TOMORROW evening, for the first time in more than 30 years, the Metropolitan Opera will unveil a new production of Verdi's "Don Carlo." The director is Nicholas Hytner, working with designs by Bob Crowley, both in their Met debuts. Roberto Alagna leads a starry cast as Don Carlo, the unstable son of Spain's icy King Philip II. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts.
Long a rarity, "Don Carlo" has in recent decades established itself among the most indispensable of Verdi's creations. But Verdi reworked the opera off and on for nearly 20 years, and unlike others he subjected to heavy revision, this one never settled into a single, universally accepted form.
Based on a sprawling dramatic poem by Friedrich Schiller, "Don Carlo" was written for the Paris Opera (in French, as "Don Carlos") and to its five-act formula, complete with a ballet. The first act was set in the French forest of Fontainebleau, where the disguised Don Carlo meets and falls in love with the French princess Elisabeth de Valois, to whom he has been engaged from birth. No sooner has Carlo made himself known to her then the news breaks that their fathers have changed their minds: Elisabeth is now to marry Philip. The remaining four acts take place in Spain, where tragedy grinds to its inexorable conclusion. In an abrupt, notoriously mystifying ending, a monk — possibly Philip's father, the former Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who abdicated — snatches Carlo from the clutches of the Inquisition.
The plot takes many liberties. Like Shakespeare, Schiller used costume drama as a vehicle for purposes of his own. The purely fictitious Marquis of Posa is a walking anachronism, spouting the libertarian ideals of Schiller's generation. "I live a citizen of centuries yet to come," Posa says in the play, very truly.
Posa ultimately gives his life for Carlo, yet Carlo comes to doubt him in moments of crisis, for good reason. Against Posa's will the king has co-opted him as his confidant and spy. Rather than romanticize Posa's loyalty to Carlo, Mr. Hytner and Simon Keenlyside, who sings the part at the Met, underscore his moral ambiguity.
"We want you to see him turn," Mr. Keenlyside said. "Every man has his price. Posa and Carlo have been friends since they were boys. Now he wants to manipulate Carlo to his own political ends. Philip gives him power, knowing full well that it will make him proud and vain."
Betrayal of one kind or another is a foregone conclusion. We watch characters on the stage, Mr. Keenlyside said, hoping against hope that they will pass the same moral tests we know we ourselves would fail.
"For a tiny moment in the theater we're better people," Mr. Keenlyside said. "There's a voice in our heads that keeps repeating: 'You can be better than that. You don't have to follow the crowd.' But when you leave the theater, you will."
Heavily revised and cut in rehearsal, the original "Don Carlos" reached the stage in Paris in 1867. In 1884 the Teatro alla Scala in Milan presented a thoroughly reworked four-act version in Italian. Of the original first act, only the aria for Carlo remained, with an anguished new preamble. (Though key, text and melody have all been modified, the aria proper remains perfectly recognizable, an elegant reverie transformed to bitter reminiscence.) Two years later, a hybrid five-act version appeared, joining the Fontainebleau act to the Spanish acts as revised for La Scala, but with Carlo's aria back in its original place.
For much of the 20th century "Don Carlo" was heard almost exclusively in the four-act version, in Italian. In 1979 the Met mounted a landmark five-act production directed by John Dexter and conducted by James Levine that included recently discovered pages of richly atmospheric music cut from the Fontainebleau scene even before the Paris premiere. (The production is available on DVD from Pioneer Classics.) Over the protests of purists who pointed out that Verdi composed and revised "Don Carlo" entirely in French, the opera was sung in Italian. With the new production the Met honors its own precedent.
Is there really a case to be made for "Don Carlo" in Italian? And are five acts necessarily better than four?
Antonio Pappano, who conducted the Hytner "Don Carlo" at its London premiere in 2008 as well as the historic five-act Luc Bondy production, in French, at the Châtelet in Paris in 1996 (available on DVD from Kultur), favors French. "In terms of mood and atmosphere, opera delivered in French and opera delivered in Italian sound completely different," Mr. Pappano said recently from Chicago. "There's an idyllic, elegiac, almost nostalgic quality to the French. It's more poetic in a way. The Italian is slightly more meat and potatoes."
Ferruccio Furlanetto, who sings Philip in the new Met production, prefers Italian. "French has a flavor I like less," he said. "Not because I'm Italian. We must not forget that Verdi was from Emilia-Romagna, where there's a very special taste for life, very powerful, very bloody. In French that spirit is totally lost. Verdi spoke decent French. But I'm sure he didn't think in French. In French, Philip's great aria becomes a chamber piece."
Left to his own devices, Mr. Hytner said, his choice would have been for French. But he expressed no reservations about the hybrid five-act edition. "This version best reconciles the competing demands of dramatic concision and musical and narrative amplitude," he said.
In five acts "Don Carlos" unfolds like a suite of tapestries, as a tragic romance set against a succession of picturesque tableaus: the wintry forest of Fontainebleau, the Spartan monastery of San Yuste, a park sparkling under the blaze of noon, a royal garden glimmering in the moonlight, the portal of a cathedral, the king's study, a prison. The four-act "Don Carlo," beginning and ending in San Yuste, where solemn fanfares evoke thoughts of the Last Judgment, feels like architecture, massive and voluminous, framed by mighty columns. Within this context the amenities of a park or the garden, though still present, seem illusory, incidental, deceptive. The tragedy is unrelieved.
Mr. Crowley, whose research for the sets and costumes included a visit to Philip's gloomy residence, the Escorial, which also houses the crypt of the Spanish monarchs, developed the imagery for Fontainebleau purely from his head.
"It's designed to look completely different to anything else in the opera," Mr. Crowley said. "This is the place where young Carlo finds love, and where everything is taken away as quickly as it's been given. The whole point of Fontainebleau is to show the one moment of happiness that he enjoys, to remain as a beautiful memory for the audience and for Carlo himself."
But playing time has been an issue with "Don Carlo" since before its Paris premiere. Must we really see Fontainebleau for ourselves? The only principals we meet there are Carlo and Elisabeth, whose lost paradise Verdi takes care to evoke later on, sometimes in a single fragrant phrase, sometimes more expansively. To Mr. Nézet-Séguin, the conductor, storytelling economy is not all. "In the five-act version," he said, "we get more of that feeling. It's another pleasure, another facet."
The vision of Marina Poplavskaya's Elisabeth rehearsing Fontainebleau onstage with Mr. Hytner drove the point home. Coltish, fancy free, Ms. Poplavskaya charged through the bare trees like the huntress Diana, waist-length hair flying loose. Then, freezing in her tracks, she aimed her flintlock at an unseen quarry. This was not the embalmed royal we see entrapped in the Spanish court.
"Elisabeth has the soul of a child," Ms. Poplavskaya said. "She is very innocent, very unspoiled. She does her duty. She speaks the truth. As queen she is like an icon. Yes, an icon."
Yes and no. True, the king's conniving mistress, Princess Eboli, who lusts after Carlo even as she awakens to his attachment to the queen, decries Elisabeth as "this modern-day saint." But Elisabeth's virtue — revealed in Spain in lightning bolts of righteous indignation — is no facade. That she loves the prince is a misfortune her character allows her neither to act on nor to deny.
Deprived of happiness, Elisabeth has her new role as queen to cling to. Carlo, cut adrift, self-destructs. It is his character, even more than hers, that reveals extra dimensions in Fontainebleau. Yet to Vittorio Grigolo, who has studied and performed only the four-act "Don Carlo," that version is complete in itself.
"Carlo is a kid, very fragile," said Mr. Grigolo, who was visiting New York during the "Don Carlo" rehearsal period for his Met debut in "La Bohème." "His scenes are short, but each is different and very intense. He's a lamb among the wolves. But in the end Carlo is the winner. Going to the monastery, he finds his own world, his own soul."
Mr. Alagna, whose only previous experience of the opera was in the five-act Châtelet production, likens the Fontainebleau act to the opening of Massenet's "Werther," another opera that revolves around a too-sensitive soul who shipwrecks on the hard realities of the world. "Werther's hymn to Nature at the beginning makes such a beautiful entrance," Mr. Alagna said. "He's happy, in love with life. Then everything falls apart, just as for Carlo."
With both four- and five-act versions under his belt, Yonghoon Lee, the tenor who alternates with Mr. Alagna in the new Met production, prefers five. "With four, when I start, I'm already on the dark side," he said. "With five, I don't even think about dark side at the beginning. I'm happy. I'm in love. I'm excited. It makes more sense to me that way. But for the tenor, it gets to be a long night."