Grandeur au Minimal: A Critique of Don Carlos at the Lyric Opera
As far as Verdi’s longest and most complex opera is concerned, there are two poles around which the performative versions gravitate: “Don Carlos”, the grand opera in five acts in French, and “Don Carlo”, the melodrama Italian in four acts. The first is Verdi commissioned from the Paris Opera, attempting to write in the grand French style typified by the largely forgotten but then hugely popular Meyerbeer. The latter is the mature Verdi responding to the practical reality that the previous version was considered too long and often subject to unauthorized cuts. Verdi wanted to make such “amputations” himself with an eye to a more cohesive unity of music and drama.
A popular compromise was to run the later revised edition which leaves out the dances and the ballet, but adds a restoration of the Act I “Fontainebleau” scene from the original. This “Modena” version, as it is often called, is the one that the Opéra Lyrique presents, but in French rather than in the usual Italian translation. This makes a lot of sense, because even though Verdi made this revision for the Italian stage, the libretto Verdi composed was in French and all the revisions were of the French original which Verdi then authorized to be translated into Italian.
Although Lyric had presented the Italian version in four acts over the years – as early as 1957 with Georg Solti leading a legendary cast, and most recently in 1996 – surprisingly, the company had never performed the French in five acts Don Carlos. Kudos to Lyric Opera’s Music Director, Enrique Mazzola, for making the rectification of this important company omission a priority so early in his tenure.
Yes, even revised, it’s a four-hour opera, including a single intermission halfway through. (I remember the four-act Italian version felt much longer.)
Restoring Act I means we experience the meeting and falling in love of Don Carlos (tenor Joshua Guerrero) and Elisabeth (soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen) which gives context to the epic. When the price of peace becomes Elisabeth having to marry King Philip II (Russian bass Dmitri Belosselskiy), the father of Don Carlos, rather than the original engagement of Carlos and Elisabeth, a love triangle ensues. Fortunately, the scenes with Carlos and Elisabeth are musically and dramatically believable. This is crucial, because their penultimate scene together is the heart of the opera.
But Scottish director Sir David McVicar’s 2007 Frankfurt production – revived here by Axel Weidauer – takes the opera’s original mystical ending where Carlos is saved by a vision of his grandfather Charles V, and instead offers a dark alternative that obliterates the purpose of the opera. Verdi’s music tells us one thing, the action goes in a completely different direction.
What we get along the way is uneven but usable. There is only one French speaker in the cast, the French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine in the role of Eboli. Her vocal color is wonderful but becomes garish when pushed. Philippe lacks the low end the role demands, particularly noticeable in his scenes with the Grand Inquisitor (Solomon Howard bass). Rodrigue (the Russian baritone Igor Golovatenko), the moral conscience of the opera, is wooden.
The gray brick unit and the predominantly black and white costumes leave little to the eye, even if the Orchestra and Chorus of the Lyric Opera caress the ear, even too carefully and slowly under Mazzola’s baton.
“Don Carlos” at the Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker (in Madison), lyricopera.org. Until November 25.