Giuseppe Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” based on Friedrich Schiller’s play, is an epic opera, a love story and father-son conflict set during the Spanish Inquisition. This season the Metropolitan Opera brought back Nicholas Hytner’s 2010 production, with Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes and stage direction by J. Knighten Smit. As conducted by Lorin Maazel with a starry cast, the revival had its ups and downs.
The action begins when Don Carlo (the son of King Philip II of Spain) travels incognito to Fontainebleau despite the fact that his country and France are at war. A peace is being negotiated and he is supposed to marry Elizabeth (daughter of the French king). They instantly fall in love and then learn that the treaty ultimately worked out requires her to marry King Philip rather than his son.
In the second act, at the monastery of St. Just in Spain, Don Carlo encounters his friend Rodrigo and the two agree to join the struggle to free the Flemish people from Spanish rule. The fact that Elizabeth is now married to his father doesn’t deter Don Carlo from continuing to pursue her but she rejects him. Meanwhile, Princess Eboli has set her sights on the heir to the throne but when he turns her down, she decides to make the King believe that Don Carlo and Elizabeth are carrying on an affair.
[topic]In the midst of these frustrated romances, the Inquisition is busy torturing and executing heretics. Don Carlo unsuccessfully urges Philip to free Flanders and is arrested when he draws his sword on his father. Actually, Don Carlo’s old friend Rodrigo is the one who disarms him, though Rodrigo is acting as a sort of double agent and is eventually killed by agents of the Inquisition. The king wants to spare his son from the death sentence but yields to the order of the Grand Inquisitor. The opera ends with the ghost of Don Carlo’s grandfather Emperor Charles V announcing that life is filled with suffering and ends when the souls reach heaven.
In the title role, tenor Ramón Vargas sang with style if not much dramatic flair. The one who looked and acted more like a romantic hero was the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovksy. He has a plush baritone, matinee idol looks and acts with commitment. The Vargas-Hvorostovksy duet “Dio, che nell’alma infondere,” where they pledge to fight for Flemish freedom, was stirring. The baritone again scored with his “O Carlo, ascolta” death scene. However, the high point of the evening, as it was when the opera was performed at the Met in 2010, was the King Philip of bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Though the king is basically a villain, Verdi gives him some of the most memorable arias and scenes and even makes him sympathetic when he is tormented by the thought that his wife is cheating on him. Furlanetto plumbs all the depths of the role. Barbara Frittoli was moving as Elizabeth, though the Eboli of mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova had more fire. Bass Eric Halfvarson was appropriately chilling as the Grand Inquisitor. Conductor Maazel was sometimes at odds with the vocalists.