Maryland Lyric Opera’s ‘Don Carlo’ is musically impressive but complicated
don carlo came to us in concert version last weekend produced by the Maryland Lyric Opera, and the sheer weight of the assembled forces could have launched an armada. Conductor Louis Salemno led a 72-piece orchestra plus a 20-piece marching band and nearly 80 choristers in the sonorous Strathmore Hall. The music was impressive, although at times it created such a wall of sound that it obscured the accomplished singers. And that was one of the many complications.
Giuseppe Verdi originally composed the opera in French to a libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle based on German Schiller’s political drama set in 16th century Spain when the Prince of Asturias had to retire, renouncing his engagement to Elisabeth of Valois (Elisabetta), to satisfy Habsburg-Valois relations and the privileged strategic marriage between the woman and her father, King Philip II.
The opera has been pirated, restored, and put into so many versions, including several by Verdi himself, that at its peak it lasts over four hours. Maryland Lyric Opera (MDLO) created its own edited version, and it is always three hours and 20 minutes long.
Unlike MDLO’s triumph earlier this season with Tourandot, which freed Puccini’s opera from any production distractions and yet was able to deliver the story, the difficult plot of don carlo made the plot twists confusing, as I heard at intermission, for all but the most seasoned Verdi aficionados.
The plot is complicated, sometimes even fussy. Princess Eboli, in love with Carlo, plots out of jealousy against him and the queen. The chaste queen must bid farewell to another lady-in-waiting when the king flies away. Eboli confesses that she herself had a secret affair with the king. In an unlikely set-up, Carlo draws a sword at his own father to easily surrender his weapon to Rodrigo, who is instantly elevated to the rank of Duke while Carlo is doomed. In this version, Carlo is mysteriously shot and killed (the Inquisitor’s secret police, we have to assume). There is also a ghost story, not entirely clear, where scenes take place at the tomb of Charles V, Carlo’s grandfather. Meanwhile, King Philip receives advice from the Inquisitor on the question of the morality of murdering his own to be reassured that there is precedent in God’s sacrifice of his own Son for the common good, and that it should therefore continue.
This might have helped restore a scene from an early version by Verdi, which shows Carlo spying and then meeting and quickly falling in love with Elisabetta. This would have brought us right away to the side of lovers. As things stand, Elisabetta, already married to Phillip, turns into a not-quite-likable monument of stone as a chaste queen.
The real passionate relationship in this production is carried by the bromance between Carlo and his friend Rodrigo. Mexican lyric tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz and baritone Mark Delavan are accomplished performers, and in their duets, arms folded around their shoulders, listening intently to each other, they have demonstrated that they are engaged in an instant blending of their voices. distinct. Chacón-Cruz rises vocally in its high notes. Delavan anchors him in moments; in others it is driven. The relationship between their characters is also clear, as Rodrigo has come to Spain with an urgent appeal to Carlo, as Spain is the preeminent world power, to help liberate his Flanders from the clutches of a terrible war being waged there in internal. Dramatically, things become clear.
The most moving and resonant scene for me occurred near the end of Act I, when in the opera five emissaries from Flanders arrive to further plead their country’s cause against tyranny. Hunter Enoch, Javier Arrey, Jose Sacin, Adam Cioffari, and SeungHyeon Baek make the most of this haunting melody and dramatic focus, and their voices blend beautifully. Suddenly, I am transported to think of the war in Ukraine. When the choir lends its considerable forces, the prayer becomes a hymn to liberate this invaded country from the terrors, sufferings and deaths caused by war.
What would a classic Spanish story be without a good auto da fé? Instead of parading the Heretics in flames for public spectacle, MDLO is content with a display of flickering red lights. But they predict a secret weapon, calling on the phenomenal Bass Kenneth Kellogg as Grand Inquisitor. His character is paraded around blind, hands on the shoulders of his masked vassals and henchmen. Then he stands still – not so many park-and-bark opera singers, but in the full embodiment of his character’s power, his heavy executioner’s hands at his side. Kellogg uses his beautiful deep tones to produce a sound of steely power and he conveys the theme of the opera where, in the struggle between who is stronger, church or state, there is no there is no contest.
Soprano Elaine Alvarez as Elisabetta has some fine ability. I particularly liked his soft and gentle interpretation of “Non pianger mia compagna” and the moving final duet with Chacon-Cruz “Ma lassù ci vedremo in un mondo migliore”. But at the performance I attended she had a little unreliable and wide tremolo. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin as Eboli grew vocally stronger with each aria, culminating in a tour de force rendered “O don fatale”. Too bad his entrances and exits did not carry the same energy, however. (O fatal flaw of the concert opera!)
The performer who threw himself into the dramatic staging of his character was Andrea Silvestrelli, and as such, he won the audience’s “audience choice” award. As king, Phillip Silvestrelli physically and emotionally conveyed this man’s complicated emotions. As stated in the booklet, this man who seems to rule the world cannot control himself. The singer unleashes deadly anger one minute, seethes with jealousy the next, then falls like a flattering dog at the Inquisitor’s feet, only to groan and sob upon discovering that his wife no longer loves him (even though we know he is adulterous in their relationship). Silvestrelli dared to throw himself into the shifting emotions fearlessly, even if at times compared to others on stage he could be seen as overkill.
It would be a shame not to mention Stuart Duke’s feverish lighting design and Sarah Tundermann’s combination of supertitles and projections of classic paintings such as taken from El Greco’s paintings from the same period as the story. Some found the latter distracting, but I thought they added a lot to the narrative, depicting in an instant the blue-gray limbs of tortured creatures that evoked the bodies depicting war crimes committed daily in the current war. At other times, the projection of the Virgin’s red skirt seemed to turn into an abstract suggestion of the bloody guilty hand of the Inquisitor, whose lust for absolute power brought about such a reign of terror. No wonder then that opera, originally a popular art, reminds us that every generation must resist tyranny.
Duration: About 3h20, including an intermission.
Performed in Italian with English titles projected.
don carlo played on May 13 and 15, 2022, presented by Maryland Lyric Opera performing at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD.
Artist credits and biographies are online here.