Don Carlo or Don Carlos? In Italian or in French?

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Don Carlos: Soloists; C-CM Concert Orchestra, Chamber Choir and Chorale; UC Men’s and Women’s Choruses; Mark Gibson (conductor and music director), Corbett Auditorium at College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio. 22.9.2013 (RDA)

 There are more versions of Verdi’s masterwork Don Carlo or Don Carlos than any other opera one could name from the 19th-century Italian canon. In 1887, the maestro was still working off his original French template, still saddled with the encumbrances of a very large grand opera format—larger than anything he had written before. But Verdi’s final trimming of the mammoth work to manageable proportions allowed Don Carlos (or Don Carlo, whichever you prefer), to enter the standard repertory. And Verdi, fluent in French and working with two French librettists, made the French language “sing” as well as his native Italian.

For every ounce of gold, there’s a bit of dross in Don Carlo, and some of its French longueurs can be deadly. The so-called Fontainebleau scene (included in this performance) acts as a prologue, setting the stage. When it’s omitted, the opera limps for the first twenty-or-so minutes as we are told, rather than shown, the back-story. But leave it in and you end up with a very, very long five-act, four-and-a-half-hour operatic marathon that challenges those with a short attention span.

Long or not, this fine concert version, lovingly curated and led by Mark Gibson, honors Verdi’s 1867 original, if not his twice-revised 1886 final result. Good things abound: the iconic Rodrigue-Philippe duet (cut either by Verdi or by his musical censors from the Paris version) is restituted here in a much more complex and interesting statement than the familiar Italian-language version.

Neither 100% faithful to Schiller’s Infant von Spanien (the original and cumbersome play of Don Carlos) nor to history itself, the French libretto by Méry and du Locle often fails to function. The inevitable ballet sequence—which members of the Paris Jockey Club demanded in order to see their favorite ballerinas on stage before seeing them after the show en dishabille—is musically charming but hardly needed.

Mid-point in his career, Verdi had fully embraced the three-act structure of most modern musical dramas. Schiller’s five-act format was nearly unmanageable both for the composer and for an Italian audience, the latter accustomed to the straight-to-the-point structure of the great Verdi middle works: La traviata, Il trovatore and Rigoletto.

In Don Carlos (both Schiller’s and Verdi’s), crucial elements are left to our imagination and unexplained. What happens to Carlos at the end of the opera? Who is that fellow in a hooded robe that comes to save him from the claws of his avenging and jealous father? Is it Charles V himself? Is it a ghost? Is it a monk? Does he drag the young Prince to an untimely death or to an early cloister? What happens to the Queen?

Yet there is very little in the entire Verdi output that can begin to compare with the perfection of Act III, starting with the great soliloquy for Philippe (“Elle ne m’aime pas…”) through the imposing scene with the Grand Inquisitor, to the ensuing quartet with the Queen, Eboli and Rodrigue, through the show-stopping “O don fatal.” Elsewhere there’s the grand scene for Elisabeth at the end of the opera (“Toi qui sus le néant…”) and the monumental “Auto da Fe” scene. The list is endless.

Oddly, the central character is the least-fleshed out. A neurotic and complex Bourbon with all the psychological baggage of his dynasty, and none of the good looks with which Velazquez flattered him, the real-life Carlo and his operatic counterpart are  dwarfed by the larger-than-life Philippe, the conflicted Eboli, the noble Rodrigue, and the suffering Elisabeth. Oddly, Verdi allots Carlos but one major solo moment (“Je l’ai vue…”) at the very beginning.

Mark Gibson, an Italianate conductor in sensibility and temperament, knows how to get his youthful musicians to spin what Verdi used to mark lunga la frase (“make long the phrase”). The conductor leads with a firm hand, instilling passion in his youthful players and inspiring his singers. The C-CM orchestra and choruses do top-notch work in this challenging and lengthy assignment, playing passionately and when needed providing a grounding accompaniment for the singers.

Much to my regret, a prior commitment precluded me for returning after dinner for the evening half. In the afternoon, Kenneth Shaw was the Philippe. Every inch the King, Shaw was imposing in the duet with Rodrigue. Even when listening to a colleague, this distinguished singing actor exudes authority. After a silent entrance and one or two short phrases, his first riveting moment came when he commands Rodrigue with one-word: “Restez!” (“Stay!”), managing to pin us to our seats as if he had commanded us all not to move.

Leah de Gruyl is a very fine young Eboli, singing “Au palais des fees” with easily executed fioriture and Iberian charm. Marco Panuccio was especially compelling in the two extended duets with the lovely soprano Helen Lyons. Baritones Corey Crider and Joseph Lattanzi acquitted themselves nobly in this most lyrical of Verdi’s baritone roles. Crider spun a beautiful cantilena in the duet “Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes.” Lattanzi sang an elegant “L’Infant Carlos, notre espérance.”  In smaller but dramatically-essential roles, Megan Slack (Thibault), Pedro Arroyo (Lerme), and Zachary Owen (Monk) brought fine voices and musicianship to their assignments.

After Don Carlos, Verdi’s torrential outpouring of great operas slowed to a trickle—Aida followed four years later and then twenty years of near-silence passed, during which he would revise Don Carlos for Milan in 1884 and for Modena in 1887. We are all grateful that he wouldn’t leave well enough alone, fastidious perfectionist that he was.


Rafael de Acha