The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Don Carlo

Finally, December 18 arrived -- Don Carlo! The Met's performance lived up to my expectations in every way, it was absolutely terrific.

At the outset, I was treated to something new. I had gotten to know the opera from the classic Giulini recording, and the Met's performance kicked off with an introductory scene involving Elisabeth and the chorus that is from a version not used in the recording. I gather from the program notes that this scene was cut just before the first performance and never published, but discovered some time later. I'm not sure when it was translated to Italian, as the original performance was in French. At any rate, the scene made a lot of sense, it helped set up Elisabeth's dilemma at the end of the Act. It's not essential to understanding that dilemma, but it beefed it up by providing more context. As for the music, it was typically nice Verdi, but nothing earth-shattering.

I don't think I had heard Patricia Racette before (although I've seen so many performances it's hard to remember every performance), so I didn't know what to expect. She was excellent as Elisabeth, with an impressive combination of prettiness and power in her voice. She also had the powerful low notes that are so necessary for this role. There was only the occasional moment when her voice lost some focus or had an edge for a few notes. Consistent difficulties with harder passages can detract from a performance, even when the performer is otherwise singing beautifully, because you start to anticipate the problems and brace for them, which is distracting. This was NOT the case with Racette, who handled many of even the hardest passages beautifully, so her occasional minor imperfections at odd times were easily ignored.

Johan Botha in the title role had a great night. I have heard him before as Walter in Meistersinger and Radames in Aida, and I've thought him a solid tenor with a nice, powerful voice. On Monday, he sounded even better than I remembered from those other performances, especially in how agile his voice was. Every note, even in fast passages (made especially fast by Levine's tempo choices), rang brightly and clearly, with perfect timing. He doesn't have the syrupy tone and smooth, flowing lines of Domingo or other great Italian-repertoire specialists, but the punchier, Vickers-like style can work just fine. Since I was used to listening to Domingo on record, it took me a few passages to adjust, but once I did, I was completely sold.

Rene Pape was as awesome as ever. One of the great things about the Met is that they have some truly excellent singers who they are able to get very frequently for even relatively small roles. They are house singers in a way. Pape is a great example of this, and the audiences really appreciate it. His great aria at the beginning of Act IV received the biggest ovation of the night.

The only hole in the cast, but one I anticipated, was Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rodrigo (aka Posa). I have heard him before and not been impressed. He had a loud voice but a completely boring singing style. He sings with zero expressiveness or variation, every note sounds precisely the same. This style can sometimes be excused when the voice is beautiful enough, but I also find his tone rather cold. On Monday, he did not even sound as powerful as he had in the past, and was frequently drowned out by the other singers in this strong cast. This struck me especially in his big scene with King Phillip in the 2nd Act. The singing imbalance in favor of Phillip in both character and tone completely changed the tenor of this scene from what I was used to. On the Giulini recording, it is the Rodrigo (in the form of Sherrill Milnes) who dominates, and the Phillip (Ruggero Raimondi) who is rather weak and dull. When listening to the recording, the central character in the scene, the person whose feelings and motives seemed to be the focus, was Rodrigo, with Phillip being a mere foil. In Monday's performance, it was Phillip who I was concerned with; Rodrigo seemed merely to be a plot tool used to set up Phillip's development. This showed how the singers in an opera can affect fundamentally the shape of the drama.

Samuel Ramey still has a big voice, and unlike Hvorostovsky was not dominated by Pape in the great, great scene between the Inquisitor and Phillip in Act IV. Like Hvorostovsky, Ramey's performances (even in his prime) can be a bit monotonous, but his tone is more menacing, and that combination of menace and solemn monotony works perfectly for the Inquisitor. The performance of the key scene was thus ideal and one of the highlights of this great performance.

Olga Borodina is another reliable Met regular. She has a powerful but smoky and typically Russian mezzo voice. In a perfect world, I prefer the firmness of Horne, Verrett, Bumbry, or Cossotto in Verdi mezzo roles, but I very much enjoyed Borodina as Eboli all the same. She sang her big Act IV aria with great gusto.

Another great thing about the Met is that they fill the small roles with great, young talents looking to break out, such that the singers in the small roles can sound almost as impressive as the stars. Andrew Gangestad, who I happen to know is also an incredibly nice guy, excelled in the small but juicy role of the monk who the neurotic main characters mistake for the ghost of King Charles. The other small roles -- the page, the bass who announces the Grand Inquisitor, etc. -- were also filled out with some very good singers.

And the orchestra! They played with more beauty and precision than Giulini's orchestra, and the latter is a studio recording. Particularly impressive passages included the fast opening to the 2nd scene of Act III and the gorgeous orchestral opening of Act IV and Phillip's aria, especially the incredible cello solo. The playing had great expressive power and the phrases, especially in the Act IV passage, were shaped so effectively and convincingly by Levine.

As I've discussed before, Levine is a true master at Verdi. However, he did not seem quite as attentive to the rhythmic pulse of Verdi as I've found him to be in the past. He rushed and slowed passages more frequently than usual. But the performance was still very convincing overall, and the performers, singers and players alike, responded with great precision even in the "rushed" passages.

The only significant problem with the performance probably had nothing to do with the performers. In the big crowd scene, the Met, as they like to do, actually put on stage the trumpets being played in the action. But I'm not sure whether it was the direction the trumpets were facing, if they were placed too far back stage, or some other reason, but they were barely audible, and the orchestra was frequently drowning them out. Levine actually had to quiet the orchestra at odd times so that the trumpets could be heard. I have no idea how this problem has not been worked out over the course of the several performances this production has had already this season. Very strange.

But a mere quibble. It was overall a wonderful night involving one of the great masterpieces of opera.


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