A Stirring Don Carlo in a Powerful Production at LA Opera

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Don Carlo: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of LA Opera/James Conlon (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 22.9.2018. (JRo)

l – Ferruccio Furlanetto (King Philip II) & r- Ana Maria Martinez (Elisabeth de Valois)
(c) Cory Weaver

Elisabeth de Valois – Ana María Martínez
Princess Eboli – Anna Smirnova
Don Carlo – Ramón Vargas
Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa – Plácido Domingo
King Philip II – Ferruccio Furlanetto
Grand Inquisitor – Morris Robinson
A Monk – Soloman Howard
Tebaldo – Taylor Raven
A Celestial Voice – Liv Redpath
The Count of Lerma – Joshua Wheeker

Production – Ian Judge Stage
Director – Louisa Muller
Scenery – John Gunter
Costumes – Tim Goodchild
Lighting – Rick Fisher
Chorus Director – Grant Gershon
Choreographer – Kitty McNamee

With a stellar cast, an orchestra at the height of its power and a stunning set, LA Opera brought Verdi’s masterpiece, Don Carlo, to vivid, turbulent life. Originally seen in Los Angeles in 2006, this production showed no signs of age; nor did Plácido Domingo, singing the baritone role of Rodrigo – a youthful idealist and humanitarian intent on freeing the oppressed people of Flanders during the height of the Spanish Inquisition.

However, of all the roles in this opera of love, politics, religion and rebellion – and there are six major ones – the character of King Philip II stands out as both the fiercest and most poignant. This is due, in no small part, to the superb singing and consummate acting of Ferruccio Furlanetto, one of the great Philips of our time. Tall, elegant and every inch a king, Furlanetto inhabited the role as if he had been born to it.

Philip reigns over the Spanish empire but is fighting his own demons. He feels betrayed by his new wife, Elisabeth, first promised to his son, Don Carlo, who still has a place in her heart. Alone in his chambers, tormented by jealousy and loneliness, Philip sings one of the most exquisite of all Verdi’s bass arias, ‘Ella giammai m’amò’.

Furlanetto turned this into a soliloquy of Shakespearean proportions and created one of those operatic portraits that remain indelibly in the heart and mind. The scene was followed by the arrival of the Grand Inquisitor in the person of powerful bass Morris Robinson. Matching Philip in stature and gravitas, Robinson and Furlanetto sang a remarkable duet in which the church ultimately held sway over the throne, and Philip was counseled to kill not only his son but also his trusted advisor, Rodrigo.

Tenor Ramón Vargas in the title role offered strong singing and a convincing portrayal of youthful impetuousness. Though less than nuanced at times, he succeeded in embracing the heartbreak and helplessness that Don Carlo carries with him throughout the opera.

It was Domingo, as Don Carlo’s closest ally and friend, Rodrigo, who lent richness to the scenes with Vargas. Drawing on his knowledge of the opera (his acclaimed performances in the tenor role made him one of the great Don Carlos), Domingo added a serene lyricism to the opera, from his duet with Vargas, the stirring ‘Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor’, to his poignant last act aria acknowledging his imminent death.

The role of Elisabeth was sung by the always compelling Ana María Martínez, whose strong acting abilities served her well as the suffering, innocent and well-intentioned queen. Elisabeth is the most predictable character here, less startling dramatically than the other principals. Nevertheless, Martínez presented a finely chiseled performance, tender and noble in bearing, caressing every note with a plaintive delicacy.

The evening’s surprise was the raging performance of mezzo Anna Smirnova as the scheming Princess Eboli who is in love with Don Carlo. Eboli’s jealousy undermines Don Carlo, Elisabeth and Rodrigo; and Smirnova with her robust voice portrayed the character as more than a scheming adversary, transforming her into a Medea-like figure of mythic proportions. From the coloratura passages of the Song of the Veil to the ferocious threats delivered to Carlo to the introspective ‘O don fatale’, Smirnova was in full command.

The smaller roles were fully realized and uniformly excellent. Taylor Raven was a secure and noteworthy Tebaldo, and Liv Redpath sang a shimmering Celestial Voice. Soloman Howard proved a rich-voiced Monk, while Joshua Wheeker was a solid Count Lerma.

John Gunter’s sets, an ingenious series of deep red, towering monoliths with fresco-like paintings above (which appeared to be culled from Spanish Baroque art) and variable sized arches below, served the opera well. The movable monoliths evoked palace, cloister, prison cell or auto-da-fé as the scene demanded. The tortured and twisted figures painted on high were splattered with red pigment, symbolizing the blood of the victims of the Inquisition and had the added effect of heightening the drama. Sumptuous period costumes by Tim Goodchild, all in black, created a dynamic contrast to the vivid reds of the set, and the lighting design by Rick Fisher was an essential ingredient in creating dramatic tension.

The vibrant LAO Chorus directed by Grant Gershon was electric, whether singing as courtiers or peasants. Under James Conlon, a seasoned interpreter of Verdi’s music, the orchestra was marvelous, delivering the dignity, pathos and roiling emotions at the heart of Verdi’s opera and forming the foundation for a perfect symbiosis of music, song, art and drama.

Jane Rosenberg

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