not at sharply etched as it may become, his Inquisitor certainly boomed out with force and a vocal format beyond that of Groissböck.

The briefly heard offstage Celestial Voice has served as a Met debut vehicle for important sopranos including Lucine Amara (1950), Martina Arroyo (1959), and Jeannine Altmeyer (1971). A rising spinto in other theaters, Toni Marie Palmertree was hard to judge in her initial Met venture because of the staging’s misconceived placement of her so far back in the sound mix.

That McVicar had not remedied this problem — as well as other transparent absurdities such as Carlo not even seeing Eboli enter dressed as the veiled Elisabeth before launching into her praises, and the truly horrific deployment of a ludicrously distracting, writhing acrobatic jester during the auto-da-fé, surely among the lowest points of stage movement in the Gelb era — speaks ill of his judgment.

Don Carlo‘s small roles can all reveal major career potential but here did so only in one case. In the four-act version, the first voice heard is that of the ghostly Monk, who returns at the opera’s end: Booming bass Alexandros Stavrakakis made an impressive company debut in this short but crucial part, sounding an apter candidate for Phillip than Groissböck. Rizzi tended to drive things relentlessly, though he allowed some of the musicians (including Mattei and the solo cello) time to phrase with distinction.

Mazzola’s Chicago forces on Nov. 12 sounded more elegant and rhythmically more varied. Previous major house productions of Don Carlos in the U.S. (San Francisco, Houston, the Met) have presented stretches of illuminating music found in the score’s earlier French versions. Mazzola opted not to, but even though the diction even from French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine’s Eboli left much to be desired, hearing the work in its original language illustrated how much better it suits the music. And having the Fontainebleau act at the start lays out the plot’s emotional stakes for the tenor and soprano, whose music and text constantly harken back to it.

At Lyric Opera of Chicago: Soloman Howard as Grand Inquisitor; Dimitri Belosselskiy as Philippe. (Todd Rosenberg photos)

Relentlessly ugly as Charles Edwards’ colombarium-based Met set is, it offered more variety — a bleeding crucifix, onstage spectators in theatrical boxes (a hoary cliché here dating back at least to 1968’s Luisa Miller) — than Robert Jones’ cramped, dull design for McVicar’s perversely staged show at Lyric. No sense of forest, garden, burial vault, cathedral, or bedroom came through: It all looked like a gray, brutalist terrace out of Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Here, British director McVicar dreamed up odd ways of upstaging and derailing key scenes: Eboli doing a slow cross, waving a fan during the Queen’s heart-breaking Farewell to the Countess of Aremberg, and having two ladies-in-waiting upstage the rivetingly specific Élisabeth/Eboli/Rodrigue/Philippe quartet were prime examples.

Lyric cast excellent voices all with relatively weak lower registers (save for Margaine, whose straining came at the top). Apart from the rare Jonas Kaufmann, Carlos rarely dominates the opera whose title bears his name. Joshua Guerrero’s tenor is still developing, but he made a committed prince, with some bright ring at the top. His performance and Rachel Willis-Sørenson’s handsomely vocalized if rather Nordic-sounding Élisabeth showed the chemistry that eluded their Met counterparts. Margaine sparked much excitement and was pretty admirable musically except in her very awkward Act Two staccati.

Joshua Guerrero as Don Carlos, Rachel Willis-Sørenson as Élisabeth in the Chicago production of Verdi’s ‘Don Carlos.’

Again, the baritone (Igor Golovatenko in his local debut role as Rodrigue) did the most impressive singing, with a wonderful upper register and a poised timbre. He’s more conventional an actor than Mattei, but so are most singers. As Philippe, Dimitri Belosselskiy sang warmly in his middle and upper voice, but the crucial low phrases at end of scene with Soloman Howard’s vocally imposing Inquistor all but vanished. Belosselskiy carried himself with dignity but had no “star presence” and gave no sense of danger or unlimited power. This quality vocalist’s  command of Gallic phonetics left much to be desired. Of the others, Peixin Chen (Monk) and Lindsey Reynolds (a fresh, flowing lyric Celestial Voice) proved particularly strong. I heard a few patrons grumble at intermission that the score offered “few snappy tunes,” but at the end the audience roared its approval of Verdi and his interpreters.