For Nicholas Hytner, Verdi’s Don Carlo is no mere operatic tragedy. A sprawling epic of powerful individuals clashing with each other and with destiny in 16th-century Spain, this “ferociously pessimistic drama” is about as dark and somber as Romantic opera gets. “But what makes it so attractive,” says Hytner, who made his Met debut directing the new production that opened November 22, “is that almost every individual in it fights, with every fiber of their being, against the opposition. Nobody gives in.” Tyrannical kings, despairing princes, and innocent young women are not in short supply in the world of opera, but few works of musical theater boast a dramatis personae of such depth, complexity, and passion as Don Carlo. “Not one of these characters is prepared to accept his or her own tragic destiny,” Hytner continues. “They fight. They scream. They holler. They deny what their inevitable end will be.”
Inevitability aside, the musical journey to get there is one of the most powerful in all of opera. In the century and a half since its creation, Don Carlo has traveled through the extremes of operatic fortune. It premiered in Paris in 1867 and was reworked in several versions throughout Italy and elsewhere in the following years. Today it is firmly entrenched in the standard repertory, a high-water mark of 19th-century opera (though it is not performed as often as it should be since it’s difficult to cast six great singers in the leading roles). “In many respects,” Hytner says, “it is now Verdi’s most admired opera.”
Based on a semi-historical drama by the great German Romantic Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlo centers on the Spanish King Philip II (1527–1598), his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois, and his son from his first marriage, Carlos, Prince of Asturias. The opera not only provides ample opportunity for scenic splendor, it also contains magnificent roles for singing actors, some of the greatest arias in the Italian repertory, orchestral writing that achieves symphonic heights, and a strong choral presence. Tenor Roberto Alagna leads the Met’s remarkable new cast in the title role. Ferruccio Furlanetto, who was last heard in the role at the Met in 2005, reprises the role of King Philip, Marina Poplavskaya sings Elisabeth, and Simon Keenlyside is Rodrigo. Anna Smirnova makes her company debut as Princess Eboli and Eric Halfvarson takes on the brief but crucial role of the Grand Inquisitor. Canadian maestro Yannick Nézet- Séguin, who made a triumphant Met debut last season conducting Carmen, will be on the podium.
Hytner’s staging, a co-production of the Met, Covent Garden, and the Norwegian National Opera, was first seen in 2008 at London’s Royal Opera House—with Furlanetto, Keenlyside, and Poplavskaya all in the same roles they’ll sing at the Met—where it was a stunning success. In bringing it to the Met, the British director is again collaborating with five-time Tony Award winner Bob Crowley, who designs the sets and costumes, and lighting designer Mark Henderson. The look of the production was directly inspired by the era in which the opera is set. “I think everybody who approaches Don Carlo starts by going to the Escorial,” says Hytner, the Artistic Director of London’s National Theatre, referring to the royal palace near Madrid built by King Philip. “From the outside it looks like a jail, but it’s very beautiful in its austere way. Once you get inside, its interiors are surprisingly human in scale, but the sense that you take with you is that this king was a self-jailer. He built a palace on top of a mausoleum for himself, his descendants, and all future kings of Spain.
“That’s a pretty extreme statement to make,” the director continues. “It’s as if Philip thought, ‘At the center of my palace will be a mass tomb.’ The feel and look of this production is an abstraction of that.”
One of the major challenges in presenting Don Carlo—aside from finding singers who can do justice to Verdi’s intense, multilayered character portraits—is the opera’s sheer size and the complicated history of its many versions. The Met’s new production will present Don Carlo in its original five acts, sung in Italian. Even in its four-act incarnation, it’s the composer’s longest opera. “The very special color of the music, the incredible unity of this large-scale work, the unusual historical and political background—all of this contributes to make Don Carlo a unique opera,” says Maestro Nézet-Séguin. “But above all, it is the incredible emotional beauty of the music that makes it so special.”
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