Opera Tidbits: Don Carlo

Took in Washington National Opera’s Don Carlo this week.  The best Verdi singing at the company in a long time, particularly notable in this extremely challenging opera. It actually sounded like a real life opera company!  (It didn’t look like one, the clumsy production–particularly ill-fitting costumes and high school dramatic society level lighting on a borderline offensive set concept were something you just had to decide to overlook).

The Schiller play on which Verdi based the opera. By Egid Verhelst – Antiquariat Dr. Haack Leipzig → Privatsammlung Baden-Württemberg, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4115888

But the singing was glorious. This is something you expect from Eric Owens and Jamie Barton, both of whom are Met regulars and possessed of glorious instruments that they put use in conveying meaning and character. But Quinn Kelsey, who was just a name to me, was a knockout Posa, manly, vocally secure and incisive, and also touching in his ability to add vulnerability to a role that some bellow through. Leah Crocetto has been in DC before, and proved her mettle in a dazzling “Tu Che La Vanità”–a bit general in her character, but gorgeous full top to her voice, and the requisite dignity for the pure, troubled Elisabeth. Russell Thomas will not banish thoughts of great Don C’s of yore (it’s a tribute the rest of the gang that they did put previous casts out of my mind, and particularly made the second half of this long opera fly by).  But although occasionally a bit under powered in this company, he had a wonderful “Hamlet” kind of thing going on, where you heard and saw his divided loyalties, fraught passions and terrible dilemmas of filial loyalty, political passions, and ardent love. (This particular Verdi opera lays all of this most political composers signature concerns on in excess. He really couldn’t leave anything out, and the auto-da-fé scene, always hard to stage, was just awful in this conception, with what might have been meant to be an evocation of 20th century totalitarianism, instead of coming off as sort of clumsy regie-dinner-theater.)

But never mind, it was a glorious performance musically and If you don’t know Don Carlo, it is something that grows on you, or at least did me, from once seeming unrelentingly dark and long (and of murky plot, since it is almost always significantly cut.) But it is one of his greatest works, and his perhaps his most concentrated take on men’s dilemmas (and his none too charitable view of how they respond).

Three excerpts to win you over:

The extraordinary Shirley Verrett singing “Oh Don Fatale” from a BBC broadcast.

Monserrat Caballé, who for me at least, was above all, a great Verdian. Here she is in a concert performance of Elisabeth’s aria, “Tu Che La Vanità”

Next, Sherill Milnes and Placido Domingo (Rodrigo/Posa and Carlo) in the duet in which they pledge eternal loyalty and friendship in the best “shoulder to shoulder” Verdi style.

And for a bonus, the same duet with the great Verdi baritone of the ages, Piero Cappuccilli (and the tenor, Carlo Bergonzi also a marvel). Listen to their words. They mean every one.

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