[Concert review] Verdi’s Don Carlos at the Met: Canadians are stellar in a magnificent performance

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At long last many COVID restrictions have been removed almost entirely across Canada, yet opera lovers are apparently not quite ready to flock back to the Met Live in HD showings at their local theatres. At the theatre I attended—Cineplex VIP Don Mills in Toronto—for Verdi’s Don Carlos on Saturday, March 26, there were fewer than 20 people in attendance. But those who passed up the show missed a great day for Canadian singers. The entire cast led by American tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role was outstanding, but Canadians Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue and John Relyea as the Grand Inquisitor both delivered superlative performances.

Verdi’s opera based on Schiller’s play Don Karlos is generally given these days in a four-act Italian version as Don Carlo. But the first performance of the opera in 1867 was given in French in Paris in a five-act version. The composer apparently accepted the general criticism that the opera was too long and cut out the entire first act for a Milan production in 1884. By this time, too, the opera was usually being performed in Italian. But then Verdi changed his mind and put back Act I in what came to be known as the “Modena” version. Today there are basically four more or less authentic versions of the opera and several others that incorporate other changes.

It was enterprising for the Met to give us the rarely-heard original French version in a new production but having sat through nearly five hours of it I must confess that I much prefer one of the shorter Italian versions; in my opinion, more is less in this case.

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David McVicar produced the Met’s new production and it was conceived to be dark and oppressive, and it certainly was with the exception of the Grand Inquisitor’s bright red outfit. And that was the point. In 16th-century Spain, King Philippe ruled with an iron hand and he, too, had to bend his knee to the even more cruel and ruthless Catholic church.

The vocal approach in this production emphasized lyricism and long lines rather than bombast. Tenor Matthew Polenzani led the way with a beautifully sung and insightfully characterized rendering of the troubled title character. Etienne Dupuis as his friend Rodrigue matched him every step of the way, and John Relyea offered a demented Grand Inquisitor of unforgettable malevolence. Jamie Barton as Eboli stopped the show with singing of remarkable strength and colour.

Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, yet another superb Canadian artist, was scheduled to conduct this performance but he suddenly fell ill. Met staffer Patrick Furrer stepped in at short notice and led a fine performance. Yannick conducted one of the Italian versions of the opera for the Met Live in HD in 2010 and that performance can be streamed at www.metoperaondemand.org.

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About Author

Former conductor and broadcaster, Paul E. Robinson, is the author of four books on conductors, Digital Editor for Classical Voice America, and a regular contributor to La Scena Musicale.

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