‘Don Carlo’ or ‘Don Carlos’? Verdi Comes to the Met in French

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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 II 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.

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