Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Don Carlo at SF Opera

Watching Verdi's epic opera Don Carlo on Sunday afternoon at the San Francisco Opera, a few hours after learning of the Orlando gay bar massacre, was an unusually rich experience. The opera is based on a long, complex 1787 Friedrich Schiller play which is an Age of Enlightenment examination of power, politics, unrequited love, religious intolerance, and state violence in 16th Century, Inquisition-era Spain. Parallels to our current crazy moment in time were unavoidable, and though the piece is a tragedy with most of the major characters dead or in exile by the end, the overall effect was oddly consoling and healing. (Pictured above are fellow music lovers Chung Wai Soong, Chenier Ng, and James Parr waiting at the stage door after the performance to congratulate the cast.)

Even by Verdi's lofty standards, Don Carlo is a special achievement. The piece has come into its own over the last 50 years as various scholarly editions have appeared, differentiating between the different versions of the opera which started off in 1867 as a five-hour-plus Paris Grand Opera complete with ballet. It was then translated into Italian and condensed into more digestible sizes for smaller houses in Italy and throughout the world. On Sunday, the San Francisco Opera went with the five-act 1884 Modena version which includes the original first act in the Fontainebleau forest where the young, betrothed Elizabeth de Valois and Don Carlo meet by accident, are overwhelmed with love and happiness, and soon find out that Carlo's father King Philip II has changed his mind and decided to marry the young woman himself. Much misery for everyone ensues.

The staging by Spanish director Emilio Sagi on Zack Brown's dark, serviceable sets was clunky and sometimes silly, but it didn't matter that much because the cast from top to bottom was so good, and they were all fine actors besides. Michael Fabiano (with the shaved head above) made his Don Carlo role debut as a neurotic, tormented character which worked fine, and his tenor voice was remarkably beautiful. Ana Maria Martinez as Queen Elizabetta did not have the vocal heft to soar over the large choral ensembles but when she sang softly over a muted orchestra, such as her great Act V aria Tu che le vanità conosce, the sound was magical.

Princess Eboli, the Bad Girl at Court who is in love with Don Carlo but also secretly sleeping with King Philip II, was sung by the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva, and it was a sensational SF Opera debut. She even mimed playing castanets while dancing and singing The Veil Song aria without looking ridiculous, which is a feat in itself.

Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa is one of the most admirable characters in all of opera, pleading for an end to the bloody persecution of Protestants in Flanders by the King and the Spanish Catholic Church. The Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien above was magnificent in the role, standing up to King Philip at one moment, advocating for his best friend Don Carlo the next, and playing intermediary in the tormented mess of the Elizabeth and Carlo relationship. When he sacrifices himself for his friend Carlo and dies in his arms singing a reprise of their friendship duet, there was hardly a dry eye in the opera house, particularly after the news from Orlando.

That event also reverberated during the huge spectacle at the center of the opera, an auto-da-fe where heretics are burned alive for an appreciative public. Unfortunately, the staging of the scene by Sagi was dull and tasteful when it should have been dramatic and frenzied, but the music is so great that it overcame any dramatic deficiencies, particularly under the inspired conducting of Music Director Nicola Luisotti and the massive sound of the enlarged opera chorus.

Last but not least, the great German bass Rene Pape (above near the stage door) sang King Philip II in a marvelous performance. After behaving like an authoritarian villain for most of the opera, there is a wonderfully Shakespearean moment at the beginning of Act IV where he is humanized in the aria Ella giammai m'amo. "She doesn't love me," he sings to himself about Elizabetta, "she's never loved me," as he pours his soul out to the accompaniment of a cello. He is then confronted by the horrifying old Grand Inquisitor, sung by the bottomless bass Andrea Silvestrelli, who demands that Rodrigo along with Carlo be murdered for their liberal heresies.

There are five more performances of the opera, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. A cast this uniformly good in an opera this ambitious doesn't come around often. Standing room tickets at $10 for orchestra and balcony spots in the back of the opera house are still the best deal in the entire Bay Area, and seated tickets can be found by clicking here. (Pictured above are choristers Buffy Baggott and William Pickersgill flanking James Parr and bass-baritone Mark Doss who is covering the role of King Philip. All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)


Lisa Hirsch said...

Duly added to my media roundup!

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Lisa: Cool.

Hattie said...

Splendid, as usual. BTW: I just put up your comment about Benjamin and the mean girls. It ended up in the spam filter, which I failed to check until now.

JSC said...

The "unidentified gentleman" in the last pic is bass-baritone Mark Doss, Rene Pape's cover for King Philip!

Michael Strickland said...

Dear JSC: Thanks for the identification. I'll change it in the post.