The icy blast that whipped through Washington this past week blew in a work rarely seen to the Kennedy Center’s Opera House Saturday night that both tested one’s brain stamina and also brought some terrific revelations to Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo. It’s a curious opera and poses quite a few challenges, but the production has some top-notch singing in both major roles and the chorus, and for that alone this offering from WNO is well worth seeing.
Some argue this is composer Giuseppe Verdi’s greatest opera; he was certainly obsessed with getting it right and returned to rewrite again and again. So production teams have to wade into the countless versions, including many unauthorized tweaks and cuts. It’s not for the faint of heart or lean of budgetary means. Hefty is the word.
The story is set in Spain under the reign of monarch Philip II, but the opera was originally written in French in the 1860’s. Then, in the 1880’s, two versions came out in Italian (known as the Milan and the Modena.) These latter versions to my mind contain more mature sounding compositional work of Verdi, although some insist they prefer the work in the original French. Chacun à son gout.
Philip’s court was not a cheery place. The first act is set in El Escorial, Philip’s palace which was somewhat enclosed in a monastery, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Director Tim Albery, who had previously directed a production of Lohengrin on what a friend described (not kindly) as a post-apocalyptic slag heap, makes an equally strong conceptual statement with his vision for this opera: a fraught world in the midst of autocratic leadership and in political turmoil. With the aid of set designer Andrew Lieberman, Albery has grabbed onto a theme that resonates with our time and it’s one that works admirably through much of the opera.
The first thing that hits you are the black and dark gray gaping “holes” in the walls, steep rows of windows that appear to look down on the inside of the monastery, reminiscent of the eyes of Big Brother watching over all doings. The stage is raked from one side to the other, and the walls tilt at angles, further creating a kind of Escher-like tension. In the center, serving initially as a back wall, is a huge octagonal framing device that suggests a misplaced dome that has slipped off the ceiling. Things indeed are askew in this house of warring political powers between church and state and between generations.
Thomas C. Hase’s strong side lighting cuts across the stage and creates gruesomely foreboding shadows which worked wonderfully to establish the oppressive mood in the opening sequence when the stage was filled with hooded, therefore faceless friars walking slowly.
As the opera unfolds, the first act focuses inside this grim structure on the family interrelationships. Don Carlo is distraught. For one, his grandfather has just died; like Hamlet he is grieving a beloved paternal figure and throws himself down on the gravesite, the only brightly lit area on stage. We also soon learn that for reasons of political alliance, his father has snapped up Carlo’s girlfriend and married her, so his fiancée is now his stepmother.
The opera keeps shifting, especially in Act II, reminding us of the larger tensions between church and state and the dangerous reign of terror brought on by the Inquisition, a time we see dramatically realized when ordinary people got caught up and cut down. While we try to follow the many characters’ perspectives, the lighting at times leaves the singers in crepuscular darkness. It does not help for instance that the title role of Don Carlo, already a character who is written somewhat thinly both musically and dramatically so that he is not even the center of his own opera, is often shunted to the periphery and appears to curl up in the shadows wrapped up in paralyzing self-pity.
So, who is the protagonist in this opera? Verdi has created several interesting and complex characters, and these able singers vie splendidly for that distinction.
Eric Owens opens Act II alone on stage in a kind of extended soliloquy. And how beautifully the cello part sets up the scene. Owens starts sitting facing three-quarters upstage; the great octagon “dome” has become a window open to the turbulent skies. As King Philip he stares up at the heavens contemplating his own mortality and sings, “She doesn’t love me,” realizing that his wife Queen Elisabeth of Valois still carries a picture of his son in her jewelry box. For all his imperial power his is a world fraught with stress and filled with enemies against whom he feels he must always be on guard, making the presumptive strike. As he slowly builds the aria, connecting and laying out each line of thought for us with measured eloquence, the whole opera takes on an emotional depth, leaving the audience breathless and in awe. The opera at that point is his.
Leah Crocetto as Queen Elisabeth of Valois carries off the role with an embodiment of the queen’s nobility and virtuous piety. This coming up against her passions makes for a great protagonist and it helps that Crocetto is graced with a gorgeous soprano voice. But as the drama heightens she is somewhat challenged in her physical and gestural language to bring it all to new heights.
It is a feature of modern opera to have singer-actors do the equivalent of Episcopalian pew aerobics, and here Albery did not serve Crocetto kindly by having the singer perform her big aria in Act II flopping up and down on the floor like a fish out of water, especially when her skirts seemed to keep dragging her down like nets.
Jamie Barton is simply splendid as Princess Eboli, the court lady in love with Carlo, who also sleeps with his father, yet admires and wants to be the confidante of the Queen. She takes command of a room full of beautifully coifed-and-gowned ladies waiting on the queen and turns the “Veil Song” into an entertaining parlor game by pointing and drawing them in. Later, she meets Carlo at night, hoping for a love assignation, only to rip into him and vow vengeance on him when she realizes he scorns her love being in love with the Queen. Then in her final aria, “Oh don fatale”, she realizes the consequences of her mischief and her remorse pushes herself to the brink of coming unhinged then reels back in to regain herself. The aria was a tour de force of musicality and emotionality and rightly deserved the thunderous applause it received.
Closes March 17, 2018
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Quinn Kelsey as Rodrigo presented a most compelling Rodrigo, best friend to Carlo, who carries all the heroic virtues and ability to take action that his friend never can muster. Kelsey’s rich baritone and presence filled the stage, and his performance might win many votes for dashing protagonist. In his first act duet with his best friend Carlo, one of the most stirring written pieces in the opera, Kelsey fills even stillness with such purposefulness that reaches out through his limbs. Vocally, this was tenor’s Russell Thomas best moment but, simply put, Kelsey outgunned him and proved quite the physical contrast to the moping Carlo whose arms hung lifeless at his sides.
By the end of the opera everyone is trying to energize poor Carlo. To no avail. I’ve since learned that Don Carlo was in actuality as mad as the March Hare and rarely let out of the palace. Finally, he was probably murdered. So perhaps Alberry’s direction for Carlo had some precedent, although I found it entirely unsympathetic, emphasizing in Carlo an almost pathological frozen quality. It also strained credulity that this moonstruck calf had ever been a competent lover to Elisabeth or that she had ever felt anything but somewhat maternal compassion for him.
As the domineering antagonist in this piece, Andrea Sylvestrelli brought his distinctive bass voice and giant stage physicality to great use as the blind Inquisitor. His arm at one point gropes across space and suddenly clutches the lapel of the king like a great raptor bird, digging his claws in as he might devour him right there. What strong dramatic instincts this man has. Surely we want to compel him back to the WNO stage if we can contain his dangerous power.
You need “big guns” like these singers to pull off this Verdian colossal masterpiece not to mention the strong production team. Counting the 164 costumes alone, which must have kept the very talented designer Constance Hoffman and costume shop busy. This production could not have been managed without teaming up with two other opera companies: Philadelphia Opera and Minnesota Opera.
The orchestra must also be cheered for tackling the longest opera that Verdi ever wrote with such zeal. Horns that opened the work drove us into the opera with rare clarity and wake-up impact. The cello part in the first scene in Act II was hauntingly beautiful. There is even a harp and at one point an organ part introduced, both no doubt part of Verdi’s arsenal to make the kind of grand ecclesiastical impact. Conductor Philippe Auguin led the musicians superbly as well as the chorus which was very much integrated into this production.
Despite so much good and so very much grand, there were bumps and hitches. The endings of both acts I found curious and somewhat unsatisfactory. Act I’s finale is always touted as “the big auto-da-fé” scene. Well, there seemed a lot of scurrying and crescendo in the chorus. I suffered a tinge of squeamish dread as hoods were pulled down over the heads of the selected four victims who were sat in chairs facing upstage but like the original witnesses, I came to see some climactic action. Then nothing. A set malfunction, I wondered. What was the dome thing going to be used for, then? No burst of flames?
Similarly, at the end, after Rodrigo is assassinated, the gun shot ricocheted as if from one of those dark windows so loudly that everyone in the auditorium (filled with memories of recent gun violence no doubt) visibly jumped; the action of Carlo committing suicide by turning his sword on himself was anti-climactic and not as written. Was this Albery’s way for him to take matters into his own hand?
Truthfully, I want to see this work again. This production will undoubtedly settle and so will I. As always with a great opera like this, more will be revealed. Don Carlo closes March 17 so there is little time to waste.
Don Carlo. Music by Giuseppe Verdi. Libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle. Conducted by Philippe Auguin. Stage Direction by Tim Albery. Set designed by Andrew Lieberman. Costumes designed by Constance Hoffman, Lighting designed by Thomas C. Hase, Hair and make-up designed by David C Zimmerman. With Russell Thomas, Leah Crocetto, Jamie Barton, Eric Owens, Quinn Kelsey, Andrea Silvestrelli, Allegra De Vita, Peter Volpe, Leah Hawkins, Robert Baker, Frederick Ballentine, and the Washington National Opera Chorus and Opera Orchestra. Produced by Washington National Opera, a Co-Production with Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Rating – 4
Running Time: 3 hours and fifteen minutes with one twenty-five minute intermission