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Subject: Washington National Opera's DON CARLO is a crown jewel (3-3-18)
From: Alan Savada <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Alan Savada <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 4 Mar 2018 16:49:58 -0500
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ALmost two years ago I headed up to Philly Opera to see a new production of Don Carlo, my favorite Verdi and indeed in my top tem list of all-time favorite operas. I was thrilled then to find out the production was a co-production and am even more excited that is has finally reached Washington in a finer tuned version with an even finer cast. Indeed it is so good, that I am thrilled to go back to see the second cast as well as the final performance on March 16 &17.

Elisabeth of Valois:                 
Leah Crocetto
Melody Moore (3/16 only)
Princess Eboli:                         
Jamie Barton
Daryl Freedman (3/16 only)
Don Carlo:
Russell Thomas
Rafael Davila (3/16 only)
Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa:      
Quinn Kelsey
Troy Cook (3/16 only)
Philip II, King of Spain:         
Eric Owens
Peter Volpe (3/16 only)
The Grand Inquisitor:             
Andrea Silvestrelli

Tebaldo-Allegr De Vita

Friar:Peter Volpe

Timothy Bruno(3/16 only)

Celstrail Voice-Leah Hawkins

Count of Lerma-Robert Baker

Royal Herald-Frederick Ballentine


Director:                                  Tim Albery
Conductor:                  Philippe Auguin
Set Designer:               Andrew Lieberman
Costume Designer:                  Constance Hoffman
Lighting Designer:                  Thomas Hase


I am stealing from my notes 2 years ago and adding much to them below:


After the somber Verdi prelude began we saw a very dark stage raked up to the right with three sets of copperish panels (that looked darker in the dark) rising from one side of the stage going across the top and down on the other. Each panel had three cutouts on each side and two in the top which served as doors to the stage and looked like clerestory windows in a church. As the scene lightened we viewed an octagonal basilica dome at the rear which was on its side so we were looking into the cupola (think standing in a church looking up). The dome also had cutout clerestory-style windows from which light often shone in at varying intensities for effect. The cupola and set were meant to resemble El Escurial and its heavy dark feeling...it worked. Wooden chairs were on the stage and hooded monks moved around the dark stage with the Friar at the rear left quite tall and imposing. Carlos entered from the hexagon cutout at the rear where he was sitting hunched over, came forward and prostrated himself; he wore knee boots, all black leathery long belted coat and pants. As the lights rose the clothing looked quilted or crepe-like, but a black leather theme was what basically everyone sported for all the night.

Mr. Volpe has a magnificent resounding bass perfectly suited to the hooded frair, which filled the house. As Mr. Thomas sang of meeting Elisabeth (this was four act version with only one break after the auto-da-fe scene) the cupola lights brightened and the walls turned a glowing copper/gold. As I heard our tenor caress the notes in "Io la vidi al suo sorriso..." I knew that Mr. Thomas was on safe ground with this role which fit him like a glove. By 10 minutes into the opera(I'm used to 5 acts), our baritone had arrived for the famous scena and duet, "Dio nell'alma infondere..." Rodrigo had a shorter jacket but again the same leather/quilt black look. Mr. Kelsey has become known as a "verdi baritone" and boy was he spot on here for every act, indeed, he seemed to be the central character in the operas and I think he must really have most of the music of all the principals. On the second time around, the men's "dio" was so soft and muted that I attained that personal blissful moment(missed in Philly do to old folks crunching candy), although right after this someone barged into the theater and took the empty seat opposite me, pulled out her phone and began to text, look at photos and then eat candy; I was mortified and this continued on and off for the first act until she was ejected as she had apparently gotten past the ushers who tried to stop her!


Our king entered and Mr. Owens was similarly dressed with an even longer coat and the queen was in a dark gray/silver gown of crepe-ish material that sparkled and had a frilly collar, long train and balloon sleeves; most fitting to the production and utterly elegant.   Scene two had a rear wall  of crisscrossed wire panels looking like a fence lower between the wooden panels; a wired panel fence door was at the center. The women's chorus was dressed in variations of the same black and gray gowns with different collars and such, with some of the French ladies in lighter gowns, the Countess of Lerma in a floral pattern on vanilla. Tebaldo stood out with his gold-flecked black jacket, cape and hat. It was the most period-authentic costume. Eboli was in a similar gown to the others and Ms. Barton had on a red wig that was quite reminiscent of Elizabeth I. The veil song had her take the Contessa and seat her in a chair to enact the story, clearly making fun of her. While she was in superb voice and paired amazingly with Ms. De Vita, she shone brightly in this role and shall be remembered by all present. Rodrigo arrives and enters the women's area through the gate (clearly separating the area). His petition for Carlo was beautifully phrased and the trio was sublime. As Ms. Crocetto sang the duet with Mr. Thomas, I was so thrilled we had this pair here in DC. Ms. Crocetto almost caressed Carlo as he laid his head on her lap, while she is clearly uncomfortable. At one point, he was on the floor, and she ultimately knelt with this duet building to Carlo's huge "Maladetto io son." Ms. Crocetto's dramamtic low on "signor" was just as impressive; indeed the entire night was IMPRESSIVE!

When the king, a truly regal Mr. Owens, and his men arrive at the rear, only the king can come through the gate again making the area very separate. After he dismisses the countess, Ms. Crocetto gave us one of the most heartfelt farewells to her childhood friend with magnificent floated high notes; I was deeply moved. Ms. Barton's Eboli adds a very suggestive bow to the king and we see these wonderful personal moments thourghout the evening.

In the ensuing duet for Philip & Rodrigo as the latter sings "liberta" the king's eyebrows raise in an almost sneer as he sings "you are too proud" and then goes on to accuse his wife and son of having an affair. Mr. Kelsey was forceful, and even scary at times.

 

Scene iii had the second fence between the wooden wall sections drop down creating a fenced corridor across the stage middle from left to right. As Carlo enters this area as a hooded Eboli enters in front of the fence and when he comes through the fence, she unmasks. I loved the ensuing trio and often don't think about it much. The mezzo's call for vengeance and Rodrigo's knife threat were so real, and since I had the pleasure of watching a working rehearsal of this specific scene several weeks earlier, I knew what to expect. It did not prepare me for the amazing dramatic portrayals from these three talented actor-singers. Ms. Barton's "Perche tardi" (why are you waiting to kill me) to Rodrigo was invigorating and agitating and just the way it should be.

The fence walls went up for the auto-da-fe scene(Ms. Zambello has noted that this season WNO may be the only company with two auto-da-fe's in it) as the hooded monks and peasant crowd entered. Five prisoners were led in looking a bit like concentration camp inmates with their drab gray outfits and small caps and forced to strip to their underwear by the monks and then went through a trap door in the floor. The back fence returned to separate the mob from the nobility. Mr Ballentine was a stentorian messenger with his gorgeous acapella singing. The lighting gets brighter and brighter as the scene progresses. In the incident with Carlo and his father, Mr. Owens garbs a swrod from a standing guard and I really thought he was going to skewer his own son right there, but the Queen ultimaterly begs for his forgiveness. The hooded monks bring the victims back through the trap door and seat them facing away from us as they are hooded and prepared for death, as the truly celestial Ms. Hawkins intones.



For Act II the curtain rose, but the cupola was now gone. In its place was a blasted out hole with ragged edging and a cloudy sky looking very ominous on the rear wall. Philip was seating alone at the center facing to the rear left and the stage to his left was now piled high with dirt and leaves as if a storm had deposited the debris and piled it halfway up the doors on the left walls. A large jewel box is at the king's feet and during the magnificent cello prelude Eboli enters in a flowing silken nightgown of sorts. I did not like this in Philly as it took away from the solitary moment, but here the King quickly waves her off and the entire moment is forgotten.  Philip picks up the portrait of Carlo from the box and begins "Ella giammai m'amo..." which just has to be one of everyone's favorite arias. Mr. Owens started the aria ever so softly with his first "amor per me non ha" almost choked. He grows stronger and stronger with a brilliant crescendo as the orchestra does the same. Mr. Owens, like Ms. Crocetto, inhabits this role and truly exuded the agony of the king. As he turned towards the audience at the change of tempo there was a perfect crescendo and he lamely reached for the box. As the tempo quickens even further he picks up the box and stands to perfectly match the even larger crescendo. Mr. Albery, the director has staged this section to perfection and I truly believed every agonizing word Mr. Owens sang. Ultimately he takes the box to the dirt mound and buries it, finishing the remainder of the aria. "Amor per me non ha" at the end was huge and filled the entire house with emotion as he sat down and cried while repeating the phrase and the music faded. OMG..this was history and even BETTER than in Philly!!=Mr/ Silvestrelli's Grand Inquisitor enters in a heavy red robe with embroidery and a cape. The king ushers him to a chair and kneels; we know who is the boss. What an imposing figure he was and his singing matched, although at one of the earlier moments when he sang "Sire" he seemed to crack with emotion rather than in voice, which I found odd. After, his vocal strength returned and the two basses gave us a truly dramatic scena. This production often has the conductor moving on so quickly the attempt to applaud is missed, and that happened here yet again.

As the queen enters in a frenzy with the top of her dress open, Philip grabs the jewel box and hides it behind him. When he calls her an adulteress he knocks the chair over hurling it to the rear of the stage and raises the box to hit her with it. I honestly thought he was going to kill her; the drama was so intense. The ensuing quartet was another highlight featuring four of the best American singers we have today, and we then have Eboli's confession and "O don fatale." Ms. Barton offered up a tour de force rendition that was met with massive applause: dramatic, gutsy and simply brilliant. It was after 10pm (the opera started at 7pm), but worth waiting for!

The second scene had Carlo huddled on the front heap as the fences lowered, but they could not come down quite all the way due to the dirt heap; there was just enough room for folks to get under in and out of "the jail cell." Mr. Kelsey enters and gets his two stellar arias which were awesomely performed, another perfect characterization that gave him this role; I can't remember a more impressive "O Carlo ascolta..Io Morro" which garnered a monstrous applause. As the king enters clearly shocked at what has happened; the mob is behind the rear fence with huge sticks and planks ready to kill Carlo. The act ended but everyone was still onstage and there was no applause; a pregnant moment so to speak. Philip motions to the men to carry off the body of Rodrigo and the queen as the music for Act IV starts, the crowd saunters off and we are back at San Juste, but still on the same set. Elisabetta kneels for the start of "Tu che le vanita" and boy does she know how to float the high notes. On "Francia" she just drizzled the note out and let it slide giving me goose bumps. I desperately wanted to applaud and scream "brava!" but the music kept going. I love Maestro Auguin on the podium, and I fully understand the need to finish "on time," but really wanted to thank Ms. Crocetto for doing the most gorgeous ever! This production has a different twist at the end after the mother/stepson expanded duet where these two truly shone once again. The King arrives with his men and the Friar is at the rear as the crowd calls "Carlo V" thinking it to be the emperor. The friar still (as he did at the start) insists that Carlo can only find peace in death and the young prince falls on his own sword.

Needless to say, not having had a chance to applaud for some time(since Eboli's aria), the audience went berserk with applause for the cast, conductor and creative team. Many folks say they are not fond of the set or production, but for the most part it is quite gorgeous and works; kudos are deserved by all. I can only hope that now that we own a Don Carlo production it won't be so long until it returns to garce our stages; but just in case, I am catching this truly magnificent production three times with 2 casts!

ALAN SAVADA of Washington, DC

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