'Don Carlo' or 'Don Carlos'? Verdi comes to the Met in French

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'Don Carlo' or 'Don Carlos'? Verdi comes to the Met in French
A photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera shows Sonya Yoncheva as Elisabeth and Matthew Polenzani in the title role of the opera “Don Carlos.” On Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, the Metropolitan Opera will perform Verdi’s much-revised masterpiece for the first time in French, its original language. Ken Howard/Met Opera via The New York Times.

by Will Crutchfield

NEW YORK, NY.- For the first 80 or so years of its life, Verdi’s “Don Carlos” was a problem opera on the margins of the repertory. Audiences saw it only sporadically; almost everyone who wrote about it described an uneven “transitional” work, a troubled experiment on the eve of the composer’s final masterpieces: “Aida,” “Otello” and “Falstaff.”

Today, this sprawling, packed epic — based on the tumults of 16th-century Spain under Philip II as filtered through two different plays — is part of every opera lover’s basic nutrition. The Metropolitan Opera has a lot to do with that: In 1950, Rudolf Bing made the bold choice to revive the work for the opening night of his first season as general manager. The Met was the first house in the world to make “Don Carlos” standard repertory.

And yet the company has never performed its original words. That changes Monday, when Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads a new David McVicar staging of the opera, sung at last to the French libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle. What took so long?

The answer starts with the opera’s complex history. Paris, when Verdi went there in 1866 with his nearly finished score, was Europe’s cultural capital, and required the longest, grandest operas. Verdi — accustomed to writing three-hour works and now given the chance at a 4 1/2-hour extravaganza — overshot the mark. The general rehearsal on Feb. 24, 1867, clocked in at five hours, 13 minutes.

But performance start times were inflexible at 7:30 p.m., and the last trains for the suburbs left at 12:35 a.m. People needed time to get to the station. This meant a lot of cutting under pressure.

One legacy of Napoleon’s civil service reforms: Parisian functionaries were trained never to throw away a piece of paper. So when scholars got serious about “Don Carlos” a century later, they could reconstruct that cut music from handwritten orchestra parts, draft librettos, rehearsal reports and the like. (Andrew Porter, the longtime music critic of The New Yorker, was the unofficial leader of this brigade.)

Some of that music is significant and beautiful, and has been restored in some modern productions. But in his time, Verdi went in the opposite direction: cutting still more music, tweaking some of it and eventually producing a thorough (and much shorter) revision. The upshot: five or even more iterations of “Don Carlos” for performers to choose among today, and infinite chances for confusion in discussing them.

Simplification may help: There are essentially two versions. The first is the one premiered in Paris, plus or minus some pieces added or cut before and after. The second is the recomposed score premiered in Milan in 1884, with or without restoration of the 1867 Act 1 — set in France and introducing the vexed love of Don Carlos and Elisabeth of Valois. The Met is including Act 1, as it has done since 1979. For the other acts, it plans on a mixture: mostly the revisions of 1884, but with selected restorations from 1867. For instance, the opera is set to end with a quiet reprise of the monks’ chant, which was changed in 1884 to a fortissimo outburst.

It has to be emphasized, because many still assume otherwise: All these versions are in French. There is no Italian version of “Don Carlos,” only an Italian translation, just as there was for “Carmen” or “Mignon” when those were done at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. In that era, the idea of opera as drama was taken seriously, and intelligibility was essential.

The only exception: Italians singing in Italian were heard everywhere, just as today American pop music is enjoyed worldwide in English. That’s why the Met opened its doors with Gounod’s “Faust” in Italian and Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” had its London premiere in Italian. But why did “Don Carlos” hang on so long beyond those as a quasi-Italian work? Because it was not a hit in Paris, and vanished from the repertory there within two years. Verdi hoped to relaunch it with his revision, but it was not wanted; Paris had fallen in love with “Aida” in the meantime. At La Scala, “Don Carlos” was more successful. It stayed at the fringes of the Italian repertory, and spread exclusively from there.

Translations, though necessary in a world that wanted to understand what was being sung, are never as good as original texts; it’s just too hard to find words that convey the right thought and fit the notes decently and elegantly. The “Don Carlos” translation (by Achille de Lauzières, supplemented by Angelo Zanardini for the 1884 revisions) has the further problem of sounding ornate and old-fashioned compared with the French.

Porter used to make this point by juxtaposing Élisabeth’s reminiscence of Fontainebleau, “mon coeur est plein de votre image,” with Elisabetta’s “ver voi schiude il pensiero i vanni.” The French he translated as “my heart is full of your image”; the Italian, as something like “t’ward thee my thought unfurls its pinions.” An open-and-shut case for the superiority of the original.

Or is it? The same type of comparison could make us prefer the French text of “La Traviata,” and nobody wants to hear that argument, because it wouldn’t be “the original.” What we see here is not so much the problem of translation as the fact that Italian libretto-writing in the 1860s still followed a highly inflected poetic code built over centuries, while French texts had become simpler and more straightforward — more modern, if you like. The translators could easily have written “pieno ho il cor dell’immagin vostra.” It fits the poetic meter, and is also faithful to the French; it just isn’t the way they wanted to write. (Yet.)

And there is another undiscussed problem, having to do with the way meter shapes melody. The technical details would take too long to explain, but it’s obvious at a glance that the rhythms of “Grow old along with me” and “Do not go gentle into that good night” are not going to generate the same kind of tune. Verdi had a lifetime of experience imagining melodies for lines of seven, eight or 10 syllables — but not nine syllables, which traditional Italian poetry did not use, and French did.

A very clear example comes in that somber chant of the monks, heard at the beginning of Act 2 and recalled in the last act. The instrumental statements make perfectly clear what Verdi thought the rhythm was, and the Italian translation — supplied in “ottonario” (eight-syllable) meter — allows it to be sung that way. But in the original French an extra syllable has to be tucked in, irregularly and somewhat awkwardly, in every second bar. The same problem affects the tenor aria, and again the translators provide the familiar verse-form from Verdi’s comfort zone, instead of the “novenario” he had to set in Paris.

This, however, is devil’s advocacy. Yes, the opera is better overall in French — but it is a subtle superiority. It shows up not in obvious “gotcha” errors, but in the accumulation of many moments when the dramatic situation is precise in the original and fuzzy in the translation, where the phrases breathe naturally as Verdi wrote them and have to be rearranged or interrupted in Italian. It probably affects the singers more than the listeners, but the cumulative impact can be profound.

An example: King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor are discussing, with exquisite caution, the inflammatory behavior of Philip’s son Carlos. What punishment for his rebellion? asks the priest. “Tout — ou rien,” replies the king: “all — or nothing.” In Italian, to preserve those three lonely notes, he answers instead “mezzo estrem” (“extreme measures”). He means the choice between putting his own son to death or allowing him to flee. God himself, observes the holy man, once chose the former.

It is all chilling in either language. But the Italian is blunt, and the French is sharp. Multiply that by a hundred, and you have more than reason enough for the Met’s big change after a century of translation. It’s time.

Will Crutchfield, the artistic director of Teatro Nuovo, has conducted “Don Carlos” in both Italian and French.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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