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Met Opera: Love, Honor, Duty, and Religion in a Stately 'Don Carlo'

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Verdi's Don Carlo, back on stage at the Metropolitan Opera, has more intrigue, double-crossing betrayal, and doomed love triangles than a whole season of a TV series, and as Hollywood marketers like to say, it is "based on a true story."

The Met has returned Nicholas Hytner's stylish and stately 2010 production of Verdi's most ambitious opera, set in the turbulent 16th century during the fearsome reign of King Philip II of Spain and the height of the Spanish Inquisition.

It is a huge canvas on which Verdi paints this epic saga of love thwarted by politics, rebellion, and religion, and one enriched by marvelous music - duets, choruses, and arias, including one of the greatest solos for the bass voice in all of opera, which Ferruccio Furlanetto delivers magnificently.

Don Carlo begins as a love story, but expands into a drama on the nature of duty, honor, and the separation of church and state. It opens at Fontainebleau where Philip II, ruler of most of Europe and the New World, is negotiating a peace treaty with King Henry II of France. Henry's daughter, Elisabeth, has been betrothed to Philip's son, Carlo, and on first meeting they discover they are in love. But Philip decides at the last moment he will marry Elisabeth himself.

Back in Madrid, Carlo persists in declaring his love for Elisabeth, but she rebuffs him. He now pledges with his friend, the Marquis of Posa, to aid the plight of the Flemish, whose rebel Protestant followers of Martin Luther have been sorely repressed by Philip. Another triangle emerges when the Princess of Eboli, once the king's mistress, declares her love for Carlo, and when he rejects her she vows revenge.

Verdi first composed the opera, which loosely follows Friedrich Schiller's play of the same title, which itself loosely follows historical fact, for the Paris Opera where it premiered in 1867. For nearly 20 years, Verdi made many revisions: cutting some arias, ensembles, even whole scenes; adding new ones; restoring some previous cuts; taking them out again; composing new music. For this revival, the Met has used an 1886 version, first performed in Modena, Italy, and sung in Italian.

Hytner's staging, his first for the Met and originally presented at Covent Garden, underscores the contrasts of the loyalties that swing back and forth. Red and black are the dominant colors, except for the opening act set among the barren white birch trees of Fontainebleau and the golden façade of the Basilica of Our Lady of Atocha in Madrid, which precedes the big auto-da-fe and immolation of heretics at the end of Act 3.

The Met has turned to two of its mainstays for the ill-fated lovers with Ramon Vargas in the title role and Barbara Frittoli as Elisabeth. Each sings capably enough, though Vargas is an old-school operatic actor who tends to clutch his stomach or stagger about the stage, beating his breast or dropping to his knees, to indicate grief.

But the loudest bravos for this revival belong to Furlanetto, who delivers a majestic performance as King Philip II, especially in the grand fourth act aria "Ella giammai m'amo," an anguished and pensive contemplation on love, power, and death that goes to the soul of Verdi's opera. This solo segues into the great bass duet between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, also brilliantly rendered by Eric Halfvarson.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is no less excellent as Posa, torn between two loyalties when the king offers him a dukedom. Anna Smirnova contributes a passionate performance as Princess of Eboli, especially in her second act "Veil Song."