The Metropolitan Opera’s first-ever production of Verdi’s complete, five act French version of Don Carlos made quite a sensation last season. Not only was Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s leadership the soul of French dramatic elegance, the inclusion of the first act, in which the not-to-be lovers Carlos and Elisabeth meet, makes sense of otherwise murky motivations and emotions. The language is gentler, further back with less aggressive vowels. Good to hear, but greeted as a revolution, and somehow attempting to negate this season’s revival of the composer’s 1884 Milan revision. This four-act version in Italian is, let’s face it, the way most of us became familiar with – and learned to love – this most ambitious and all-encompassing work, since the first act was only reinstated from the late 1950s. I certainly did not feel that I was watching a torso of an opera, and neither did the rest of the three-quarter’s filled Met.

Günther Groissböck (Filippo) and Peter Mattei (Posa)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

The casting was mostly stronger than last season’s. I was looking forward to hearing Russell Thomas in the title role but his indisposition introduced tenor Rafael Davila’s Carlos to the house. (He has sung at the Met before but I cannot recall any commentary.) The voice is a fine one, perhaps lacking subtlety but rock solid, and, in this least satisfying leading tenor role in Verdi’s canon, he made a fine impression. A hand-to-heart, kneel-and-get-up actor, his musicianship was never in doubt. An auspicious role debut at the Met. 

John Relyea (Grand Inquisitor) and Günther Groissböck (Filippo)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Perhaps the most elegant baritone singing today, Peter Mattei has now added to his Amfortas, Count (in Figaro), Wozzeck and more, a brilliant portrayal of the Marquis of Posa. Tall, graceful, a potent presence, Mattei’s smooth voice, brilliant articulation, effortless legato and attention to the text, almost brought the show to a halt after his death scene. Many missed the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s reading; Mattei’s was just as beautiful and more about the character. His nasty confrontation with Günther Groissböck’s towering King Philip closed the first act with a shudder. Groissböck was excellent; the voice grand, the middle voice occasionally presented without vibrato, creating a truly nasty effect. His big aria was good, but the Grand Inquisitor scene, with John Relyea’s scary priest, was simply great.

Yulia Matochkina (Eboli) and Eleanora Buratto (Elisabetta)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

As far as I can see, Elisabetta is Eleonora Buratto’s heaviest role to date, and she was magnificent. A fine Mimì and Butterfly, the voice has heft when needed but is more along the lines of a Mirella Freni than a Renata Tebaldi. Her farewell to the Countess of Aremberg was a tearjerker, glorious pianissimi and all. “Tu che le vanità” was riveting. As her foil, Princess Eboli, Yulia Matochkina (previously only Maddalena here) began with insouciance in her well-articulated Veil Song, and knocked the ball out of the park in “O don fatale”, probably Verdi’s cruelest aria. Smaller roles were all well taken, with Alexandros Stavrakakis’ Monk (Carlo V?) particularly sonorous.

Charles Edwards’ ugly, oppressive set of dark gray stone walls looked like a series of catacombs; they lit up and featured an audience watching the auto-da-fé for the second act finale. No greenery in the garden. Probably exactly as gloomy as the real Escorial in the 16th century. The “nicest” touch was a mammoth statue of the Crucified Christ looming over Philip’s study. Sir David McVicar’s direction was efficient, but a “flaming” jester during the auto-da-fé was a stupid touch.

Don Carlo
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Carlo Rizzi remains the finest routinier at the Met, and if that sounds like damning with faint praise, so be it. This year he is in charge of three operas (and has led 16 others in the past). Everything works well; ensembles are clean and the orchestra plays well. Tempi never lag, in fact, they seem rushed at times, more so because when his conservatoire was teaching rubato and other refinements, Rizzi must have been absent. He led an efficient, foursquare reading, which became deadly dull during the confessional, heart-rending Carlo-Elisabetta duet in the monastery garden.

An evening for rousing, refined singing of Verdi’s grandest creation.