Philadelphia Opera:” Don Carlo”

Philadelphia Opera
Opera in four acts. Libretto Francois Joseph Méry, Camille du Locle. Italian version,  Angelo Zanardini
Music Giuseppe Verdi
Elisabeth de Valois  LEAH CROCETTO
King Philip II ERIC OWEN
The Grand Inquisitor MORRIS ROBINSON
The Celestial Voice SARAH SHAFER
The Royal Herald and Conte di Lerma MINGLE LEI
Conductor Corrado Rovaris
Chorus Master Elisabeth Braden
Stage Director  Tim Albery
Costumes Constance Hoffman
Lighting Thomas Hase
Philhadelphia, 24th april 2015
Perhaps Verdi’s most ambitious dramatic adaptation, Don Carlo is at the same time his most challenging opera for modern audiences especially in North America. Based on a German drama on a Spanish historical subject written for a French and then Italian audience, Verdi’s music fully illuminates all aspects of this drama. The complexity and depth of the music give it it’s power and richness, but at the same time makes it harder to grasp for a public not accustomed to the history and dramatic form Verdi so astonishingly realized in this score. Only the 38th most often performed opera, well out of the “Top 10” which dominate opera programming in the United States this production bespeaks the Philadelphia Opera’s high ambitions which have elevated it’s profile with important and successful productions of both standard repertoire and new opera, while remaining financially stable, no small achievement in today’s operatic environment.   Like Verdi, Philadelphia has had to adapt to audience and production costs, and mounted the 4 Act Italian version and settle for a smallish orchestra, particularly the horn section. Dominated by the mysterious and withdrawn über-father figure of Charles the Great (Carlo V) Schiller’s historical drama set in dark and rigidly Catholic Spain, is a tale of male insecurity, hierarchical power, frustrated love, roiling sexual passions and political purification by fire. Verdi’s sonorous and brilliant music achieves a remarkable synthesis of music and dramatic narrative communicating power, politics and passion seamlessly within Schiller’s framework. Such a potent synthesis requires a unity of elements to fully function and here is where the compromises of casting and orchestra size vitiated the opera’s effect.   What might be called a large minimalist set (Andrew Lieberman) framed all the scenes with large castle walls towering on both sides of the stage, and a large octagonal “Dome of San Giusto” dominating the back of the stage, leaving a flat, bare stage. Skrims came down the back to represent the Garden Scene and then the Prison, and buttresses against the walls cleverly changed to scene to the courtyard, a bit at odds with some of the scenes as well as the libretto, but a welcome opportunity for effective backlighting for Filippo’s “Ella gamma m’amo” and the scenes that followed.     Except for the modern directorial conceit of making closely harmonized duets and quartets more difficult and less satisfying by widely separating the singers, Tim Albery told the story exceedingly well. The isolated and hesitant exit of Elisabeth’s Lady in Waiting before the first Act duet with Carlo was simple, theatrical and explained Filippo’s subsequent “Perché sola É la Regina” for those not so familiar with Royal protocol. Other touches, like Elisabeth’s short appearance in the introduction to Filippo’s scene and aria also served to keep the dramatic thread vibrant. Although the empty playing area led to some clumsy moments, he handled the large chorus scenes with clarity and drama. Costumes by Constance Hoffman and Wigs/Makeup by David Zimmerman matched the sparse set well yet gave a feel for the historical period. The chorus, (Chorus master Elisabeth Braden) was one of the high points of the evening, singing strongly with balance and excellent intonation. The men, especially the tenors, in the opening chorus and the women in the riot before Carlo’s escape were top notch, and Mingle Lei (who also sang Lerma) finished the Herald’s evocative Auto-da-fé proclamation in tune with his attractive well produced tenor.   But powerful music and passions require powerful voices, and here the results were decidedly mixed. Soprano Leah Crocetto making her role debut as Elisabeth did a fine job all the way through and a sang a superb “Tu che la vanitá”. Her voice, sometimes lightish in the middle and low, took on a lovely rounded quality and her full and brilliant top soared emotionally and vocally in this touchstone aria. Crochet sang the role with linguistic and dramatic intention throughout. The only other major voice of the evening belonged to Morris Robinson’s Grand Inquisitor. Both physically and vocally imposing Robinson dominated Filippo in their duet and had the refinement to end with a smoothly insinuating “Forse”. From top to bottom this is a major vocal instrument.   Troy Cook’s voice was perfectly suited to Rodrigo’s beautiful Prison Scene aria, “Io morró” and he sang it beautifully with long fluid line and phrasing as well as plangent sustained climaxes. This is an intelligent singer with a lovely instrument and the aria showed him to best advantage. However this aria is Posa’s most lyrical moment and the voice did not have the impact to convey the drama and musical character of an idealist burning to bring liberty to an oppressed people, and willing to stand up to a King. Neither the famous opening duet with Carlo (Dio, che nell’ alma infondere”) nor the remarkably composed conversation with the King (“Restate..”) had the power to ignite the music or the audience.   Eric Owen (King Phillip) is a mature singer who has sung Wagner and similar repertoire on major stages, so it was surprising that he remained between piano and mezzoforte the entire evening. He may have been recovering from indisposition and singing carefully but the voice did not convey regal authority. His touching “Ella giammai m’amo” started with a reflective murmur but Filippo’s torment did not reach the full throated climax this aria demands.  Michell DeYoung may have the instrument for Eboli but not yet the technique. Endowed with a strong bright voice and good extension, she struggled with the lightness and flexibility required in the “Canzone del velo” as well as with the murderously brilliant “O don fatale” where both dramatic power, sustained legato and a climactic finish are necessary. In order to manage the final B natural she omitted the penultimate scale and short high note. This is Verdi, not Donizetti, and while there are a few places where the singer is permitted a tacet in Verdi, this is not one of them.     Tenor Dimitri Pittas sings Nemorino and Puccini’s Rodolfo on major stages and is a light Don Carlo who squeezes his voice for high notes and spreads it for volume. It is fundamentally an attractive voice in a good looking body but occasional high diminuendi do not constitute good singing and his dramatic presence in this ungrateful role was unremarkable.   Don Carlo is one of those operas where an orchestra and conductor are lost without the proper singers. Maestro Corrado Roveris led a very fine, if slightly underpowered orchestra. With only half the necessary horns in the pit he sometimes seemed to compensate by conducting twice as fast, but when the singer was truly up to the task everything came to life and made perfect sense. Rovaris can accompany sensitively and move his players well but his half hearted rubati and occasionally incomplete musical gestures were mystifying, since when the musical drama happened onstage he was fully capable of realizing it in the pit.   Philadelphia is blessed with many talented young singers, and Ashley Emerson charmed vocally and physically as Tebaldo while Sarah Shafer sang a fine Voce dal Cielo. Jeremy Mildner sounded sufficiently somber as the Frate.