Alagna, Poplavskaya, Smirnova, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Halfvarson / Nézet-Séguin
I'd rather talk about any detail of the new Met Don Carlo's comprehensive musical triumph than its one inadequate element: the new production itself, half-successful and wholly unnecessary. But since it's a novelty (in this country, anyway), let's start there.
British director Nicholas Hytner picked, for his Met debut show, an excellent lighting designer (Mark Henderson) and an unfortunate set and costume designer (Bob Crowley). It's Henderson who provides the one real visual coup of the piece: the St. Just monastery -- rendered with lighting and particle effects to make a modern video game designer proud -- which by a near trick of light and decor we see first from one perspective and then its reverse. And it's Henderson's lighting that makes the other successful scene: Act III's nighttime garden rendezvous.
The rest, whether at Hytner's instigation or Crowley's own, is high undetailed walls and other big single-color elements -- what seems increasingly to be the Gelb era's house style -- but executed blandly and marred by frankly ugly color choice. The awful fur-trimmed outfits of the Fontainebleau femmes (and aren't most of them supposed to be local peasants and such? -- the uniform fancy clothes sink their plea to Elisabetta in not-otherwise-interesting irony), the hideously garish orange of the court ladies' gathering (eclipsed, by the Posa-Philip duet, by timely dark-red lighting -- one might suspect a bias against the women), the neither ominous nor stark gold-and-orange/red of the auto-da-fe... The later actual costumes are good in a historical vein (and the men's are positively handsome), but the physical show is, at best, a mixed success.
The part more directly attributable to Hytner is also mixed. The performers act well, but they've shown themselves pretty good at it elsewhere and what the show has them do in terms of blocking and byplay is pretty conventional. The biggest challenge -- the auto-da-fe -- is bogged down early by his having little idea what to do with the chorus on its own, but he catches the pageantry as a whole quite well as the scene goes along. (The addition of a priest speaking prayers and an ultimatum during the march is a nice touch; the end reveal of the burning bodies isn't bad as moments of intentional grossness go.)
All of this would make a decent if imperfect addition to the Met production roster if it were not replacing the greatest Verdi show the company had: John Dexter's 1979 staging, simultaneously grand, intimate, handsome, detailed, and clear; equally and uncompromisedly traditional and theatrical; still undimmed after decades of life. Hytner's effort does not measure up even with the glamour of youth.
Any replacement was likely to fall short of the Dexter production, but the change offered at least one great opportunity: to get the opera as it was written -- in French. This didn't happen, of course, despite the great Francophone conductor and Don Carlos (we've all seen the Bondy video, I hope) in the current production. And that (with related textual niggles) is the only other caveat I have: the performers' side is, if "ideal" is an unfair word (there's always a missing great one would like to see participate), as much of an unmarred triumph as one is likely to see in the imperfect world of opera.
Roberto Alagna continues his post-breakup string of hits in the title part. His singing is better than ever -- clear and strong throughout, with an eloquent command of phrase that seems as effortless as simple speech -- but his presence at the center of the drama is even more important. Carlo has plenty of opportunities in the story to show himself a schmo, but if he is one, the passionate attachment of Elisabetta, Eboli, and Posa become farcical. Johan Botha's goofus of a Carlo ruined the show; Alagna's ability to make Carlo -- like Hamlet -- count for something without managing to do anything fuels it.
Alagna's Carlo -- simultaneously passionate and passive, sucked ever inwards as events whirl around him -- excellently complements baritone Simon Keenlyside. Keenlyside is a less-seen sort of Posa (Rodrigo): a nervous but humane fanatic who's learned some courtliness, not some suave nobleman who's turned his appeal to a pet cause. (Hvorostovsky and Hampson almost seduced Eboli in their Act II chat; Keenlyside simply distracts her.) Meanwhile in debuting mezzo Anna Smirnova we finally have an Eboli who shows well in both the elaborations of the Veil Song and the vocal and moral force of "O don fatale"... She could have a bit more elegance (an eyepatch might have helped on the visual side), but who cares?
Another Russian, soprano Marina Poplavskaya (Elisabetta) is not quite new, but she hasn't been featured as prominently as she is this season, headlining both this and the new Traviata import. She is very, very good in the part: if the instrument sounds a bit assembled and doesn't convey the pure thrill of song, it's quite thoroughly assembled and fit for carrying darker emotions. She, a haughtier queen than most to start (her Act II farewell is both tribute and unabashed accusation), has -- like Keenlyside -- a strong rapport with Alagna, and though their voices are more naturally contrast than complement the duets repeatedly catch fire.
Basses Ferruccio Furlanetto (Philip) and Eric Halfvarson (the Grand Inquisitor) were perhaps best of all. Furlanetto trusts his own natural force of voice and character enough to offer a direct, wounded "Ella giammai m'amo" with considerably more hush than bluster -- it brought down the house. Alexei Tanovitsky, who actually sang Wotan here three-plus years ago, made a strong debut as the friar (Charles V). Smaller debuts were made by Layla Claire (the page) and Keith Harris, Tyler Simpson, and Eric Jordan (three of the six Flemish deputies).
French conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin made a huge splash last season leading Carmen, but this production -- particularly the last two acts, taken in essentially scene-length breaths of inspired sound -- shows him equally in command of a grander, more varied piece. And this is the beginning of the run...
By all means go, but don't worry too much about being in a seat where one can see everything.