In a grand, if somewhat muted production of epic Verdi opera Don Carlo, the singers are a key attraction.
In March this year, Met Opera premiered its new David McVicar production of the five-act French language version of Don Carlos. In an unusual move, they now present the same production but as the four-act Italian opera Don Carlo.
Director McVicar presents a serious staging, respecting the time and period of the opera with little to no additional concepts at play. The 16th century royal court of Spain is shown as a place of regal formality, heavily influenced by the Church and all the more sombre following the death of Emperor Carlo V.
Set designer Charles Edwards and costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel appear to take the mourning to heart, with black on black sets and costumes.
The single setting is a pair of towering curved, textured walls, from which a rear wall can open to help represent outdoor scenes. The second half of act two is the pinnacle of the opera’s spectacle, as the auto-da-fé procession of nuns and clergy fills the space. A particularly striking scenic element is the chillingly lifelike (though completely oversized) statue of Christ in his passion hanging high overhead in King Phillip’s study.
McVicar’s direction is primarily static, which, keeps the focus on the music. With the original act one excised, the romance between Carlo and Elisabetta, wife of his father King Phillip, has no basis. The pair sing about their love but without firsthand experience of their romance, and with precious little chemistry generated, it is difficult to support this central relationship.
The full range of emotion and atmosphere of Verdi’s expressive score is heard distinctly and characterfully under the deft leadership of maestro Carlo Rizzi.
The quality of the singing makes an auspicious beginning with the resounding bass of Alexandria Stavrakakis as the mysterious Monk.
American tenor Russell Thomas sings with rich vocal tone, his high notes coloured by burnished undertones, allowing for a dramatic reading of the title role.
Swedish baritone Peter Mattei is a standout as Rodrigo, friend of Don Carlo and confidante of King Phillip. Stirring duet “Dio, che nell’alma infondere,” the best brotherly love duet this side of The Pearl Fishers, is a deserved highlight in the hands of Mattei and Thomas. Mattei also shines brightly in Rodrigo’s farewell, “Per me giunto è il dì supremo.”
Sporting a villainous black eye patch as Princess Eboli, Russian Mezzo-Soprano Yulia Matochkina colours her vocal performance with an ongoing sense of simmering tension. This is noticeable from her first aria, “Nel giardin del bello”, which has a pretty melody but deliberately conveys an air of apprehension arising from Matochkina’s interpretation.
Italian soprano Eleonora Buratto has a noble, compassionate presence as Queen Elisabetta. In act four, Buratto really wins over the house with her heartfelt rendition of “Tu che le vanità.”
Austrian bass Günther Groissböck stoically conveys the hard heart of King Phillip. Groissböck’s vocal performance when Phillip enters the auto-da-fé is particularly majestic. In the extended solo scene at the top of act three, “Ella giammai m’amò,” Groissböck commands attention in a finely calibrated performance.
Dressed in a blood red robe and wooly white hair, reliably excellent Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea makes a strong impact in his all too brief scenes as the fearful Grand Inquisitor.
Met Opera leaves us wanting more with Don Carlo, but not in the usual sense of this phrase. Perhaps they will present the five act version in Italian at some point in the future.
Don Carlo plays select dates at Met Opera, New York until 3 December 2022.
The Don Carlo program can be read online.
Photos: Met Opera