In HGO 's new production of Giuseppe Verdi's "grand opera" masterpiece, Don Carlos (1867), was commissioned for Paris's Théâtre Impérial de l'Opéra, which liked its Second Empire productions big and long. It's the magnificent singing and conducting that can be called grand. The rest of this co-production, borrowed from Welsh National Opera and Canadian Opera, is cramped and unimpressive. There's nothing grand about it. Fortunately, Verdi's exquisitely expressive and powerful music, so wondrously realized by ideal casting and the sure guiding hand of maestro Patrick Summers, soars magnificently above such impoverished design.
Balanchine's famous quip when his audience confronted a ballet they didn't particularly like, "Just close your eyes and listen to the music," doesn't work here because director John Caird, a Tony winner for Broadway classics Les Misérables and Nicholas Nickleby, supplies some clever action to illuminate the personal and political themes that intermix in the story. The best ensemble acting on any Houston stage right now is to be found at HGO. For that, Caird is responsible. But he's also responsible for the overall non-period look (although you probably wouldn't be far off if you guess Spanish Civil War) and the questionable ending, which Verdi never wanted like this.
Of all composers, Verdi was the quintessential theater wizard and most adept at making his characters express the larger themes with which he filled his operas. In Don Carlos he gives us a potent dramatic stew of church vs. state, father against son, fidelity and infidelity, abiding friendship, treachery and jealousy, rebellion against authority, mystery and mysticism. French librettists Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle, with constant hectoring from Verdi about supplying him with more succinct lines and more dramatic confrontations, concisely adapted Friedrich Schiller's epic play.
Carlos (tenor Brandon Jovanovich), heir to the throne of Spain, and Elisabeth (soprano Tamara Wilson), princess of France, are separated as soon as they fall in love. To broker peace between their warring countries, she is given to Carlos's father, King Phillip II (bass Andrea Silvestrelli), the despotic ruler of Spain who is quashing a rebellion in occupied Flanders, fomented by Carlos's best friend Rodrigue (baritone Scott Hendricks). Phillip in turn has a mistress, Princess Eboli (mezzo Christine Goerke), who's jealous of Elisabeth's arrival and secretly in love with Carlos, too. The entire realm is under the sadistic influence of the church, represented by the blind, unyielding Grand Inquisitor (bass Samuel Ramey).
The entire panoply moves swiftly, even at four hours, because the six main characters are delineated so fully, in drama and in the sublime music. For all its epic quality, the opera's basically a series of grand duets (Carlos and Elisabeth, Phillip and the Grand Inquisitor, Carlos and Rodrigue, Eboli and Elisabeth, and variations among the six). The chorus is a major player, too, representing the people, either oppressed, out for revenge, or as Eboli's playful courtiers, here carrying parasols against the hot sun of Spain.
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The singers are superb. Jovanovich is ardent and impulsive as Verdi's hero, looking every inch like a rebellious heartthrob. His famed arias ring out with clarion high notes and intense focus. Wilson has never been better. Her Elisabeth is elegantly phrased, and the role fits her rich, plangent voice like a tailored gown. Goerke is a phenomenon as Eboli, with her signature outburst, "Fatal Beauty," where she both curses and accepts her fate, a true showstopper. With his cavernous voice, Silvestrelli reveals Phillip as tyrant and, ironically, a man just looking for a little love. Hendricks relishes the impassioned heart within Rodrigue, and his last aria, literally, is terribly affecting. Opera stage superstar Ramey eats up his character and turns this dastardly churchman into a formidable foe who knows precisely how to wield power. It's a chilling portrait in sound.
Okay, so the production lacks the necessary DeMille treatment for satisfying visual splendor (in the justly famous "auto-da-fe" crowd scene, the unfortunate heretics are smoked on the pyre, not burned) but, throughout, the voices and Summers's orchestra swell forth in magnificence. For operaphiles, this original French version, which is sort of an ur-text, although there are about nine versions Verdi reworked over 20 years, is, if not a must-see, a definite must-hear. Aurally, Verdi doesn't get any better.
Verdi's masterwork (one of so many) plays April 15, 19, 22 and 28 at Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at www.houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. Tickets start at $38.