Okay, so back to Verdi's Don Carlo, specifically the Met's HD transmission of same today. The short point is that it was superb, a splendid response to a score that needs no less.
Though it has competitors, I suspect that among serious Verdi fans this might be the all-time favorite. Among more casual opera goers, perhaps less so: it is probably less vivid in mind than half a dozen others, from Rigoletto to Falstaff. The same evidence supports both points of view: Don Carlo is massive--running a bit shy of five hours portal to portal in today's version, which is about par. And there are three versions in two languages; while they are largely similar, there's enough difference in detail to make you wonder whether you've really seen it before. And it takes six strong voices which means it will be a lucky day before you see an all-round strong performance.
The plot, too, is a bit of an oddity. It seems simple enough on the surface: young love seeks to outwit the elders in the quest for freedom. Well, yes, but in this case, the desired one is also papa's wife, which adds a touch of incest, not to say confusion. And papa--specifically, King Philip II of Spain: Verdi dismissed him as a "savage monarch," and at times, he does play the villain of the piece. But in fact, he is not his own man: we quickly learn that he is a mere pawn of the dread Inquisition and that his own terrors and disappointments are as great as those of anyone else in the cast (Don Carlo surely is, bye the bye, the most anti-Catholic of operas, although I'm not sure anybody pays that point much mind).
Six roles, but fact it is the young lover and freedom fighter, Don Carlos himself, who bears the brunt of the work: he is on stage in almost every scene and interacts with virtually every other character. Carrying the weight today was Roberto Alagna, and you might have been surprised to see (hear) how good he was. It's easy to underestimate Alagna: he came to the major league in the baggage of his former wife, Angela Georghiu, and he offers so relaxed and laid-back a manner that you might well mistake him for the boy who cleans the swimming pool. (and it wasn't that long ago that he walked off a major stage in a pout).
In fact, Alagna has a steady and dependable voice, coupled with a capacity to connect with almost anyone with whom he share the stge. Don Carlo is very much a duet opera--as Alagna says, "a duet, not duel," with lots of intense, breath-to-breath voice-to-voice encounters. So while he might not be the most brilliant Carlo in terms of technique, he's got just the mix of stamina and emotional availability you need to make this work.
Simon Keenlyside as his best buddy and sometimes collaborator, seems to offer more by way of suavity and nuance. But--Mrs. B would kill me for this--but I wonder if his situation isn't the revere of Alagna's: he's pretty good at expressing himself, but perhaps not quite as good as you, if you are not paying attention, might think.
For me, however, the real star of the show was Ferruccio Furlanetto as the king. He has three big moments: one with Keenlyside, one with Eric Halfvarson as the Grand Inquisitor, and a nine-minute display of isolated anguish on his own. He nailed them all: here is a guy who can sing but also, clearly, has given a lot of thought to what he wants to do and why he wants to do it: he is the glue that holds a pretty good production together.
The women were a bit more problematic. Marina Poplavskaya as the bride/beloved has a luscious voice although I'd say her emotional range was narrow. Part of the problem may be her relationship with Anna Smirnova as Princess Eboli. I gather she Smirnova has taken some flac elsewhere and I feel no need to pile on. But she seemed to me to be miscast: her first song was supposed to be light and sexy which apparently she can't do at all. The rest of the afternoon she sang more convincingly but she seemed to be looking for, and never quite finding, a fixed center for her character.
I don't want to forget Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who looks like me must be all of 13 years old as conductor. Poplavskaya called him "Mozartian" which is extravagent but not entirely off point: he gets a kind of clarity and ease out of the orchestra while making it look like he's just having a grand time. He debuted at the Met a while back in Carmen; he did fine job there, but I suspect that maybe Don Carlo was a better showcase for his talents.
Staging was restrained, which I thought a relief. There is so much else going on, you don't want to have to worry about sets too. Anyway, thank heavens they didn't bring Zeferelli; he would have given us a real auto de fé.