Don Carlo is Verdi's longest opera and is considered by many his most ambitious work. The work combines great vocal and musical portions, stunning production, and blends historically accurate political-religious events with mystical elements. The music is dynamic, energetic, with the brass and wind sections carrying one away into parallel realms that would please the most committed Wagnerian. However, on Wednesday night the audience was let down by the voices in the lead, inspired by supporting roles, and carried away to heaven by the great choir and orchestra led by the steady hand of a great master of his art.
The story is presented in five acts, beginning with the introduction to Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry II of France, and Don Carlo, the Crown Prince of Spain. They meet in the forest near the palace of Fontainebleau as Don Carlo is trying to meet the young lady he is betrothed to. Just as they fall in love with each other, news comes that the King of Spain decided to marry the princess himself, casting aside his son. Heartbroken, he is forced to distance from his fiancée and accept her as his mother. Back in Spain, he visits the tomb of his grandfather, Charles V, who still haunts his tomb. There he meets with his protestant friend and confidante Rodrigo, who pledges to help the prince through all of his struggles and asks the prince to help the people of Flanders who are being persecuted with the blessing of the Grand Inquisitor and at the hands of King Phillip of Spain. The King constantly suspects his much younger queen of infidelity and cheating with his son, another princess is in love with the crown prince, King suspects his son of trying to undermine his rule, and the grand Inquisitor suspects that the king is too soft on the Protestant heretics.
There are a number of entangling storylines with questions that are still being considered: the relationship between church and state, sanctity of marriage, true love (God, country, to each other) and the responsibilities of state, duty and self-interest. These passionate and intimate considerations with a grand stage require dominating and all encompassing voices, not to mention incredible sense of music from the conductor. The 72-year veteran of the baton, Lorin Maazel, was masterful was in complete control and put his personal touches on the music, allowing the show to run longer than scheduled by filling the auditorium with wonderfully colored tones of the wind section. Anna Smirnova was everything that she had to be in the role of Princess Eboli; Dmitri Hvorostovky was his usual inspiring self as Rodrigo, the Protestant advisor; Ferruccio Furlanetto was incredible at King Phillip II; and Eric Halfvarson was chilling as The Grand Inquisitor. The Choir of the Metropolitan Opera must be commended for their artistic mastery. However, the operatic experience was greatly deflated by Barbara Frittoli in the roles of Elizabeth and Ramon Vargas in the title role. They failed to match their colleagues in the clarity of language, acting, and voice. In dramatic duets their voices failed to add the necessary color to the drama of the scene and the emotional portion of the piece was lost to the audience. At times, Vargas appeared to be more of Quasimodo and less of a Prince, coming on stage looking confused and misbalanced.
I would hope that the leadership of the Metropolitan Opera House will consider reaching out to other great tenors and put on a complete production of this grand opera. Cutting corners undermines the value of our great cultural institution and tradition. Looking across the auditorium loud applause was offered to all, but the leads and for good reason.