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The Inquisition, What a Show!

New York
Metropolitan Opera House
12/11/2006 -  
Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo
Patricia Racette (Elisabeth)
Olga Borodina (Eboli)
Johan Botha (Carlo)
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Posa)
Rene Pape (Philip)
Samuel Ramey (Grand Inquisitor)

There is a curious phenomenon that affects opera fans of my generation. No matter how many modern performances of a particular Verdi masterpiece I attend, there is still that nagging realization when the horns begin to intone the beginning notes of Act II. Something in the back of my brain whispers “Oh, it’s Don Carlo!”

This is because the piece always began in Spain when I was a lad, making the music of the beginning of “Act I” totally compatible with that at the beginning of the last act. Only in the past twenty-five years or so has the original first act been restored as a de rigeur part of any fine performance. When I learned the work, there was always nagging doubt as to why Elisabeth got the last big number. She seemed so minor of a character in the larger than life mix of superstar roles. Only once I learned the music of the Fontainebleau did I make the connection: she is indeed the star.

Finding that star in the firmament of the Metropolitan Opera’s current “dream cast” is a difficult proposition. All of the principals are simply fabulous in this revival of the ornate John Dexter production (oh, that gate!) and the net effect is one of a giant deck of playing cards come to life, each number more radiant than the last. This is a once in a lifetime Don Carlo and the Met knows it.

At the gala for outgoing general manager Joseph Volpe last spring, Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang Rodrigo’s death scene and Rene Pape performed the Dormiro sol soliloquy. Both brought down the house and are now continuing to do so on a regular basis. Mr. H got off to a rather rocky start this night, but came through splendidly when it really counted. Mr. Pape is simply the greatest male singer of our day. I only wished that the Met had made him up to look older, rather than allow his rugged, youthful magnetism to contradict his character and his speeches.

Johan Botha did a good job in the thankless title role. Schiller sets up the character as a complex combination of hero and fool and Verdi’s librettists keep the historical sense of the Don as a hapless simpleton close to the fore. Mr. Botha is perhaps a little too strong voiced for the part, but as a matter of pure singing, he was superb.

It is the dream of every basso to grow old enough to be cast as the Grand Inquisitor and now is the time for Samuel Ramey to switch costumes and berate the Philip that he used to be. His voice is not as strong as it once was, and Mr. Ramey takes full advantage of this physical attribute, producing a sound both trembling and demonic. It is as if snakes were emerging from his lips as he sings. The choreography of stage director Stephen Pickover is wonderful, the blind Mr. Ramey flailing a bit as he reaches out for his aide who has departed. He is the shriveled doppelganger of Philip who, in the last scene, had discovered that just because you are the king of Spain doesn’t mean that anyone will defend you against your son. We almost have sympathy for this monster. Almost.

Patricia Racette is in excellent voice as Elisabeth and her “tu che le vanita” was thrilling for those of us who stayed. Unfortunately, on a weeknight, many patrons left long before Act V which, ending as it does just before midnight, reminded a great deal of La Cenerentola. Olga Borodina was arguably the best of the lot, a party girl turned heroine so powerful of voice as to put the others to shame. Ms. Borodina is also a vocal chameleon, singing the fullest and loudest of Moorish love songs, but lowering her burnished instrument almost to a whisper in midstream when joining in a beautifully harmonious duet with the Tebaldo of Kate Lindsey. Her “O don fatale” was, as advertised, unbelievably intense.

However, in this all-star cast there was one who towered above the rest. James Levine conducts Don Carlo as if he wrote it himself and was masterful throughout. The Met orchestral forces, especially the horns, had a great night. It will be hard for the company to provide any other thrills as multicolored for the remainder of the season. And incidentally, when Maestro Levine conducts the piece at Tanglewood this summer, he is going to begin with Act II.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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