Arts & Events

SF Opera Offers a Riveting DON CARLO

By James Roy MacBean
Friday June 17, 2016 - 05:02:00 PM

Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo, based on a play by German writer Friedrich Schiller, brought out some of the finest work of the mature Verdi. Involving himself thoroughly in all aspects of the creation of this opera, from working on the libretto with his two French librettists, Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, to overseeing the production at the première in Paris’s Palais Garnier in 1867, Verdi threw himself with zeal and dedication into Don Carlo (or, as it was called in its original French-language production, Don Carlos). Verdi continued working on this opera, super-vising its translation into Italian and offering several revised versions of it in Italian. Our current San Francisco Opera production, which opened Sunday, June 12, uses the 1886 Modena version in Italian. 

German playwright Schiller based his play Don Carlos on real historical figures. The title-character Don Carlos (1545-1568) was, in fact, the son of King Philip II of Spain, born of the king’s first wife, who died in giving birth to Carlos. Philip II ruled Spain for forty-four years, dying in 1598, and he reigned during a time of tempestuous relations between Spain and its possessions in the Netherlands, called Flanders (La Fiandra) in Verdi’s opera. Moreover, Philip II reigned during a time of difficult relations between the Spanish monarchy and the Catholic Church, the latter being embodied in Verdi’s opera by The Grand Inquisitor. Schiller took artistic liberties in transforming Don Carlos from the historical sickly, mentally unbalanced individual into a naïve but sincere defender of the rights of the rebellious people of Flanders in seeking liberty from Spanish oppression. Schiller also created out of thin air the character of Rodrigo de Posa, portrayed in Schiller’s play and Verdi’s opera as the boyhood friend of Don Carlos and a fellow sympathizer with the rebellious people of Flanders. The character of Elizabeth de Valois, who in Schiller’s play and Verdi’s opera is given in marriage by her father, the king of France, to King Philip II of Spain, was, according to sources, much as she is depicted in Verdi’s Don Carlo – beautiful, intelligent, kind, and dutiful. Although some scholars believe Elizabeth was indeed originally betrothed to Don Carlos as a child, most scholars reject the notion that there was a real love affair at first sight between her and Don Carlos as depicted in the opera’s opening act set in Fontainebleau, France. Finally, there was indeed a historical Princess Eboli, known as a temperamental schemer rumored to have borne a son by King Philip II.  

So much for the historical and literary background of Verdi’s Don Carlo. What is important is that Verdi, drawing on Schiller’s play with help from his French librettists and later Italian translators, fashioned a riveting humanistic music-drama full of ideas, various love triangles, anti-clericalism, republican idealism, and including even an Oedipal conflict between father and son. With all these issues bubbling away, the opera repeatedly reaches boiling points where our expectations are suddenly thwarted and the story moves off in a new, surprising direction.  

In the current SF Opera production of Don Carlo, two singers were consistently at the top of their game – tenor Michael Fabiano, who sang Don Carlo, and baritone Mariusz Kwiechien , who sang Rodrigo. Fabiano, who was previously heard here as Gennaro in Lucrezia Borgia (2011), Rodolfo in La Bohème (2014) and Rodolfo in Luisa Miller (2015), has a powerful, resonant voice with ringing high notes. Kwiechien, who sang here as Don Giovanni in 2007, possesses a rich, plangent baritone voice capable of great expression. As Elizabetta, soprano Anna Maria Martinez started out a bit unsteadily, her voice initially lacking focus and projection, but she settled down as the opera progressed and sang beautifully for most of the last four acts. Likewise, bass René Pape also began unsteadily, he too lacking focus and projection early on but growing in confidence and vocal projection as the opera unfolded. His Act IV soliloquy lamenting the lack of love from his wife, “Ella giamai m’amo (“She has never loved me”), was beautifully sung, and this aria, by the way, is introduced and accompanied by some of the most gorgeous writing for cello in all opera. The Opera Orchestra’s principal cellist, David Kadarauch, gave an excellent rendition of this movingly poignant music. As Princess Eboli, Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva also grew in vocal stature as the opera unfolded, and by the time of her famous aria in Act IV, “O Don fatale,” she let out all the stops and sang a powerfully moving aria. Bass Andrea Silvestrelli was excellent as the old, feeble, and blind Grand Inquisitor, who, in spite of all his infirmities, still exudes the power of the Church hierarchy. Bass-baritone Matthew Stump ably sang the brief role of a Monk, and minor roles were ably dispatched by Nian Wang as Tebaldo, Toni Marie Palmertree as A heavenly voice, and Pene Pati as Count Lerma.  

Don Carlo was staged by director Emilio Sagi, who revived his original production, which premiered here in 1998. It is a well-conceived staging, full of telling details, such as having Philip II sing “Ella giamai m’amo” while gazing at a portrait of his wife, and having Princess Eboli sing “O Don fatale” and cursing her own fatal beauty while gazing at a mirror. Chorus Director Ian Robertson led the Opera Chorus in a fine contribution to the overall impact of this opera, and, in particular, of the auto da fe scene in Act III. Finally, Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducted this production with obvious commitment and well-paced tempos, bringing out all the richness of this opera’s orchestral score. Don Carlo continues through June 29, and for the final performance on June 29 the great bass-baritone Ferruccio Furlanetto will replace René Pape as King Philip II. That is a performance not to be missed, as Furlanetto is generally acclaimed to be the greatest Philip II of the last thirty years.