It’s the Highest-Profile Challenge of an Earnest Tenor’s Career

Anthony Tommasini

The New York Times

“I’ve resisted setting myself in one category, though, because the breadth of my career has been wide in terms of the repertory I’ve sung.” - Matthew Polenzani

The New York Times

Matthew Polenzani wanted to make something clear: He just isn’t a powerhouse tenor like Mario Del Monaco or Franco Corelli, two 20th-century greats.

“If you’re looking for an animal, Corellian or Del Monaconian sound — yeah, then you hired the wrong person,” Polenzani said in an interview at the Metropolitan Opera during a break in rehearsals for Verdi’s “Don Carlos,” in which he is singing the title role for the first time.

“It’s completely valid to get swept away by that,” he added. “But that’s not who I am, and that’s OK. I do what I do.”

What Polenzani, 53, does is bring warm, vibrant sound, keen intelligence, fine musicianship and subtle feeling for style to a wide range of repertory: lyric Mozart roles, florid bel canto star turns, fervent Verdi and Puccini characters, and some weightier challenges, like the protagonist of Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” He has been a Met mainstay since his 2001 breakthrough at the house singing Lindoro in Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri,” racking up hundreds of performances with the company, and next season he will star on opening night alongside Sondra Radvanovsky in the Met’s first production of Cherubini’s “Medea.”

Some writers and opera fans find him lacking in that classic swaggering, charismatic, even animalistic tenorial tone and presence. “Though he has the vocal goods, he doesn’t have the requisite spark,” the critic Anne Midgette wrote when Polenzani sang Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” at the Met in 2012.

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in an interview that those who mistake Polenzani’s “lack of external flamboyance” for lack of presence miss the point.

“Matthew has rock-solid artistry, and the most limpid, beautiful voice,” Gelb said.

But it’s certainly true that the title role in “Don Carlos” — which is being performed, starting Monday, for the first time at the Met in its original five-act French version — is not usually sung by singers who describe themselves, as Polenzani does, as lyric tenors. So the expectations are enormous as Polenzani takes on Carlos, in perhaps the highest-profile production of his long Met career.

In the interview, he admitted feeling pressure at tackling the daunting assignment — a complex character, loosely based on the historical 16th-century heir to the throne of Philip II of Spain.

“I can honestly say I wouldn’t have minded singing it once somewhere else, without this spotlight,” Polenzani said, adding: “I’ve resisted setting myself in one category, though, because the breadth of my career has been wide in terms of the repertory I’ve sung. You can have a valid argument for any part you want to sing, if it’s in your soul.”

And he praised his colleagues, including the Met’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is conducting, as well as the orchestra and chorus; a cast that also includes Sonya Yoncheva, Étienne Dupuis, Jamie Barton and Eric Owens; and the production’s director, David McVicar, who will also stage “Medea” next season.

At its 1867 premiere in Paris, the five-act “Don Carlos,” adapted from a play by Schiller, was deemed too long. Verdi reluctantly agreed, and oversaw a number of revisions, as well as an Italian translation as “Don Carlo.” For decades, in the most sweeping intervention, the work’s first act was often cut, and the four remaining acts usually given in Italian.

In 2010 at the Met, Nézet-Séguin led the five-act version (in Italian). Ever since, he has been angling to present the French “Don Carlos” at the house. As the plans for this new staging formed, Nézet-Séguin thought of Polenzani for the title role, even though he had never sung it, in either language.

“Matthew Polenzani is one of the greatest tenors of our time,” Nézet-Séguin wrote in an email. “Matthew was perfect for Don Carlos because it’s a role of infinite nuance and subtlety, with such a varied range of emotion and expression, which would play exactly to Matthew’s qualities.”

In his youth Polenzani never imagined becoming an opera singer, let alone a star tenor at the Met. He grew up in Wilmette, Ill., the son of music-loving parents. (Rose Polenzani, his sister, is a folk singer and songwriter.) Polenzani appeared in some high school musicals and fronted a pickup band called Empty Pockets.

He got a scholarship to Eastern Illinois University to study music education, aiming to teach high school. It was “a cornfield with a university in its center,” he said. “I was nowhere artistically.” A master class with the bass-baritone Alan Held, who sang often at the Met, got him thinking about opera. With the support of his teachers he entered the graduate program at the Yale School of Music, and took an extra year there.

“It’s lucky I stayed,” he said: He met Rosa Maria Pascarella, a mezzo-soprano, who became his wife. He was accepted into the young artist program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and from then on steadily progressed in a career that has included regular appearances with the world’s major houses.

Since his Met debut in 1997 he has sung 41 roles there, though quite a few were smaller parts during his yeoman years. But Polenzani has been crucial in several significant new productions, starring as Tamino when Julie Taymor’s staging of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” was introduced in 2004, and as Alfredo when Willy Decker’s surreal take on Verdi’s “La Traviata” arrived at the house on New Year’s Eve in 2010. He starred in another New Year’s gala in 2012, the Met premiere of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda.”

A highlight came in 2017 when, in a revival of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s boldly stylized production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” Polenzani made the title role his own, blending virile heft with Mozartean elegance, and delivering a fearless account of the impassioned aria “Fuor del mar.”

He now lives just north of New York City, in Pelham, with his wife and three sons, having survived tragedy: the loss, on Christmas Eve 2005, of their first child, Alessandra, who was 16 months old. For a long time after, Polenzani said, “trying to figure out why you have to get out of bed is the first battle.”

“You are walking in a tunnel,” he said, “it’s endless black, and you can’t see your hand in front of your face.”

Now his family is thriving. One of the most charming moments of the Met’s At-Home Gala, early in the pandemic in April 2020, came when Polenzani, accompanying himself at the piano, sang a sweet-toned, wistful account of “Danny Boy.” At the end, you could hear his family cheering upstairs.

“Don Carlos,” he said, comes at “a good time for me in my career. The part is not exactly heavier or more dramatic than others I’ve sung,” though, he added, “it’s certainly longer, especially in this version.”

There is a “certain air of refinement to the French version,” he said, that suits him vocally. “It’s a little raucous, less raw, which is not to say less emotional — quite the opposite.”

Also, he said, “The way we’re looking at it, Carlos is an antihero.” The crisis the character goes through begins in that often-cut first act, set in Fontainebleau, France, when Carlos meets the woman he is supposed to marry as part of a peace treaty: Elisabeth of Valois, the daughter of the French king. They quickly fall in love, but then word arrives that the Spanish king, Carlos’s father, has decided to marry her instead. Their vexed relationship energizes the tragic political epic that follows.

“What we miss without the Fontainebleau act,” Polenzani said, “is the moment of falling in love,” adding, “If we don’t see them fall in love — and this is true of so many operas, like ‘Bohème’ and ‘Traviata’ — then we don’t care so much if it doesn’t work out in the end.”

McVicar has emphasized Carlos’s similarities to Hamlet, and the emotional damage that has resulted from his broken relationship with Elisabeth and his unloving father. This nuanced take on the character is in keeping with Polenzani’s usual approach, in which he plumbs characters for their internal motivations and complexities.

What most distinguishes his portrayals goes hand in hand with his modest yet superb vocal artistry: the earnestness and authenticity that he exudes onstage. Earnestness is difficult to learn or feign; it is a quality that a performer — or a person, for that matter — simply has.

“I don’t think about it ever,” Polenzani said. “What I think about is trying to be as firmly in whichever character’s shoes I’m in.”

“I work at being earnest in that way,” he added. “I want to be as honest as I can be.”

This came through poignantly in the Met’s production of Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs de Perles,” which opened at the Met on New Year’s Eve in 2015. As the humble fisherman Nadir, Polenzani sang the aria “Je crois entendre encore” like an enraptured young man recalling an impossible love.

He shaped the gently rising phrases with sublime sadness and tender radiance, capping the final one with a ravishing pianissimo high C that few tenors — past or present — could match. Talk about stage presence and inhabiting the moment in opera: The ovation was tremendous.