03/31/2015 04:23 pm ET Updated May 31, 2015

First Nighter: "Don Carlo" at the Met Is Grand Opera, "Soldier X" Marches Well at HERE

You don't hear the term "grand opera" much anymore. That's if you hear it at all. But it's going to be revived right now in regards to the opening night performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera House. Thanks to a confluence of actually controllable --within reason -- circumstances, what was presented at the first night is grand opera in just about any definition you care to go by. It was opera that was truly grand.

Since this is a revival of Nicholas Hytner's 2010 production with its elegantly spare Bob Crowley sets and costumes -- the Hytner-Crowley team was done wonders at London's National Theatre for the last decade or so -- their work has already been recognized.

The Don Carlo look involves high grey walls with square windows placed in a grid pattern and not that much else scene to scene. In addition to grey, the predominating colors are black and red (the queen's ladies in black all carrying red fans, for instance). The only ornate features are the gold façade of Madrid's Basilica of Our Lady of Atocha with its saints in niches and the outsized tomb dominating the fifth and final act. Then there are the yellow and red flames of the act-three-scene-2 ending: the auto-da-fé,

Also recreated now is Hytner's direction. There's been much discussion the last few weeks --especially after James B. Stewart's New Yorker investigation of the Met -- about stage directors who are less than optimally versed in music and singers. None of it, at least as viewed from the auditorium, applies to Hytner, who is, it should be needless to say now, a first-rate theater director but who obviously understands the primary importance of singing when he's staging an opera.

As of this opera debut at the Met -- a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden--he's keenly aware of the best ways to block his singers. It's not just that he blocks them as often as not downstage center for an aria or spaced evenly across the apron (or close enough to it) for trio and quartets.

Significantly, he keeps them still. For one instance, when in the fifth act Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II is declaring his despair at being an unloved husband, he remains at a desk for two-thirds of the nine-minute aria. When he rises from it, he moves forward but very little. The ovation he received opening night had plenty to do with the immaculate presentation.

But not everything to do with it. That can also easily be traced to superlative singing. This is where the revival rises to transcendent and involves the entire cast as conducted by Yannick Nézet-Seguin, who was on the podium in 2010. He clearly knows the four-and-a-half-hour text, but he may never have had quite the collection of singers completely on top of the material as he currently has. (You'll have to ask him.)

As Don Carlo, Yonghoon Lee is the only one repeating a role he took on five years ago. Furlanetto was part of that company but as the Grand Inquisitor. James Morris assumes that one now, and his powers, as regular fans know, are undiminished.

Others new to this production are Barbara Frittoli as the Elisabeth who thinks she'll be marrying Don Carlo but must marry Philip II instead; Dimitri Hvorostovsky as Roderigo, Marquis of Posa, who's both Don Carlo's best friend and the king's cherished confidant; and Ekaterina Gubanova, as the intimate of Elisabeth who betrays her mistress by stealing the jewel box containing incriminating evidence of her devotion to Don Carlo.

The simple explanation for the grandeur on display here? Over the course of the several hours (patrons are probably wishing would go on twice that length), Verdi has written entrancing music (French libretto by Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle from the Friedrich Schiller novel, Italian translation by Achille de Lauzieres and Angelo Zanardini). It's sung -- from singer to singer, from aria to aria -- at brilliant effectiveness.

Describing the vocal accomplishments of each individually or in tandem with the others would take two or three times the space already here, but maybe mentioning the Marquis of Posa's death scene as Hvorostovsky executes it isn't unfair to the others. His is one of the best extending on-stage croakings (but no croaking) this spectator has ever witnessed -- those exquisite dying (in two senses of the word) notes.

Frequently when encouraging others to see a lengthy performance, a reviewer will say something like, "But it went by in a flash." This Don Carlo doesn't go by in a flash. Listening to it, you want it to go by at the correct Verdi pace for it to be savored properly. The good news is: It does.


In the First World War it was shell shock. It was battle fatigue after World War II. With the last few wars, it's been post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the attitudes towards its prevalence have been many.

In Soldier X, at HERE, Rehana Lew Mirza suggests that the rare returning veteran isn't afflicted with some strain of the psychological disease. She deals with two vets who've landed in San Diego--Jay Richards (Jared McNeill) and Lynn Downey (Caroline Michelle Smith). The former is attempting to cope with the possibility that it was he who shot his best friend in the middle of battlefield confusion. The latter is profoundly angry at having been raped by a fellow soldier and receiving no proper closure.

Jay and Lynn are both in a relationship with Army social worker Monica Burnes (Kaliswa Brewster)--Lynn as a patient, Jay as a friend. What Jay doesn't quite realize is that Monica is more than medically, platonically interested in him when she's trying to make him confront the truth of a romance he's struck up with Amani Mehmod (Turna Mete). Amani happens to be the sister of the friend he may have killed. That information he keeps from her.

Throughout Soldier X, Mirza does much perceptive writing about the complexities of bonds complicated even further by the unplumbed aftermath of war. Indeed, she's so in tune with the issues that she understands there's no way to provide easy answers--or even hard answers.

The circumstance is such that Mirza doesn't end her play satisfactorily. As directed with equal understanding by Lucie Tiberghien and acted by an extremely proficient cast, what precedes the ending is strong enough to excuse the final lapse.