This was a momentous week for the Catholic Church. With the election of a new pope, Holy Week, Catholicism’s most solemn event, will soon get underway with Francis I, the first-ever pontiff from Latin America, leading millions of celebrants to worship.
Coincidentally, New York’s Metropolitan Opera is also celebrating a momentous event – or should I say two events. These are the 200th anniversary of the births of two pillars of the operatic repertoire: composers Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, one a German and the other an Italian. And to bring the connection to opera and religion even closer, through the years we’ve been treated to a manifold variety of popes: Italian ones, a Polish one, a German one, and now a pope from Argentina – one whose alleged involvement in his country’s complicated politics has been brought into question.
In the past, the religious realm has often encroached upon the political arena, with one side or the other coming out ahead (at least, temporarily). If the last several weeks are any indication, the two spheres will continue to clash over which will ultimately prevail. In that respect, both Verdi and Wagner were supremely talented and experienced men of the theater, with Verdi being the least religious of the two, and Wagner the most nominally sanctimonious. Nevertheless, they had a profound awareness and innate understanding of the conflicts that arise when dealing with church and state.
The Don is In, the Maestro is Out
These conflicts were to explode in Verdi’s masterful treatment of German playwright Friedrich Schiller’s five-act Don Carlos. The opera premiered in Paris (in the French language) in 1867, although the Met presented one of the master’s longest works in Italian (Verdi having reworked and re-fashioned it numerous times to suit the homegrown crowd), hence the title designation without the “s.” The story of Don Carlo takes place during the Spanish Inquisition, at a time of religious persecution, intolerance and social upheaval involving Belgian Protestants and the usurping Spanish Catholics, with Spanish King Philip II at its center.
Verdi loved the inner struggles of public duty versus private anguish, and developed characters and situations tailor-made to fit the occasion. The broadcast of March 9, featuring an all-star Met lineup in this revival, brought these forces to the fore. Nicholas Hytner’s 2010 production, with sets and costumes (mostly black, red and gray) by Bob Crowley and lighting designs by Mark Henderson, resembles a giant Lego set, but the lavishness of the proceedings far outweighed the more mundane moments. And there were plenty of them, to say the least, with veteran baton twirler, 82-year-old Lorin Maazel, at the orchestra’s helm.
This must have been the slowest Don Carlo on record, beating out even Herbert von Karajan’s ponderous version for Salzburg by many lengths. I sensed discord coming from the ranks, and there was a noticeable lack of coordination between stage and pit, with Donald Palumbo’s Met Chorus losing out on all counts. Surely, this is a long enough work as it is, but Maazel’s elephantine tempos dragged it into an even more excruciatingly slow-going affair, especially in the auto-da-fé sequence where the Belgian delegation is arrested and religious heretics are burned at the stake (a festa, or “festival,” as King Philip pronounces in Act III).
I’ve never heard such bland conducting, and coming from maestro Maazel, once touted as a musical prodigy in his youth, it was doubly unacceptable. Sensing this, he did not come out for his curtain call, and eschewed appearing with the cast for fear of being booed on the airwaves – something I’ve yet to encounter in my over 45 years of radio listening. Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say! If Maazel was a stopgap measure for the absent music director James Levine, who truly loved this masterwork, then the less we see and hear of him the better.
The saving grace of this broadcast was the marvelously acted and sung Philip II of Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto, whose cavernous voice and regal bearing enveloped the character as only the best performers can. With fond memories of Cesare Siepi, Giorgio Tozzi and Ruggero Raimondi still ringing in my ears, Furlanetto mopped the floor of the competition as one of the finest interpreters we have today of the bigoted despot. His long Act II duet with the fervently portrayed Rodrigo of Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, heard earlier this season in the Met broadcast of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, was a major highpoint. Furlanetto’s parting warning to Rodrigo to beware of the Grand Inquisitor’s reach (“Ti guarda!”) sent chills down one’s spine.
He also excelled in the king’s inward looking monolgue, “Ella giammai m’amo” (“She never loved me”), in Act IV, in which the dour monarch contemplates the possibility his young bride Elisabetta (in a marriage of political convenience) is having an affair with his son, the titular Don Carlo. It’s a most shattering and revealing moment as Furlanetto, his agony heartfelt and open, let out all the stops, earning a huge ovation for his efforts. This was topped by the subsequent episode with the pitiless Grand Inquisitor of Illinois-born Eric Halfvarson, who held his own as an implacable force to be reckoned with. Their battle of wills represents the central conflict in the drama, i.e., whether the demands of the church, in the Grand Inquisitor’s request to hand over the king’s confidant, Rodrigo, for “safekeeping,” take precedent over the affairs of the state (or the heart).
Vocally, this was a lower-voiced singer’s field day, with the rousing Hvorostovsky’s thoroughly outgoing performance and mezzo-soprano (and fellow Russian) Anna Smirnova’s “jealousy incarnate” Princess Eboli igniting the stage. Smirnova earned the lion’s share of bravos for her forceful singing and dynamic acting ability, however unfocused her top notes may have been. The Elisabetta of Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli, who along with the unflappable Furlanetto shared an agreeable command of the language, did not have the right timbre or vocal nuance for this role. Granted it’s not one of Verdi’s most rewarding female parts, but it does require a great deal of stamina and raw emotion in her duets with the kinetic Don Carlo and her confrontation with the angry king over her supposed affair. The character’s last act scena, “Tu che le vanità,” is one of the most challenging in the repertory, coming as it does near the end of a very long evening indeed. Frittoli managed it well enough, but her fluttery tones felt divorced from the reality of this most down-to-earth of Verdi’s later heroines.
This brings me to Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas’ Don Carlo. Blessed with an attractive voice and clear-as-a-bell diction, his assumption of this vocally heavier part, while attuned to the character’s noble suffering, strained his basically lyric instrument in the extreme. I found it much too high for Vargas to negotiate successfully, with evidence of forcing at too many key intervals (his duet with Rodrigo, his second duet with Elisabetta, and his outburst during the auto-da-fé scene); dramatically, it went beyond his limited resources in that department as well. I did not fault the tenor outright, though, but rather the composer and his librettists for not providing Don Carlo with enough opportunities to make the case dramatically, while providing too many opportunities to be outshone by the other protagonists. Let the tenor beware: whoever takes on this daunting role, now or in the future, will face a most thankless assignment.
In this production, the last-act deus ex machina appearance of Philip’s father and Carlo’s grandfather, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (the wavery toned Miklós Sebestyén), leaves it up to the listener as to who the real winner of this confrontation might be. In history, Charles V abdicated his throne to lead a sheltered and prayer-filled life at the Monastery of St. Just in Spain. Similarly, our present-day Pope Benedict XVI (now Pope Emeritus) stepped down from his role as Head of the Church in order to devote full-time to thoughtful contemplation. The contrast between the stage and real life, then, is too compelling to be dismissed.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes