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Review: ‘Don Carlos’ Finally Brings French Verdi to the Met

Wait, I know I’ve seen this opera before, you may have been thinking as you opened your program at Lincoln Center on Monday evening. It’s the one with the prince in love with his stepmother, right? And his jerk of a father, and that big duet with his friend, and the Spanish Inquisition?

But there it was, in black and white: “The Metropolitan Opera premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Don Carlos.’”

Rarely has a single letter been as significant as that final “s.” The opera that audiences here have seen — the one that has been staged at the Met more than 200 times — is “Don Carlo,” its libretto in Italian. The performance on Monday, though, was being given in the work’s original French.

In either language, it is Verdi’s largest, shadowiest masterpiece — and particularly somber on Monday, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continued and the evening opened with the audience rising in silence for a performance of the Ukrainian national anthem by the Met’s chorus and orchestra. Center stage was Vladyslav Buialskyi, a young Ukrainian bass-baritone making his company debut in a tiny role, his hand on his heart.

This is, after all, an opera that opens with the characters longing for an end to fierce hostilities between two neighboring nations, their civilians suffering the privations caused by the territorial delusions of a tiny few at the top. The geopolitical battles fueling the plot’s private agonies seemed more vivid than usual as David McVicar’s new production was unveiled.

A new production, sure, but a Met premiere? That’s dubious, since almost all of the music will be familiar to anyone who’s heard “Don Carlo” there over the past four decades.

But it is nevertheless a milestone for the company to be finally performing the work in the language in which it premiered, at the Paris Opera in 1867. Verdi worked with inspired diligence to shape his musical lines to metrical rhythms subtly different from Italian. For this adaptation of Schiller’s freely ahistorical play, set at the 16th-century Spanish court of Philip II, he painted the sprawling canvas of French grand opera in his own brooding colors.

Alas, “Don Carlos” was a mixed success in France, and Verdi continued to revise it over the next two decades, as it premiered and was revived in Italy. (And since this was a time when librettos were commonly translated into the language of the audience, it was performed in Italian, as “Don Carlo.”) The eventual result was a smorgasbord of versions, from which opera companies can now freely take elements.

But as Will Crutchfield recently wrote in The New York Times, those versions boil down to essentially two: “The first is the one premiered in Paris, plus or minus some pieces added or cut before and after. The second is the recomposed score premiered in Milan in 1884, with or without restoration of the 1867 Act I — set in France and introducing the vexed love of Don Carlos and Elisabeth of Valois.”

The Met has more or less done the 1884 version since a landmark production there in 1950 reintroduced the opera to the standard repertory after decades of neglect. The piece had circulated largely in Italian, and was done in New York exclusively in that language. The big news came in 1979, when a new Met staging restored that 1867 Act I. Hence the five-act form in which “Don Carlo” — with tweaks here and there — has been presented ever since.

And always in Italian. When Yannick Nézet-Séguin led a new production in 2010, it was in Italian, and when that production was revived, it was in Italian — even as major houses around the world had broken with that tradition.

But Nézet-Séguin suggested that he wanted to conduct the piece in French. Now, as the company’s music director, he has made it so. It speaks to his passion for the score that this is the first opera in his still-young Met career for which he is leading a third run, and his conception of it — long-breathed, patient, light-textured — embodies the vast elegance of French grand opera.

Those qualities are crucial in supporting a triumphant turn in the title role by Matthew Polenzani, singing Carlos for the first time in either language. Polenzani is not the swaggering, trumpeting Franco Corelli-style tenor generally associated with the part — though he rises, stylishly, to fiery intensity — but rather a vocalist of refinement, inwardness and melancholy.

And throughout the work French conveys all of that better than Italian. The classic duet of brotherhood between Carlos and his friend, Rodrigue, the Marquis of Posa, is a loudspeaker announcement in Italian, as “Dio che nell’alma infondere.” In French, as “Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes,” it feels far more intimate, a cocooned moment on which the audience spies. Particularly in this performance, with the smooth-toned, seductive baritone Etienne Dupuis as a Rodrigue uniquely able to draw close to him the hapless, isolated Carlos.

As Élisabeth, who is betrothed to Carlos before being married to his father as part of the peace settlement between France and Spain, the soprano Sonya Yoncheva lacks tonal richness, but her slender, focused voice penetrates, and it fits her interpretation of the character as coolly dignified, even chilly, enough to endure the sacrifices she has made.

The mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, her high notes blazing and her chest voice booming, with just a slight loss of ease in between, sings with generosity and acts with liveliness as the princess Eboli, whose unrequited love for Carlos inspires her vengeance, then her contrition. As the implacable Grand Inquisitor, the bass-baritone John Relyea has stony authority.

The only weak link is the bass-baritone Eric Owens as King Philippe, his voice dry and colorless, his face and presence inexpressive, problems that also dogged his recent Met performances in “Porgy and Bess.” He renders one of the most nuanced characters in opera — a man of tremendous power, vulnerability, anger and confusion — a cipher.

The silky, articulate bass Matthew Rose is luxury casting as the monk who — stick with me — might actually be Charles V, Philippe’s father, who is (at least presumably) recently dead. Why isn’t Rose singing Philippe?

This is the safe, dependable McVicar’s 11th Met production, with two more (“Medea” and “Fedora”) to come next season. His “Don Carlos” is spare, straightforward, largely traditional and largely neutral, dominated by grimly rough, curved, looming stone walls pocked with semicircular openings, as if the characters — costumed in richly embroidered black — were wandering through a catacomb.

I wish McVicar and Nézet-Séguin had restored the first act’s opening section, performed at the Met from 1979 to 2006, which shows Élisabeth among the suffering people of France. It deepens the conflict she faces not long after, when she is forced to decide between her duty to them — the marriage to Philippe that will end the war — and her love for Carlos.

At least that crucial first act is here. There is a case to be made for doing the opera in Italian, as it will be when this staging is revived next season. But that revival will also revert, for the first time since the early 1970s, to the four-act version, a dismal decision that the Met should reconsider.

McVicar does offer a few welcome idiosyncrasies. An acrobatic jester figure, his face painted skull-white, restores to the auto-da-fé scene some of its intended spookiness. And, after contrasting Carlos’s physical distance from Élisabeth with his closeness to Rodrigue all evening, McVicar ends the opera with the dying Carlos being greeted by his already dead friend, who lowers the prince to the stage in what feels very close to implying posthumous, well, union.

The scoring of that moment is the most obvious of the handful of ways in which this performance diverges from how the opera has been heard at the Met since at least the 1950s. The 1884 ending, a fortissimo blast over which Élisabeth’s voice soars, has red-meat appeal, particularly if your soprano has a boffo high B.

But that is otherwise an all-too-thrilling conclusion to a bitter, ambivalent opera that ends better in the 1867 version’s sober quiet, with monks softly chanting about Charles V being reduced to mere dust. It is the sound of history drifting on, past any and all human lives, played and sung here with the delicacy and gravity that made this a special night for Nézet-Séguin and his company.

Don Carlos

Through March 26 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.

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