Friday, March 01, 2013

A ramble through Inquisition Spain

Don Carlo - Metropolitan Opera, 2/28/2013
Vargas, Frittoli, Smirnova, Hvorostovsky, Furlanetto, Halfvarson / Maazel

If the current Parsifal is an uncompromising & uncompromised excavation of Wagner's score, his libretto, and their themes of guilt, blood, sexuality, compassion, error, their hard-won overcoming, ritual, etc., the contemporaneously-running Don Carlo is more like a safe motor tour through similar territory. For as much blood and sorrow as there is in Verdi's creation after Schiller, it's expressed this time in more muted terms.

The singers (many reassembled from the scheduled 2011 Boccanegra group) are the revival's strength: equal to the original bunch, they share a characteristic sorrow that sends Verdi's lines to the heart. The characteristic expression of Ramon Vargas is as usual a joy to hear and see: his Carlo is neither idiot (Botha's) nor trainwreck waiting to happen (Alagna's) nor loose cannon (Lee's), but a dreamer in a high-stakes harsh reality (sort of a male equivalent to Tosca), allowed just that moment of unaccustomed joy at Fontainebleau before he is crushed by the blow of fate...

...and a bizarre stage interruption. For just as Carlo and Elisabetta had learned of the new marriage plan and were about to launch into how awful everything was, a fat stagehand in a t-shirt strolled onto the stage, blasted the fire the couple had been chatting by with an extinguisher, and walked back off. Despite stunned laughter from the audience, the leads successfully resisted the urge to crack up themselves and carried on through the finale.

In any case, Vargas gives a lovely and heartfelt lyric interpretation, though those seeking the huge arcing force Yonghoon Lee delivered will obviously be dissatisfied. Barbara Frittoli stands in a similar relation to her immediate predecessor Marina Poplavskaya: less forceful and sonically penetrating (the Italian soprano's high notes come, but aren't exactly clarion), more human and sensitive, with that strong common current of sorrow in this cast's approach. I worry every time she's cast in a lead, but Frittoli is now on something of a hot streak -- that Boccanegra, the fall Clemenza, this... Her acted portrayal is similar, less fighting her fate than struggling to stay upright among its hazards -- her physical failure at this, when she faints at Phillip's accusation, has a moral force here that it often lacks. Her chemistry with Vargas was terrific throughout, their first encounter perhaps the most persuasive and moving I've seen.

This change in the character of the leads actually brings them more in line with Ferrucio Furlanetto's 2010 version of Phillip -- carried over to this revival -- who in his private lament is more intimately devastated than thunderous, though he still has the full volume for the latter. (Every new run one fears it's finally the year the 63-year-old bass finally crosses over into wooliness... but that hasn't happened yet.) The Russians offer a bit of contrasting flamboyance: in Dmitri Hvorostovsky it's mixed with his characteristic enigmatic composure, in Anna Smirnova it's -- well, she doesn't make a huge character impression, but being able to blow through both of Eboli's arias is still pretty amazing (as we've seen over the years, the heavyweights can't do the first, the middleweights the second, though it's too bad Borodina didn't sing the part here before her top started to go), and if she gets a bit shouty this time in the first I still shouldn't complain. Eric Halfvarson is still his amazing scary self.

*     *     *

A satisfying cast, and who knows what human depths a drama-oriented conductor like Nezet-Seguin might have gotten from them all. But Lorin Maazel was in the pit, to rather odd effect. Five years ago, in Valkyrie, he did well, but the overall dramatic thrust that materialized over that course of that evening never did show up here. In fact his conducting sounded rather old and bored: the sound appeared, as did all the phrases, but small details of phrase were continuously rendered with such apparent self-satisfaction that one wondered (especially at the end) if Maazel realized there was an opera going on. Dramatic forward movement he left to the singers, which with this cast was fine in their turns, but quite eroded any cumulative effect. And so we got all of the tunes of Don Carlo, a generous amount of its sorrow and melancholy, and only a light sprinkling of its drama.

That's not nothing, and it's worth hearing, but don't expect that full cry of tragic despair.


  1. Verdian for the night12:02 AM, March 02, 2013

    I was there, agree except I thought Vargas had no consistent conception of the character and seemed at a loss as to what to do on the stage. And the fire in the Fontainebleu scene: it really was very funny, a wonderful operatic disaster, and I thought I saw Vargas turn with his back to the audience and crack up with laughter. But since he had his back to the audience, I could not tell for sure.

  2. The funniest part was that the smoke kept coming up from the doused fire until the end of the Act.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.