Washington National Opera 2017-18 Review – Don Carlo: Great Voices & A Brilliant, Fatalist Production Make Verdi Masterwork More Relevant Than Ever

By David Salazar

It’s somewhat of a cliché for Golden Age thinking to creep into the dialogue of the opera world. How many times have you heard someone make the claim that they don’t make great voices the way they used to?

The obvious answer is that they don’t because the world has changed and so have tastes.

But sometimes, you’ll find those performances where the singing does remind you of that great past. Such was the case of the Washington National Opera’s revival of Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” which featured six incredible voices in a production that beautifully immersed the viewer and commented on the world we live in.

Before I head over the main entrée and converse on the genius of the singing actors, I am going to kick things off by savoring the delicious appetizer that director Tim Albery cooked up with his production in his WNO debut.

Holding Up a Mirror To Ourselves

Where to start? With a gunshot.

It’s that moment in the opera where Rodrigo is telling his beloved Don Carlo that death is coming for him and Don Calro asks, “Che parli tu di morte?” Those who have seen the opera know what is to happen and in most stagings, we see someone prepare for the big gunshot. We see it and feel it coming. But not in this production. The gunshot is not set up for the audience and so when it comes, it is a complete shock. The entire theater shook and for a few seconds after, you could feel a general tension permeate the atmosphere. Think that was accidental? Given the US we live in now? Not a chance. It’s theater, but for a second, people were shocked and scared. Who knows if some people’s minds went a bit further.

But that isn’t the only way that Albery comments on our times.

The opera is set in Imperial Spain and while the set showcases an abstract rendition of the San Lorenzo del Escorial’s numerous windows and the wardrobe is of an antique style, it could be set anywhere. And as you watch the opera, it feels more and more in line with our times. The parallels simply feel too real. The set itself is on an incline, which makes the world feel tilted and off-balance. There is a sense of oppression established by the small size of the set and the increasing gates that come down to either cut down space or create visual divisions between the characters. In the garden scene between Don Carlo, Eboli, and Rodrigo, there are two gates that come down to create a sense of imprisonment, the characters forced all the way downstage close to the pit. There is no room for them to navigate. It’s tight, uncomfortable, and brilliant.

During the first half of the performance, you see a massive frame closing up the space though it hints at an opening. We see the opening at the start of the third act, but it looks destroyed, with dark and ominous clouds haunting the viewer throughout. The first few scenes of the opera take place “outside” the palace and when we get to the top of the third act, we are now inside the King’s chambers. The “outside” looked “clean” and “organized,” maybe overly so. The inside is filthy, dirt-ridden and destroyed.

As I watched this, I couldn’t help but connect it to our current political situation – our government seems to have a nice “working” system going, but its inside is rotten and destroyed on the inside; the part we never see but know intuitively.

Just watching “Don Carlo,” and especially the conversation between Rodrigo and Filippo at the close of the first act, I couldn’t help but consider it in the context of modern day. A ruler who thinks that his empire is doing fine even though some people in Puerto Rico, I mean Flanders, are suffering endlessly with no help in sight. A government run by bigots, in this case the Holy Inquisition, who ultimately rule the day, even at the cost of true freedom. The parallels continue and continue. It’s essential to remember that this production is being performed at our nation’s capital at this moment of all places. Art as a mirror of the human condition at its most reflexive.

As the opera draws to an end, Albery pulls off his biggest coup. Don Carlo, hellbent on freedom for the people of Flanders, is stopped by his father and the Holy Inquisition. Suddenly the Friar who may or may not be Carlo V shows up. Albery doesn’t actually care so much about his identity as what he ultimately repeats time and again throughout the opera – “Il duolo della terra nei chiostro ancor c’insegue; Solo del cor la Guerra in ciel si calmerà (The pain of the material world follows us to the cloister; only in heaven can we avoid the pains of war and hate).” Don Carlo hears this message at the start of the opera and is fixated more on the communicator and his identity than his message. Here he gets it – he is doomed to continue suffering. There is no cure to the pain and destruction we create. Only in death can we truly be healed. It’s a fatalist message if there ever was one and Don Carlo ultimately acts accordingly signaling that this opera is truly one of consummate failure.

Main Course Part 1

Now let’s talk about those incredible artists that graced the WNO stage to deliver one of the best “Don Carlos” I’ve seen in recent memory.

The title role isn’t one of the flashiest for any tenor, partly because in the four act version, the focus shifted away from him for extended periods. Without that opening first act, he also loses a major portion of his music and character development.

And usually, I miss that first Act quite a bit. But Russell Thomas made me forget about it with an immersive performance as the fallen prince. From the outset, he established Don Carlo as a slumped figure, moving about always with weakened posture. He would eventually take on a more assertive physical form in his confrontation with his father at the middle of the opera and then at the end when he prepares to rush off and save Flanders.

Vocally, he explored the wide range of colors the part has on offer. Whereas most would use the limited musical opportunities to showcase their powerful vocal qualities, Russell hued close to the score. It wasn’t about virtuosity for him but introspective. Carlo is an insecure man constantly needing others to spur him on. He begs for help from others, afraid to take action into his own hands. Verdi gives him quite a few softer passages to highlight this sensitivity and Thomas was ready for each and everyone of them. Thomas’ voice observed these markings but he also shaped Carlo’s arc with his voice. His singing at the start of the work tended to be full-voiced and potent, rising up to the numerous high Bs without any issues. He threw off the phrases with power and might, emphasizing Don Carlo’s raging pain.

It all seemed to reach a climax in the Auto-da-fe scene where his vocal power was at its greatest as he confronted the king and then suddenly turned into a quiet whisper as he processed Rodrigo’s betrayal.

From then on the voice took on a muted complexion and its moments of power had more assertiveness and tact. His final duet with Elisabetta, while filled with heroic singing, had a restrained and contained quality that emphasized Don Carlo’s stronger sense of self. But then came the glorious piannissimi on “Ma lassù ci vedremo in un mondo migliore.” In the first and only other duet (of this version) with Elisabetta, Thomas’ voice rang throughout vibrantly, pleading incessantly and increasingly violently throughout the exchange. In this final passage, the softer coloring was soothing her instead, giving a dimension to the evolution of the character. He isn’t demanding from Elisabetta but finally giving to her. Even the final “Addio” had a muted quality that added to the sense of resignation but also of respect and tenderness.

Part 2

Soprano Leah Crocetto also turned in a glorious evening as Elisabetta, her singing growing stronger as the night wore on. Whereas Thomas’ voice took on darker and softer complexities throughout the evening, hers went in an inverse direction, growing richer and fuller all the way to her climactic “Tu che la vanita.” It matched Elisabetta’s arc as a passive character to one ready to take action and finally commit to her beloved in however limited means she can. In her first scene, she cornered herself and sang softly as she considered Carlo arriving to meet her. In their first exchange, she didn’t move about much, and her singing retained a sense of composure and overall restraint in her singing. It counterbalanced Thomas’ more aggressive approach, emphasizing her rejection of his advances. But it wasn’t passionless or lacking in sensitivity, kneeling down beside his prone body, her singing frantic as she observed him. During these moments she looked about nervous, cueing the audience to her own sense of conflict and guilt. But her final repudiation of him, she fired the text at him quite potently, though again, there was more regality in the voice than aggression; she does love him after all.

The first aria was filled with glorious singing, despite adverse conditions (more on that later). Crocetto explored her nuanced legato throughout and even expressed the pain and anguish of Elisabetta with a sublime crescendo up to the high A with ample breath support. The final fermata on the high A had an exquisite crescendo that slowly died away with the final two notes.

Crocetto’s singing grew more nuanced throughout the night and her confrontation with Eric Owens’ Filippo was a battle of titans with both singers growing more and more aggressive with the exchange until she collapses to the ground. The final aria was singing of hypnotic nature, Crocetto luring the listener in with plush sound and exquisite connected lines. We felt a wide gamut of emotions, from her pleading and insecurity to a growing sense of resolve in the aria’s repetition of its first section.

Part 3

Perhaps the biggest ovation of the evening came for Jamie Barton as Eboli after her aria “O Don Fatale.” In this passage, this incredible artist let her voice blast through the hall with unsurpassed vibrancy and control. Every moment was gloriously sculpted to explore the resentment, pain, and then hope of Eboli. It was a masterful stroke that she had been building up to from her very first note a few acts earlier.

That opening aria is on the opposite end of the spectrum from “O Don Fatale,” exploring a more relaxed and flexible vocal style. Barton doesn’t necessarily sing a lot of repertoire that engages with flighty coloratura and her forays into the world of Wagner hints that its not her style. So her approach to this aria was expansive, the coloratura runs approach slower, but in more meditative vein. You could sense Eboli taking control of the attention through this deliberate legato that put the listener into a trance of sorts. It was mesmerizing while also being unsettling, in a good way. No one note was overlooked and the technical portrayal was on point.

But perhaps the most effective moment for the singer on the evening was the Act three trio where we saw her at her most venomous and violent. Together with baritone Quinn Kelsey, the two looked ready to light the stage on fire with the sparks they ignited in every exchange between them. I really believed that they wanted to attack each other in the most violent way throughout, the singing accented, fervent, and incredibly immersive in its fiery delivery.

Part 4

Speaking of Kelsey, the scene with Barton was just but one moment where we saw the hotheadness of his Rodrigo. The character gets a ton of melody throughout and many interpretations just leave it at that. He is an idealist with a great heart. But in Kelsey’s hands he is a fervent rebel with a violent streak. He is afterall commended by the king on his bravery in war. And so when we see Kelsey almost shouting at Eboli and then doing the same with even more vile during “La pace e dei sepolcri,” you could feel that this guy is not one you want to mess with. When he questions the king’s ability to control himself, he also did so with a slight vocal jab; his suggestion that the King might be the next “Nerone,” while pianissimo in sound, also had pointed accents.

But there was always that gentle nature to tame the beast within, particularly in scenes with Carlo. Kelsey’s voice took on its elegant and suave nature and the legato lines were piercingly beautiful. In the duet, he enveloped his voice beautifully in Thomas’. His big double arias scene in the four act was also divine in his gentle legato singing. The final cries of “Addio” were riveting; Kelsey filled the house and then let his voice dissipate into nothing. A great hero suddenly silenced completely; the fate of many in this opera.

Part 5

As Eric Owens’ Filippo walked offstage during the Carlo-Rodrigo duet, he made a quick turn toward his son, stared him down and walked away. Without saying a word, he had seized control and established his presence. When he entered an act later to demand why the Queen was left alone, he didn’t bellow and shout out in fury but elegantly sneered at those around him. Her pleas were met with a sarcastic stare; he was in complete control. Even when Rodrigo challenged him in their duet, announcing the thunderous “La pace e dei sepolcri,” he didn’t bat an eye and stared him down. It wasn’t until the ensuing line about being the next “Nerone,” that he turtled a bit. Owens’ voice remained calm and collected throughout this opening scene; there was nigh a sign of vocal thrust or force, Owens opting for showing Filippo as a king in control. There was greater force in the moments where he begs for help from Rodrigo, but even then it was still a confident and poised man. We then got to see his fire and ire as he condemned the men from Flanders for treason, the singing throughout the concertato powerful and vicious – the King asserting his power.

But then it shifted. As the curtain rose on the third act for the famous “Ella giammai m’amo,” he was a broken man. Hunched over (not unlike Thomas’ Carlo), his back to the audience, he started off that famed monologue in hushed voice, drawing the listener in to a truly intimate place. He sang pianissimo throughout, ever phrase very introspective and hushed, the builds subtle. The first, “Amor per me non ha” was potent, but still a far cry from the unleashed and desperate cry he would utter in the repetition. It  was an incredible sensitive reading that was truly breathtaking in both its intelligence of musicianship but also pathos of emotional resonance.

This propelled the following scene with the Grand Inquisitor to greater heights. Having seen the King at his lowest point, we see him stoop lower unto the powerhouse voice of Andrea Silvestrelli’s voice. Talk about a titanic sound that would throw you back in your seat. He boomed over Owens throughout, establishing the power dynamics through sound gloriously.

Owens scene with Elisabetta, as noted was violent in how the two characters treated one another, but the bass’ sense of desperation really highlighted his increasing powerless as the drama moved along.

By the end, we see the King keep his power, but through Owens we could feel it slipping away in the drama and beyond.

In the Pit

In the pit, maestro Phillippe Augin got off to a rough start before eventually pulling off one musical coup after another. In the first two acts, he was generally at his best in orchestral moments rather than accompanying in his singers.  The opening of the four-act version was expansive, the horns combining beautifully throughout; he created a haunting spell in the intermezzo between the first and second act, immersing the listener into the romance of the night. The orchestra moved at his rhythm, and there was a great compactness from the ensemble throughout those opening exchanges. But things didn’t quite work with the singers; you could feel Thomas and Kelsey trying to pull back a bit during their duet while the conductor was seemingly pushing forward. Crocetto’s first aria was perhaps the most problematic passage, the syncopations on the clarinet and bassoon lines not quite coalescing with the soprano’s; it felt tenuous throughout. The same happened throughout Rodrigo’s passage “Quest’è la pace che voi date al mondo?” The conductor seemed to push the tempo faster than the singer seemed intent on delivering his text.

But then the conductor really turned things around wondrously in the second half of the performance. The opening monologue for Filippo was expansive, giving it a meditative feel. The quartet, the ensuing arias, and the final duet between Carlo and Elisabetta were beautifully rendered from all involved with the maestro holding the drama together cohesively. He never overpowered his singers and showed tremendous sensitivity in working with them. It entranced me in the drama more than ever and drew it to a marvelous conclusion.

If you’ve made it this far, it’s probably clear what I am going to say in closing – Go see this “Don Carlo.” This cast full of American artists is easily among the best assembled at any house in years. Who said there were no great American artists? Who said there are no longer voices like those of the mid 20th century? If you know someone who has said any of those things, rush them out to the WNO for this “Don Carlo.” They won’t be able to use those arguments ever again.


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