The MetOpera simulcast of Don Carlo on Saturday was bigger than big! Big political issues (authority vs. liberty), high stakes (your life), high drama (loyalty, love, frustration, heretics burning), and grand scale (Six leading characters, big orchestra, huge chorus).
It was the 16th century, the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when being non-Catholic meant getting burned at the stake. Spain was the seat of world power, and the rest of Europe cowered in its wake.
Six characters represent the various factions, ages, and powers. They are what make us care about this complex situation, because they are mere humans like we are.
Don Carlo (Roberto Alagna) is the son of Spain’s King Philip. He is betrothed to the lovely Elizabeth of France who he contrives to meet before the wedding. They instantly fall in love, only to be frustrated by a change of plan at the last minute for political reasons: Elizabeth will now marry King Philip instead. The young people are crushed, but they do their duty. Carlo goes through the entire opera as a man broken by frustrated love.
Elizabeth (Marina Poplavskaya) becomes queen and pines for Carlo, but is dutiful to his father and her husband, Philip. Ms. Poplavskaya possesses a rare vocal instrument that is equally lovely in the high and the low notes. Her voice could be heard cutting through the huge orchestra with clarity and a singular beauty. That impossibly long golden hair is her own.
Rodrigo (Simon Keenlyside) is Carlo’s friend and confidante, though secretly he has revolutionary ideas. He encourages Carlo to leave Madrid and go to Flanders to help free them from Spanish oppression.
Simon Keenlyside, he of the fancy collar with lace accents, had the most natural acting style, always seeming very real. He has a manly baritone voice which also comes across as the most natural thing you would expect to come out of his mouth. He is magnetic on stage, a scene-stealer.
Philip the king (Ferrucio Furlanetto) is a multi-faceted character: indifferent to his son, warm with Rodrigo, lonely in his personal life because he knows Elizabeth does not love him. His big aria addressing this subject at the start of Act IV is iconic in the operatic repertoire for its sensitivity and sympathy toward a powerful monarch. He is shown to have normal human concerns and at that moment, a heavy sadness. Mr. Furlanetto delivers ‘his’ scene with skill and heart.
Princess Eboli (Anna Smirnova), a lady of the court who loves Carlo, and when rebuffed, schemes to disgrace Carlo and Elizabeth to the king.
The Grand Inquisitor (Eric Halfvarson) is old, blind, and has unspeakable power over life and death. He is the Church’s high power behind the Inquisition. He and Philip have a tête-à-tête where Philip introduces the idea of execution for Don Carlo, then backs off from such an abomination. The Inquisition leader presses for the plan, then Philip says in anger, “Must the throne always bow to the church?”
The orchestral music is the best of the Verdi operas (dare I say it?!). It is BIG, has much musical variety within the opera, it’s more complex, and more beautiful than in the others. The overture and opening music to several of the acts is magnificent. The conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, led the best opera orchestra in the world in a splendid performance.
I must mention a couple of ensemble pieces that put the audience on the edge of their chairs. The Act II duet between Carlo and Rodrigo where they pledge undying loyalty and friendship is a bit of glorious music, and it was delivered expertly by Mr. Alagna and Mr. Keenlyside. There was much Platonic affection between the two which made it all the more real.
In Act III a trio takes place between these two men with Princess Eboli who is angry and bent on revenge after Carlo is cool to her hot advances. It’s an amazing creation.
There are more I could mention, but there are too many. Verdi is a master of composition for ensembles, solo arias, and orchestra. He has it all, and lucky for us, we can still experience superlative productions like this through the wonder of modern technology.