United States Verdi, Don Carlo: Soloists, Opera Philadelphia, Corrado Rovaris (conductor), Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 29.4.2014 (BJ)
Don Carlo: Dimitri Pittas
Élisabeth de Valois: Leah Crocetto
Princess Eboli: Michelle DeYoung
King Philip II: Eric Owens
Rodrigo: Tony Cook
The Grand Inquisitor: Morris Robinson
Tebaldo: Ashley Emerson
Monk: Jeremy Milner
The Celestial Voice: Sarah Shafer
The Royal Herald and Count di Lerma: Mingjie Lei
Director: Tim Albery
Sets: Andrew Lieberman
Costumes: Constance Hoffman
Lighting: Thomas Hase
Wigs and Make-up: David Zimmerman
Chorus Master: Elizabeth Braden
What makes “grand opera” grand? There are so many elements to be blended before any opera production reaches the stage: the poet’s libretto and the composer’s score; the director’s dramatic insight; the visual product of the various designers’ imaginations; the conductor’s gifts and his command of pacing, expression, and ensemble; the skill and dedication of the orchestra and chorus; and the solo singers’ vocal talents and gift for characterization.
Get all of these right, and present them on a suitably opulent scale (a necessary point, because there are many fine, indeed great, operas that do not aspire to grandeur), and you have the kind of grand opera that is unforgettable—and that I have experienced perhaps half-a-dozen times in my life. But even an enterprise that, humanly enough, falls short of perfection can be a joy to witness. Opera Philadelphia’s Don Carlo was a notable success on that level: libretto, score, conducting, orchestral playing, choral and solo singing, and characterization all measured up, and it was only the visual aspects of the production to which I must in due course take exception.
Don Carlos has long been my favorite Verdi opera, especially in its original 5-act French language version, but also when, as on this occasion, the shorter Italian-language Don Carlo is given. Grandeur is certainly one of its crucial characteristics, and it has been evident in productions I have seen that go back to a Lyric Opera of Chicago presentation around 1970 with Carlo Cossutta and Sherrill Milnes in exultant voice for their stirring Act I duet. And yet I must express my gratitude to Opera Philadelphia’s music director, Corrado Rovaris, for revealing, more strikingly than I have ever heard it revealed before, not only the grandeur but also the sheer originality of Verdi’s last-opera-but-three. It was the immaculate melding of vocal lines with often daringly individual orchestral timbres that emerged as a unity virtually unprecedented in the composer’s work, brilliantly as those resources had been marshaled in his previous operas.
This would not have been possible without superb work from Elizabeth Braden’s chorus, from the orchestra, and from a cast of soloists as uniformly strong as could be wished. It is a long time since, in one of the great tragic Italian operas, I have heard vocal lines projected, one after another, with such sumptuous power and artistry. Among the principals, I was encountering the Carlo, New-York-born tenor Dimitri Pittas, for the first time, and I certainly hope not the last: both vocally and dramatically, this was a most distinguished account of the role. As Queen Elisabeth and Princess Eboli, Leah Crocetto and Michelle DeYoung offered strongly individual and finely sung portrayals that complemented each other perfectly. Eric Owens and Morris Robinson brought superbly solid bass-baritone and bass voices to bear on the characters of King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, though the latter’s tone was slightly veiled at times, and I did find his Inquisitor a shade too hale and hearty in bearing and expression. And the most thrilling singing of all came from baritone Troy Cook, who made Rodrigo, justly enough, the moral center of the story. The smaller roles were all strongly taken, and Elizabeth Braden’s chorus contributed vivid singing and acting.
Why is it, though, that I am constantly having to qualify my praise of what I have heard with complaints about what I have seen on stage? King Philip’s palace could be described as son-of-Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa: it listed at a slight angle to one side, and I was left wishing I could put out a giant hand and adjust the perfectly horizontal and thus clashing super-titles screen to conform. It may have been a similar desire to blend in with the slanting environment that led Eric Owens to shift periodically from foot to foot and never stand up quite straight. The furniture consisted exclusively of more than a dozen perfectly ordinary kitchen chairs, which were disposed seemingly at random around the stage; the characters conducted most of their conversations wandering from one chair to another—as one does at home, of course (but I suppose I should offer director Tim Albery a word of appreciation for not making any of his singers stand on them). Constance Hoffman’s costumes were inoffensive, if a bit too insistently monochrome. I’m not sure whom to blame—Albery or set designer Andrew Lieberman—for having the second half of the opera played against a photographic background of entirely naturalistic clouds that, entirely unnaturalistically, never moved in the space of more than an hour. And the final touch from lighting designer Thomas Hase—also presumably under directorial diktat—was a burst of red that was inappropriately lurid in effect.
Add to these deficiencies a program book that included a hopelessly vague synopsis by the director, and that, unlike pretty well any opera program you have ever seen, gave no indication of breakdown into acts, or number or length of intermissions (actually, there was just one), and I think it is clear that some tough editorial work needs to be done in Opera Philadelphia’s office.
Yet, with such great singing and playing on offer, this was a wonderful evening in the theater. I was only surprised that, when bows were taken, Morris Robinson received the biggest roar of approbation from the audience, despite the minor misgivings I have expressed about his certainly strong performance, and that the smallest cheer greeted Michelle DeYoung, whose gleaming tones were among the most notable in the whole superb performance.