Nézet-Séguin conducts a thoroughly satisfying "Don Carlo"

The Verdi opera, performed by the Met, is set in 16th-century Spain. The Philadelphia Orchestra's music director-designate conducted.

NEW YORK - Even if Verdi is your favorite composer and Don Carlo the most substantial of his 28 stage works, you could still be relieved that conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin wrapped up the opera 15 minutes under its near-five-hour estimated running time Monday at the Metropolitan Opera.

That's not to suggest the opera needs to be shorter. The opening night of this new Nicholas Hytner production was a clear-cut hit, with all working parts falling so easily into place that the hyper-alert reading of the score - so richly detailed as to warrant comparison to Herbert von Karajan - by the Philadelphia Orchestra's music director-designate could put you in a rare state of Verdi overload. Simulcast audiences on Dec. 11 may be even more intensely affected by so much ingenuity up close. The opening-night audience's ovations were perhaps muted by fatigue, but rarely have I seen an opera audience so unanimously satisfied.

Nearly twice the length of Otello, Don Carlo is an intimate epic. Set in 16th-century Spain, it reveals the court of Philip II from the inside out, going deep into everyone's inner lives before showing how they changed history. For all their power, the characters have so little personal freedom that they live in a state of house arrest. Those who break out of that die, in a plot structure that's like a noose tightening slowly around the necks of everybody you care about. Few productions convey that as well as this one - to be expected from Hytner, known to New Yorkers from the Broadway Miss Saigon and the Lincoln Center Carousel. He originated this production at London's Royal Opera with much of Monday's cast.

Early scenes, as designed by Bob Crowley, are fanciful, picturesque, and unrealistic: Wintertime scenes have neat paths through the snow, court scenes show women with color-coordinated red fans against a saturated yellow backdrop. Later, a darker realism sets in, showing a world in which pomp and glory are achieved at cruel human cost.

Among the cast, tenor Roberto Alagna (Carlo) continues to shed years: Though audibly tired by the end, he still sounded far healthier than in years past. Few Verdi singers know how to shape a recitative so eloquently - palpably aided by Nézet-Séguin. As Rodrigo, Simon Keenlyside wasn't the most substantial Verdi baritone, but sang beautifully, with a hotheaded characterization smartly fashioned right down to the tilt of his head. Ferruccio Furlanetto was an intensely human King Philip, though his great scene with Eric Halfvarson's Grand Inquisitor lacked a dramatic arc: There was no power shift from state to church because the vocally imposing Halfvarson was in control from note one. In the EMI video of this production's London version, the king pulls a knife on the blind inquisitor - a great detail missed on Monday.

The lead female roles were mildly disappointing. Though convincing theatrically, Marina Poplavskaya was a vocally underpowered Elisabetta. Anna Smirnova's Eboli was more a real person than a monstrous court denizen, but lacked vocal accuracy.

For long stretches, I forgot Nézet-Séguin was there, a sign of his willingness to unostentatiously support the singers. Then I'd realize that many dramatic through-lines of Hytner's direction were mirrored in the score's interplay of recurring motifs, a quality that has rarely been so apparent. He found inner voices in the orchestra that propel the action; blends brought new coloristic dimensions to even the most familiar passages; climaxes were masterfully built but never forced. Comparisons to Karajan, however, break down on the issue of tempo: Nézet-Séguin's were more vigorous and idiomatically Italian.


Additional performances:

Friday, Monday, Dec. 3, 7, 11, 15, and 18 at Lincoln Center. Simulcast: 12:30 p.m. Dec. 11. Information: 212-362-6000 or www.metopera.org.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com