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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Opera Review: The King of Ashes

Don Carlo bows at Opera Philadelphia.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A lonely crown: Eric Owens is King Philip in Opera Philadelphia's Don Carlo.
Photo provided by Opera Philadelphia, photography by Kelly and Massa.
Don Carlo is Verdi's longest and grandest opera, playing out illicit passions and familial betrayals in the court of Spanish monarch King Philip II. In 1883, Verdi radically altered Carlo, lopping off the first act, adapting the libretto to Italian and rewriting key scenes. This new production by Opera Philadelphia (which will also visit Washington and Minnesota in coming seasons) adapts this stripped approach. On Sunday afternoon, the results were a taut, lean performance, with the brisk tempos of conductor Corrado Rovaris lending a sense of urgency to this long opera.
Although the four-act Italian version of this opera is still called "Don Carlo", this production's lead is Eric Owens as King Philip II. Philip, an absolute monarch, is the antagonist from his entrance, having destroyed Carlo's happiness by marrying his son's fiancée Elisabeth de Valois. Part of Verdi's genius is opening up the king's character, exposing his innermost thoughts to the rapt audience. Although the singer was suffering from a minor ailment (and asked indulgence for the second half) he completed a moving "Ella giammai m'amò", capturing the king's loneliness and terror, and remained a powerful authority figure throughout the performance.

Dmitri Pittas was solid as Carlo, sweeter than expected in "Io lo vidi" (the aria is transplanted from the missing first act) and doing a good job of conveying that many of the opera's supernatural plot points may be the product of the hero's dissociative personality disorder. His only anchor is Posa (Troy Cook) his bosom buddy whose friendship with Carlo may be more than a bromance. Mr. Cook sang with definite force and a youthful optimism, ensuring that in the repressive world of Philip II, that he will not survive the four acts.

Even though she was deprived of the gorgeous first act, soprano Leah Crocetto sang with a full register and much-needed sweetness of tone as Elisabeth de Valois, Carlo's former fiancée now married to Philip. She compensated for the removal of her opening duet with Carlo, delivering a searing "Tu che le vanità" to the tomb of Charles V and singing with real power in the chaotic final ensemble. On Sunday afternoon, mezzo Michelle DeYoung was suffering from bronchitis. She  mimed the role of Eboli, which was sung from the apron by Ekaterina Gubanova. The two mezzos took their bow together to deserved applause.

The Grand Inquisitor is a small role, coming on only in the last two acts and appearing in only three scenes. Yet bass Morris Robinson's appearance was memorable for his towering presence and terrifying voice. Singing with a dark, full tone and a thunderous declamation, he intimidated and dominated Mr. Owens in their scena together--no small feat. Mr. Robinson was a potent, lurking presence in this opera, a meddling priest with a political agenda and the power to carry it out. His counterpart was Jeremy Milner, firm and resonant as the Friar who may or may not be the ghost of Charles V himself.

Director Tim Albery starts the action in the mnastery of San Yuste, in a unit set (by Andrew Lieberman) based on the basilica dome of El Escorial. Built by Philip and completed in 1587, this mammoth royal palace/monastery/tomb still stands in Madrid, and is mentioned in the Don Carlo libretto. The characters move in and out of dark side passages below the cathedral dome, which forms the back wall of the set. It is at once both airy and claustrophobic, with all of the action (including the auto-da-fé) taking place indoors.

In the somber and reflective second half of the opera, the dome is ruined: destroyed and burnt out following the Church's decision to burn its heretics without bothering to march them outside first.  Much of the later action takes place on a heap of ashes, symbolizing Philip's ruined marriage and struggling kingdom. The ashes even serve as hiding places for key items (Elisabeth's jewelery box, Carlo's portrait) and the sky, visible through the burnt-out broken roof is cloudy throughout.

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