Verdi in French: Don Carlos Premieres at the Met Invoking the Light of Liberty and Peace

The much-anticipated opening of Verdi’s Don Carlos began with a solemn and heartbreaking sense of relevance as Metropolitan Opera General Manager, Peter Gelb, addressed the audience from the stage before the performance. He said: “The plot of Don Carlos deals with one of the darkest periods in history, the Spanish Inquisition. Here we are five centuries later, and we seem to be just as uncivilized, watching helplessly in horror as Ukraine is subjected to the tragic terrors of a war it doesn’t deserve.” He asked the audience for a moment of silence to honor the Ukrainian victims, after which the Metropolitan Opera chorus and orchestra delivered a rousing rendition of the Ukrainian National Anthem that instantly brought the audience to their feet. Spectators were visibly moved. When the curtain then revealed an immense censer swinging in a trail of smoke to the sound of a bell, it felt as though the collective sadness overflowed right into the oppressive world of the Inquisition and King Philippe’s reign and would haunt the entire performance.

Matthew Polenzani as Don Carlos in Verdi’s “Don Carlos” – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

This was the first time in the Met’s history that Verdi’s greatest political opera was sung to the French libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, as it had premiered in 1867 at the Paris Opera. While it was not exactly the original version as advertised, due to some cuts such as the opening chorus, the Elisabeth-Eboli duet, the trial scene at the end, it still offered the unique experience of a historic premiere for the Met and its audience. In fact, there is no definitive version of Don Carlos; Verdi himself did several revisions over two decades. Opera companies can choose and combine what is cut and reinserted, and many often prefer the Italian Don Carlo (particularly the shorter 1883 “Milan” version), with the libretto translated by Achille de Lauzières and Angelo Zanardini.

There is no question that Verdi wrote this music with the French language in mind. The musical phrasing embraces the words perfectly. And the dramatic effect is one of restrained emotion and elegance while also delineating the political and personal maneuverings in a more chilling manner than when the opera is sung in Italian, which emanates an abandoned, passionate, fatalistic sonorous and dramatic aura. That is not to say that passion does not shine through when this opera is sung in French. It did so, ravishingly, on several occasions. And when passion broke through, it was all the more powerful because David McVicar’s effective staging conveys a sense of suffocation and overwhelming surveillance. Not only was the stage flanked by two enormous towers that were later occupied by chorus members as spectators to the auto-da-fé (the public penance and execution of heretics by burning or other means) but the feeling of being watched and crushed by the presence of those towers—symbols of the inescapable power of monarchy and church—prevailed.

Sonya Yoncheva as Elisabeth in Verdi’s “Don Carlos” – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

I must admit that it took me a while to get used to Matthew Polenzani’s voice for the title role. Polenzani’s voice flows and glows like sunlit honey; it is ideal for bel canto, and an absolute delight in other French roles like Nadir in Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers). Yet for Don Carlos, one needs a certain palette of darker vocal colors and rawness, and an intensity bordering on madness, which he did not truly communicate. However, while not the ideal fit for the role, Polenzani did attain heartrending intensity on occasion and offered several thrilling and emotionally touching moments, such as in the “friendship” duet with Rodrigue, or when confronting his father over Rodrigue’s corpse,  and in the second and third duet with Elisabeth. He did use his body and gestures to great effect; it felt like he was conjuring up the historical figure who suffered from physical and mental afflictions. At times, Polenzani captured the troubled manner and physicality of the character so well that it compensated for the occasional lack of unhinged emotional darkness in the voice.

Jamie Barton as Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Carlos” – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Sonya Yoncheva’s plush, noble sound made for a regal Elisabeth. Now and then, her high notes sounded tense and acquired a bit of a wobble, but overall, she sang with elegance, sensitivity, and dignified power. She was at her most moving in the consoling aria “O, ma chère compagne” (Oh, my dear companion) and in the final duet with Don Carlos. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton portrayed Eboli like a force of nature, which didn’t entirely serve the delicate intricacy of the veil song but did create one of the most rousing and breathtaking moments in the opera: her aria “O don fatal” (Oh, fatal gift) in an impressive outpouring of entangled emotions, from self-hatred to guilt and anguish to the animating hope of saving Don Carlos. 

The two towering figures, Philippe and the Grand Inquisitor, whose duet is one of the most powerful and profound confrontations in all opera, did not come across as intimidating as one would wish. As Philippe, bass-baritone Eric Owens lacked the vocal heft this role requires and was no match for bass John Relyea’s (the Grand Inquisitor) ampler sound. Still, Owens brought sadness and intimate, nuanced lyricism to his aria, “Elle ne m’aime pas” (She doesn’t love me) as to his inward lamentation over the loss of Rodrigue. Relyea’s vocal power was, at times, limited by a certain strain in the voice, but he succeeded in delivering a rapacious and sinister character. 

Étienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in the duet with Eric Owens as King Philippe II – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

The star of the show was baritone Étienne Dupuis who sang the idealistic Rodrigue with an astounding range of dynamics and colors. His duet with Phillippe sent chills through the audience when he pleaded for oppressed Flanders that, under Philippe and the Inquisition’s tyranny, has become a “place of horror” where blood flows and “reddens the river waters” and the tyrant brings to the suffering Flemish a “horrendous peace; the peace of the grave.” It was impossible not to be catapulted into the present and feel for Ukraine in those moments. Throughout the entire performance, whether fierce, suave, plaintive, or triumphant, Dupuis’ voice infused the character with warm appeal and humaneness. In his death scene, he brought a unique interpretation to “Ah, je meurs, l’âme joyeuse” (I die with a joyous heart). I have never heard this aria sung with such subtleness and restraint, which made it all the more tragic.

The finale packs a surprising twist, one that literally breaks open the walls and lets the light flood the stage, but ultimately it is not Emperor Charles V who is by Don Carlos’ side. It is someone else. No spoilers. This is an inspired and inspiring choice of ending by David McVicar, even more so in these days when the illumination and rousing power of Verdi and Schiller’s ideals of liberty and humanity are urgently needed.

Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos runs through March 26 at The Metropolitan Opera. 

Performance schedule, information, and tickets

Top photo: Before the auto-da-fé – scene from Act III of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” – Photo by Ken Howard / Met Opera

Maria-Cristina Necula is the author of The Don Carlos Enigma available on Amazon.

About Maria-Cristina Necula (129 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and a new collection of poems, "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Discover more at www.mariacristinanecula.com.