I found this Met production strangely familiar until I realised that it was a revival of Nicholas Hytner's 2008 production for Covent Garden. The principals are the same as in London except that Roberto Alagna takes over from Rolando Villazón in the title role and Anna Smirnova replaces Sonia Ganassi as Princess Eboli. The result is an effective and enjoyable production although it does not quite attain the heights of the original London version.
This is an opera about the Spanish Infante, Carlo, who is betrothed to the French princess Elisabetta as part of a peace treaty between the two countries. The two meet and fall in love but their joy is brief as it is shortly announced that the peace negotiations have gone so well that Elisabetta is to marry, not Carlo, but his elderly father Philip II. So Carlo has to get used to calling his beloved, Mum.
Seeing the first act, set in the forest of Fontainebleau it is difficult to see how Verdi could countenance making cuts in it to make room for a ballet at the opera's Paris premiere. Roberto Alagna and Marina Poplavskaya make an effective pairing here although I have to admit that I missed Rolando Villazón's eye-rolling performance as the slightly deranged Don.The exciting young Russian Soprano, Poplavskaya is a revelation as Elisabetta with a purity of tone and complete control throughout her vocal range.
Simon Keenlyside is an added bonus as the idealistic Marquis of Posa, Don Carlo's friend who persuades Carlo that his future is in Flanders, fighting for the cause of the oppressed Flanders people. There is a thrilling moment in Act II when they pledge eternal friendship. The theme from this aria recurs throughout the opera as a friendship leitmotif.
Act III has the spectacular Auto-da-fé with opponents of the Spanish Inquisition being burned at the stake. This scene did not work as well as it did in Covent Garden. I felt that the sensationalism had been toned down a notch or two.
Act IV contains, arguably the opera's best music. First there is King Philip's soliloquy sung by bass Ferrucio Furlanetto, then there is a sinister performance from Eric Halferson as the 90 year-old, blind and trembling Grand Inquisitor. In the London production, I found Halferson's performance quite frightening but I was less moved by him here.The act ends with Princess Eboli betraying Elisabetta. Anna Smirnova has some wonderful music but is not quite convincing, visually or vocally when cursing her own beauty.
In Act V, Elisabetta and Carlo are finally reconciled to being mother and son before, in Nicholas Hytner's version, soldiers of the Inquisition burst in and kill Carlo. This is a wonderful opera, one of Verdi's final three masterpieces. We have a cast of well rounded characters with no real villains except the Grand Inquisitor. Everyone is just doing their best to play the hand that fate has dealt them. The only slightly risible thing about the libretto is the way everyone is in anguish about the treatment of the Flemish. Not that I have anything against the Flemish, it's just that the political dimension of Schiller's play has probably been lost in its translation into an opera.
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