A work of supreme ambition and vast scope, Verdi Don Carlos is many things at once: a political drama, an ideological manifesto, a grand spectacle, an intimate story of thwarted love, a chronicle of family strife, a meditation on death and the nature of the afterlife, and much more. It poses similarly diverse challenges for any opera company hoping to successfully stage it, not only with its monumental production demands, but also thanks to its requirement for no fewer than six top-notch singers and the need to manage a complex catalog of to sort versions and revisions. Once those hurdles are cleared, however, Verdi repays the effort many times over by merging its many dramatic and musical threads into one of the most profound explorations of human nature to be found in the entire repertoire.
Verdi’s imposing masterpiece was composed for the Paris Opera and premiered there in 1867. This five-act original French version makes its debut at the Metropolitan Opera this season, having previously always been performed in the more commonly used Italian translation as Don Carlo, sometimes shortened to four acts. Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin is particularly enthusiastic about this belated Met premiere. “I was talking about bringing the French version of Don Carlos to the Met since I first conducted it here in Italian more than ten years ago. The opera was composed in French and that shows in the way the words connect to the notes and melodies,” he explains.
David McVicar, who is directing the new production — his 11th Met production, more than any director in decades — agrees. “Writing in French changed the way Verdi composed,” he says. “If you do the French version, you throw yourself into the original conception of the piece as a grand French opera, very different from an Italian opera.”
After a play by Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos Set in 16th-century Spain, a country trembling under the iron rule of Philip II and the theocratic terror of the Inquisition. Besides Philip himself, the main characters are all members of the royal court: his homesick young wife, the French princess Élisabeth de Valois; his disaffected and conflicted son Don Carlos, who is secretly in love with Élisabeth; the beautiful and conceited noblewoman Princess Eboli; Rodrigue, Marquis of Posa, an idealistic and fearless agitator for reform; and the unrelenting Grand Inquisitor. The action follows this sextet as they deceive, threaten, conspire and scheme against one another, juxtaposing their individual intrigues with the weightiest issues of society and statecraft.
Many of Verdi’s operas show this dual focus on public and private affairs, but nowhere does it go as far as in Don Carlos. Here the characters are apparent avatars of ideas and principles, turning domestic disputes into proxies for the struggle between Schiller’s and Verdi’s liberal values of humanism and freedom on the one hand and the dual tyrannies of authoritarian government and religious dogma on the other.
“Hand in hand with the church, Philip created a dictatorship of thought and a kingdom of fear – a kingdom ruled by death,” says director David McVicar, explaining the concept on which the opera and its production are based. “Set designer Charles Edwards and I did a lot of research into catacombs and ossuaries because we wanted to enclose all the characters in a world with almost no sunlight and make death a ubiquitous theme in every visual image.” This vision translates to the dominance of black tones in the production’s costumes, designed by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, which signify “the approach of death – that maggots gnaw at the heart of this empire”.
“The church only has power over people because it tells them to be good and obedient and not to think in this life and they will be rewarded in the next,” McVicar continues. This makes the inevitability of death and the threat of subsequent judgment an extremely powerful control tool used by both church and state. Wanting audiences to feel the claustrophobic imprisonment of this ideology, the director describes the look of his production as a visual representation of Philip and the Inquisitor’s worldview. “That’s why we’re using a single set — the idea that there’s no escape for any of these characters,” he says. “It’s like Jean-Paul Sartre House Clos. There’s nowhere to go.”
What really lifts Don Carlos Among Verdi’s best works is that the characters ruling and fighting against this oppressive regime are some of the most complex and best drawn in opera. “Even the Inquisitor has a genuine, believable point of view,” says McVicar, in contrast to a more typical one-dimensional operatic villain. “We see that the Inquisitor has labored all his life for what he has achieved – the suppression of thoughts, the suppression of dissenting opinions which he genuinely believes are for the good of the Empire and the glory of Christ. So it’s round.” Philip is even more so. Contrary to the iron conviction of the inquisitor, in Act IV particularly insistent doubts are inflicted on the king. “Philip, carrying this world order on his shoulders,” says McVicar, “has his moment of bending, of feeling that everything is too much for one man.” In this opera, Verdi goes well beyond knocking down straw men, and as As a result, the drama becomes visceral and real, making the audience feel like there’s something at stake for them too.
The title character is particularly fascinating. “Verdi manages to create an absolutely believable, three-dimensional tenor. He’s not just a hero or a lover,” says McVicar of the frustrated, directionless titular character, who is tormented by his forbidden love for Élisabeth, despises his father but is reluctant to fully immerse himself in Posa’s rebellious schemes. “He’s something like Hamlet – something very sensitive, fluid and eclectic, a little crazy, a little sick in his obsessions and passions, but infinitely more interesting, in my opinion, than any other role Verdi has given the tenor voice. ”
As convincing as the personalities of Don Carlos are, they are equally difficult to throw. Although the libretto and Schiller’s original text provide the characters’ foundation, it is Verdi’s music that gives them the spark of life – and in this case not through the traditional tearful arias and stirring ensembles, but largely through their nuanced scenes and conversations. For this to succeed, all six lead singers must not only live up to Verdi’s usual formidable technical demands, but also squeeze out every subtle pitch and nuance the composer has packed into the score.
This season’s new production features a cast of proven Met stars who can do just that: tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role, soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Eboli, baritone Étienne Dupuis as Posa, bass-baritone Eric Owens as Philip and bass-baritone John Relyea as Grand Inquisitor. “The cast is fantastic,” says Nézet-Séguin. “It’s always been a known fact that you can’t do it Don Carlos without six extremely fabulous singers, and this line-up is no exception.”
For McVicar, it wasn’t just the vocal abilities, but also the intelligence and acting ability of the singers that drew him to this production. “The cast has to be intellectually curious to really discuss what things mean and decide what we want to say,” he says. “These guys are all curious. They all want to go on that journey.” And he couldn’t be happier to have returned to the Met Don Carlos. “After the pandemic, what could be better than digging into Verdi’s red meat? It’s just fabulous.”