Set in Spain and France during the reign of King Philip II, Don Carlo immerses us in the turmoil and persecution of the Spanish Inquisition. Rather than re-create a dark, Dostoyevskian vision of the grand inquisitor as pure evil, Verdi sets up the clash between church and state as a potent context for personal conflict. Inspired by the psychological depth of Schiller and the ironic brilliance of King Lear, Don Carlo probes the internal agonies of characters caught in a web of intrigue and civil unrest, particularly King Philip.
In staging Don Carlo, Houston Grand Opera appreciates Verdi's aim to get to the heart of betrayal and suffering. Sets are simple and elegantly spare, and in moments, exquisitely faithful to detail. Rather than parade the Inquisition's horror and exorcism, Spanish director Emilio Sagi takes a subtler approach. In its first attempt to stage Verdi's five-act Italian version, HGO never allows the onstage spectacle to overshadow the work's symphonic grandeur. Led by HGO music director Patrick Summers, the Houston Symphony offers a bold interpretation of what many believe is Verdi's best work.
When the story begins, the 17th-century war between France and Spain has just ended. Elisabetta de Valois, daughter of French king Henry II, has been promised to Don Carlo, the only son of Philip II. In the opening scene, Elisabetta (American soprano Patricia Racette) is lost in the royal forest of Fontainebleau and happens upon an unidentified admirer, Don Carlo (Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas). Carlo pledges his love for the princess, and she returns the affection. Their hopes for sharing a future are dashed, however, when they're informed that Elisabetta must marry Philip II (American bass Samuel Ramey) to further the political union of France and Spain.
The estranged lovers are just one of several examples of how personal vision gets compromised by political duty. After the initial scene at Fontainebleau, other characters are forced to place duty before their own visions of liberty, and each conflict resounds with rich overtones of Shakespearean irony. After losing Elisabetta, Carlo falls out of favor with his father by aligning himself with those trying to liberate persecuted Protestants in Spanish-controlled Belgium. Joining Carlo in this effort is Rodrigo (Australian baritone Peter Coleman-Wright), who eventually causes the king to question his own despotic rule.
Despite the many vocal challenges of the title role, Vargas shows no signs of struggle with the frequent and difficult high notes, maybe because of his cultural affinity with a Spanish prince. Likewise, Racette and Ramey bring striking depth and dimension to rather austere roles. Portraying Elisabetta for the first time, Racette lays the early groundwork with her seamless phrasing and supple soprano, which then soars beautifully during the final act.
Judging from Ramey's popularity in Houston, there isn't much the bass can do wrong here. But those who remember his performance last season as Zaccaria in Verdi's Nabucco might find his rendering of Philip II a bit meatier and more complex. Coleman-Wright is also consistently robust as Rodrigo, particularly in two inspiring duets with Vargas; it speaks well to the baritone's abilities, considering he was a replacement for Met regular Dwayne Croft, who withdrew for medical reasons.
As Princess Eboli, French mezzo-soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon easily falls into the sultry rhythms of the king's dissembling mistress, but she almost marred a near-flawless performance when she tripped on her train while dashing off stage in the second half.
Sagi's efforts to keep the production moving are simple but extremely effective. Even large choral scenes with solemn processions attain an air of quiet ceremony. Notable among these is the climactic auto-da-fé (act of faith) scene in which heretics and effigies of missing sinners are burned in a public ceremony. Less effective is the fade-out of a tableau that depicts the Fontainebleau forest, which appears too high-tech. Frequent and numerous set changes during the second half also slow down the pace unnecessarily.
In staging Don Carlo, opera companies easily can fall into glib judgments about one of Western history's darkest chapters. Thanks in part to Sagi's insight into his native Spain, this production focuses more realistically on the men and women who question the infallibility of authority.