Thursday, September 27, 2018

Within a forest of blood-red arches, a luxury cast stamp their mark on Verdi's Don Carlo at Los Angeles Opera

It felt humbling to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung aloud by a full house with orchestra for the opening of Los Angeles Opera’s 2018-19 season, making the immensity of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion feel like a small community hall. Then, Music Director and conductor James Conlon launched into what was to be a searing revival of Ian Judge’s 2006 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo - an epic work characterised by political and religious oppression, of suspicion, punishment and seeds of rebellion.

Scene from Act 2 of LA Opera's Don Carlo
Set during the reign of King Philip II and the Spanish Inquisition, that’s the framework for the story but, as opera does so well, romance and tragedy are in sharp relief. The ageing Philip has married Elizabeth, his son Carlo’s betrothed, and neither Carlo nor Elizabeth are happy. There’s something of an operatic bromance as well - a touching solidarity between Carlo and Philip’s confidante, Rodrigo, who supports Carlo’s political motivations in releasing the people of the occupied territory of Flanders from oppression under his father. 

When Plácido Domingo took the stage as Rodrigo on opening night, he looked a striking figure of a man half his almost 78 years of age. If he had underperformed, his adoring local audience would still likely offer adulation in truckloads but Domingo’s was a highly nuanced and commanding performance. It’s simply difficult not to remain aghast before this living legend of opera whose mystique infiltrates the stage. Domingo's former tenor voice may not burn with deep and vivid Verdian baritone colours but his intoxicating vocal engine ran smoothly, phrasing came with utter conviction and his strong acting skills showed a man who understands situational subtleties. Domingo’s final act aria, which he sings to the imprisoned Carlo - a warm and passionate tenor in Ramón Vargas - made a particularly poignant moment. With Vargas, a generous and unified military stride accompanied their duets.

Plácido Domingo as Rodrigo 
Vargas, together with the supple and attractive soprano of Ana María Martínez as Elizabeth, showed class and commitment in their roles but, intentional or not, their liaisons were under-baked and occasionally paled in comparison to the strong personalities around them. Vocally, it seemed they could have given more and I suspect they will as the season progresses because their final farewell was something entirely special as their voices beat achingly together in their farewell, “Ma lassù ci vedremo in un mondo migliore", in which they pledge to meet in heaven.

The luxury casting of Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II paid off with impressive results (Alexander Vinogradov takes over from 4th October). One of the production’s many highlights arrived immediately after interval, opening the first scene of Act 3, at dawn in the King’s study. Angled over his desk, Furlanetto’s was the most compelling performance I’ve seen of the role as he sang despairingly of the king's awareness that Elizabeth never loved him. But what followed will remain unforgettable. To have two deliciously contrasting bass singers together, Furlanetto as Philip II and Morris Robinson as the the blind Grand Inquisitor, was like having gravel and granite mixed and sculptured in divine proportion by God himself. In their duet, entwined with the formidable groaning bass in the pit, Church and State’s uneasy co-existence became dramatically illuminated by these two phenomenal figures.

Morris Robinson and Ferruccion Furlanetto
It was my first time to hear fabulous Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova, who powered large in a thrilling, fierce and fiery performance as Princess Eboli both in voice and gesture. Making her house debut, Smirnova’s opening aria “Nel giardin del bello", was startling and intelligent, sung as if she wanted be known the irony of the aria’s story of a Moorish King’s seduction of a veiled beauty, who turns out to be his wife. Later came an interpretation of mammoth depth and emotion to Act 3’s “O don fatale” in a knockout performance. Many, I’m certain, will be hoping to see her back at the house in a future season.

Through to the bottom of the cast list, a strong display of vocal talent came from members of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program with Taylor Raven as Tebaldo, Joshua Wheeker as Count Lerma and Liv Redpath as the Celestial Voice. Further gifting the ear, a resonating swell of voices combined magnificently under Chorus Director Grant Gershon’s command, giving the processional Auto-da-fé scene tremendous grandeur - and it looked a menacing reminder as Christ on the Cross looked down in judgement - even though the scene’s realisation looked static.

Ramón Vargas as Carlo and Ana María Martínez as Elizabeth
Most, but not all, the action percolated with vision under revival director Louisa Muller but dotted stand-and-deliver performances detracted from this sensationally dark and brooding production. Whether inspired by the cut first act of Verdi’s revised long 5-act version or not, in which Elizabeth meets Carlo in the forest of Fontainebleau, John Gunter’s set cleverly features a forest of arches painted in blood red that provide a multitude of spatial arrangements. But apart from little more than the King’s desk, furnishings are non-existent, reducing action to mostly standing position. Black strikingly dominates Tim Goodchild’s sumptuous period costumes and Rick Fisher’s lighting added much to the intrigue.

In the pit, with the LA Opera orchestra sounding so wonderfully primed, conductor James Conlon demonstrated an eagerness to provide pronounced contrasts between the majestically thunderous and delicately threaded parts of the score, though often punctuating it at the expense of overall cohesive flow. Nonetheless, after a rather tepid first act, the dramatic heft was never in doubt and the singer’s were supported gloriously. 

In all but it’s puzzling ghost of Carlo V ending - and it fell noticeably flat on an audience seemingly unsure if it was over - Don Carlos looked and sounded the masterpiece it can be. A little more directorial vigour, however, would help to light it up superbly. 

Don Carlos 
Los Angeles Opera 
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 14th October, 2018.

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

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