Last night at the Metropolitan Opera, the lights dimmed suspiciously on time—rather than five or more minutes after the stated time, as usually happens. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, came out to say a few words. When he appeared, some people booed, which was especially gauche, given the circumstances. Gelb asked for a moment of silence for the people of Ukraine—living and recently killed. Then the Met’s chorus—with cast members, I believe—came out to sing the Ukrainian national anthem.
A stirring act of solidarity with a people under assault.
The opera was one of the most political in the repertoire: Don Carlos, by Verdi. You notice I have written “Don Carlos” instead of “Don Carlo.” Why? The Met presented the opera in its original French edition, rather than the more familiar Italian. The company had never done that before.
Incidentally, you pronounce the “s” in “Carlos,” when saying the French name of the opera (or, of course, of the character).
Is Don Carlo, or Don Carlos, different when in French? Yes. It has a different flavor, a different feel. It is slightly softer—less biting—I would say. Language can’t help changing the effect of the music. Imagine singing “La donna è mobile” in English: “Woman is fickle.” The song, the aria, would sound different. Imagine singing “La Marseillaise” in a language other than French.
It took a while, but I got used to hearing Don Carlo (let’s say) in French last night. Still, while the orchestra introduced “Ella giammai m’amò”—King Philip’s monologue—I forgot that the Met was doing the opera in French. It startled me when the King’s first words were “Elle ne m’aime pas.”
There’s an old saying, an old joke, in the opera world: “Who was singing last night?” Answer: “No one.” There is another saying, among opera singers: “You have eight good singing nights a year”—meaning eight nights in which you are in good voice, all “hooked up”—“and you’re not booked on any of them.”
Who was singing last night? Everyone. Everyone was “on.” It was a magnificent night of singing.
But, but, but—the most important factor in a Don Carlo, as in most operas, is the conductor. And Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director, was also “on.” He had a magnificent night. He was utterly in control of the material. I was barely aware of the conducting. I had better explain what I mean: The opera unfolded naturally, correctly. Nothing was imposed on it, nothing intruded on it. It breathed as it should, all through.
From time to time, I would have liked a little more swagger or pomp, let’s say. But that was of little import. The Met’s capo conducted with maturity and mastery.
That the orchestra played well, and the chorus sang well, almost goes without saying. It should be said, however. Both orchestra and chorus performed up to Met standards last night. “Singing” along with King Philip, in that monologue, was a second soloist: Jerry Grossman, who has been the orchestra’s principal cello since the mid-1980s. He handled his part with Verdian refinement.
Don Carlos is a festival of low voices (human ones, I mean, apart from string instruments). But let’s begin with the non-low ones. The title role was taken by Matthew Polenzani, the American tenor, who is a beautiful, beautiful French lyric, when he’s called on to be. As Don Carlos, he was a French lyric tenor with a healthy dose of heroism in him. He sang with incredibly beauty. He did no forcing whatsoever, but was never, ever too small.
Elizabeth was Sonya Yoncheva, the Bulgarian soprano star. She didn’t sing like a star. Let me explain that. Yoncheva can be a diva and a half. As Elizabeth, she was all regality and dignity. She projected a quiet femininity, subject to injury but ultimately strong. I have seldom seen or heard a soprano so touching in this role.
On Broadway, they speak of an “11 o’clock number”—a showstopper that really wakes them up, or keeps them awake. Don Carlos has an 11 o’clock number too. The show started at 6:30, and Elizabeth sang “Tu che le vanità” at about 11. Sonya Yoncheva did the number justice.
Jamie Barton administered justice as well. An American mezzo, she portrayed Princess Eboli, who has two “numbers.” In the Veil Song, Barton was perfectly competent. “O don fatale,” she slew. (Forgive me if I’m giving arias their Italian designations, but the habit is hard to break.)
Singing Rodrigo, or Rodrigue, the Marquis of Posa, was Etienne Dupuis, a baritone from Montreal. I had never heard of him, to my knowledge. I certainly have now. He sang with suavity and nobility and everything else you want in a Rodrigo. In his singing and demeanor, he was a French knight: a chevalier.
Our king, Philip II, was Eric Owens, the American bass-baritone. I might have asked for more voice now and then. But Owens had plenty, and he put across the gravity of his character. Philip is not a bad sort, as far as absolute rulers go, but he has a murderous weakness, which is too bad—not least for his nearest and dearest.
The Grand Inquisitor was John Relyea, another Canadian in the cast. Wasn’t Relyea the studly young bass just a few years ago? And he’s the Inquisitor already? Time really flies. The truth is, Relyea can pull off any number of roles, including the Grand Inquisitor. He was the powerful creep the Inquisitor is. When Relyea came out for his bows, I think the audience was slightly unsure whether to applaud him.
The Met has a new production of Don Carlos, and it is in the care of Sir David McVicar, the veteran Scottish director. This Don Carlos is darkly majestic. I could pick at it, but the bottom line is this: McVicar’s production is perfectly in harmony with the score, libretto, and story. I believe that Verdi and his librettists would look at this show and say, “Yes. Bravo.”
Chances are, I was not the only one in the audience who thought of the boss in the Kremlin when Rodrigo said to Philip, “O King, beware that history does not say of you: he was another Nero!”