The names involved in this month's revived Don Carlo do not, unfortunately, tell its tale. What looked on paper to be the surefire hit of the season is the most disparate amalgam of success and... non-success at the Met in years.
The success is, more or less, Act IV. On Monday Rene Pape kicked off the act with an astounding version of Philip II's aria: I actually found his much-praised performance of this piece (which I may YouTube) at the Volpe Gala a bit too much about muscle and generalized feeling, but this was as natural and detailed as one could want. Then Sam Ramey, wobbly old voice and all, was even more terrifying and authoritative in the Grand Inquisitor part. Together: an impressive jolt.
Who else? Olga Borodina (Eboli), last seen stealing the show in La Gioconda. Here she's among an even starrier cast, and though her high notes are a bit cautious (no serious problem though -- perhaps shedding the eyepatch that she'd worn for last week's prima fixed something?), the dominant impression was of her sound: a rich, pearly thing that somehow makes other instruments sound ordinary, even amateurish. Yes, even in this company.
Finally, the act's second scene showcased Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Rodrigo/Posa), whose refined, flamboyant, and long-breathed singing makes quibbles about stamina and power seem petty.
Those are the plusses -- four stars, doing their bit and feeding off each other.
On the other side, surprisingly, is James Levine. He came terrifically to life with Pape and Ramey in Act IV, leaving one to wonder, what was going on before? Aimless and a bit indulgent, the first three acts passed with little of note: even the auto-da-fe barely registered. Odd. (He was on a terrific run of form before his March injury, but maybe it's not coincidence that he's not led a great Levine performance since?)
But the real lesson, I think, is that though Don Carlo(s) can rightly be described as an ensemble opera, it depends heavily on its lead pair to make dramatic sense. The thing is, neither Johan Botha (Carlo himself) nor Patricia Racette (Elisabeth) are actually bad in this. They're just ill suited to their parts and each other.
Botha, as one might remember from Aida, can sing loudly all day long. But he makes nonsense of his character, and of the plot. There are lots of things one might call Carlo: feckless, hapless, immature, in way over his head. But he must be ardent, or the story makes no sense -- for what else could Elisabeth, Rodrigo, and Eboli see in him, and induce them to invest so heavily in his person? It's this side of the character that the restored Fontainebleau scene (Act I, that is) should let shine, but not here. Botha's physical presence is pretty lumbering, yes, but a certain amount of that is forgiveable in opera. But his sense of phrase and rhythm is similarly earthbound, and with facial expressions that range from a smile to a stronger smile, he's got nothing but power with which to win over the listener. No ardor -- of the Italian variety anyway.
With such a partner, maybe I shouldn't blame Racette. But she too seems miscast. She is audible from the bottom to the top of her range, but the top relies heavily on the penetrating timbre of her strong vibrato. It's an ache-filled, almost desperate sound (you can almost feel her melting into the note), perfect for certain things (including her consolation of her attendant, "Non pianger") but impossible in the joy-of-singing romp of the Fontainebleau love duet and, thereafter, jarringly un-regal. Perhaps in compensation, she seems endlessly focussed on holding her body still: whatever the reason, this mostly just makes the performance more remote.
The low-voiced characters of Don Carlo are, unfortunately, satellites in the Carlo/Elisabeth-centered plot. They can't make the whole evening work.
The last revival here had somewhat smaller names -- Radvanovsky, Margison/Villa, d'Intino/Urmana, Croft, Furlanetto, and Burchuladze -- but vivid performances all around, and left one with a sense of the opera's greatness. That this revival leads some to doubt Verdi is depressing.