Adapted from Friedrich Schiller's 1787 play -- with an original French libretto by Francois Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle, an Italian translation by Achille de Lauzieres and Angelo Zanardini, and some Verdi tinkering of actual history, the work focuses on 16th-century Don Carlo (Roberto Alagna). The noble Spaniard is engaged to French princess Elizabeth (Marina Poplavskaya) and the two fall helplessly and hopelessly in love at first first-act sight.
However, their union is aborted when Don Carlo's imperious dad, King Philip II (Ferruccio Furlanetto) decides to marry Elizabeth himself. After that, a spider web of court intrigue is spun that plays out against Philip's oppression of the Flemish and Don Carlo's alliance with Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa (Simon Keenlyside) and their plan to free the Flanders inhabitants.
It's true that there are fewer arias here that have attached themselves to opera-lovers' ears than in other Verdi opuses, yet the music has a stately passion impossible not to swoon to. Indeed, Philip's fourth-act opener "Ella giammai m'amo," the fourth act quartet for Philip, Don Carlo, Elizabeth and the scheming Princess of Eboli (Anna Smirnova), and the fifth act's final Don Carlo-Elizabeth duet -- with its heart-stopping pathos -- is only the start to Verdi's ravishing gifts on display.
At the Met, the score is conducted by Yannick Nezet-Sequin with all the passionate stateliness required. The singing is majestic as well, with Alagna constantly achieving a full-throated, robust sound. Furlanetto not only gives his bass a plangent quality, but his acting, particularly in the ruminative fourth-act soliloquy, is superb -- revealing a tyrant who is three-dimensionally human.
Playing the dignified, albeit fiery friend to both monarch and son, Keenlyside proves to be the persuasive thespian he showed himself to be in last year's Hamlet. His rich baritone, however, only fills the hall sometimes. Poplavskaya's soprano is a blend of gold and silver in the high range, though she is occasionally less than successful in her middle range. Making her Met debut, Smirnova proves her mezzo has the dark tones right for the role and others like it.
What Hytner and Crowley, abetted by lighting designer Mark Henderson, have accomplished with seeming ease and authority is enabling the cast to go about their thrilling business in sets and costumes immeasurably smart and straightforward. Most of the work is played in black, red, and shades of gray -- with one indelible scene featuring ladies of the court gowned in black and incessantly waving large red fans.
Indeed, the only break in that palette occurs in the third-act scene -- during which Flemish deputies plead futilely before Philip for the lives of supposed heretics condemned to be burned -- which is set before an ornate gold church façade and a tall portrait of a bloody, morose Jesus. While the martyrs eventually go up in rising special-effects flames, this production truly rises on the supernal talents of its creative team and cast.