NEW YORK (AP) -- The Metropolitan Opera keeps replacing some of its productions with inferior successors.
The latest to be unveiled was an uneven staging of Verdi's "Don Carlo" directed by Nicholas Hytner that arrived at the Met on Monday night, nearly two and a half years after it was first seen at London's Royal Opera.
Sets veered from striking to silly, a musical decision at the opening took a step backward, the director inserted a character creation of his own, and the cast ranged from the excellent in Roberto Alagna, Ferruccio Furlanetto and Simon Kenenlyside to the problematic in Marina Poplavskaya and Anna Smirnova. Some parts were memorable, others forgettable, but conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin led a musically compelling performance of great sweep.
While not as radical as Luc Bondy's ugly version of Puccini's "Tosca" or as static as Robert Lepage's staging of Wagner's "Das Rheingold," which replaced popular versions by Franco Zeffirelli and Otto Schenk, "Don Carlo" was disappointing when compared to its predecessor. Still, Hytner and his production team received universal applause at the final curtain.
A sprawling account of the intersection of royalty, religion and love, this is Verdi's longest opera at about four hours uncut. It opened as "Don Carlos" in a five-act French version at the Paris Opera in 1867. Revisions produced a four-act Italian version at Milan's Teatro alla Scala in 1884.
For John Dexter's 1979 production at the Met, the original five-act version was used minus the ballet, and the Met restored the opening scene at Fontainebleau, which Verdi trimmed before the first performance. Hytner jettisoned the longer opening, eliminating about seven minutes of music.
More egregiously, Hytner arrogantly invented a spoken-word priest during the third act auto-da-fe who demands the prisoners confess and repent, a character that wasn't created by Verdi and his librettists and interferes with the music; the Met said Hytner researched the Spanish Inquisition and that the addition was realistic.
In the remarkably fluid staging, the garden outside the monastery of St. Just in Spain has a 30-foot high triangular tower of what resembles red rectangular Lego, with a dozen-and-a-half removed to form a crucifix with a bell in the middle. The plaza outside the gold-colored cathedral in Madrid — the rich church soaring above the poor people? — is filled with symbolism, including a large picture of what could be Jesus that has flames light up behind it when the third act ends. The propulsive grandeur of the spectacle is lost.
Far better are a snow-covered Fontainebleau with stark white trees and brilliant light designed by Mark Henderson; the monastery of St. Just, a stark darkness with dozens cutout squares for light to seep though; the queen's gardens with angular trees; and the king's simple study.
While the Met stayed with the more-familiar Italian version, failing to take advantage of Alagna's superb French, the tenor gave one of his best performances, dominating the stage with a ringing top and passionate acting. From his optimistic entrance in the French forest, to the crushing decision by his father Philip II to marry Carlo's beloved Elisabetta, to his advocacy of the Flemish cause, Alagna commanded the stage.
Furlanetto was just as dominating and had the evening's best vocal performance when the brooding king laments on his unloving wife in "Ella giammai m'amo! (She never loved me!)" the great bass aria. Keenlyside was dashing and had a vibrant baritone as Rodrigo, the Marquis de Posa. Bass Eric Halfvarson was fierce as the 90-year-old, blind Grand Inquisitor.
Unfortunately, the leading women were no match. Poplavskaya, portraying a gun-totting Elisabetta at the opening and then a bitter queen with a regal stiffness, had a vibrato and sounded a bit strident by her final act "Tu, che le vanita conoscesti (You have known the vanities)." Smirnova was a charmless Eboli, her acting stiff; her veil song was dull.
In the brief role of a Celestial Voice, Jennifer Check produced a heavenly sound that seemed to be coming from the top of the house.
Bob Crowley designed the sets and the pretty period costumes, which created a monochromatic picture for much of the night. Nezet-Seguin drew moments of great beauty from the Met orchestra, masterfully navigating the complicated ebb and flow.
There are seven more performances through Dec. 18, and the Dec. 11 matinee is to be televised in high-definition to movie theaters around the world.
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