Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Moments of Clarity

April 23, 2012

Heretics, burning. from Don Carlo Photo by Felix Sanchez/HGO 2012
Happiness is going to see Don Carlo. Of course, even happiness can be improved upon when it comes to casting and other particulars. And then there is that pesky “s”. Admittedly I should have been paying closer attention, but it wasn’t until I had planted myself in my seat and the lights went down that I realized this was not Don Carlo, the Italian language version of Verdi’s greatest opera (yes, I said greatest and if you don’t agree, you’ll just have to live with your wrongness) often performed in a shortened four act version, but was actually Don Carlos the entire five act version sung in the original French. Such was the case when I caught the penultimate performance of Houston Grand Opera’s run of the show on Sunday. Of course, it did take me a few minutes to figure this out in that French diction didn’t get much of the respect it deserves from a cast that often sounded like it was in fact singing in Italian. But if one is going to have that problem, this may be one of the better operas to have it in. Language aside, the show effectively communicated the glory of Verdi’s score and often achieved remarkable things.

Whether or not the language was a source of anxiety for anyone on stage, there was evidently some worry that the audience might not get everything. Director John Caird went for a staging that flushed out any ambiguities in the characters’ motivation or emotional state. King Phillipe II, a robust Andrea Silvestrelli, was more certainly a bad guy and his wife, Elisabeth de Valois, the lovely Tamara Wilson, didn’t let her concerns over her honor and duty stand in the way of expressing her anger and rage at her husbands demeaning behavior in both Act II and Act IV. Princess Eboli, the rejected suitor turned villain is more typically the most drastically drawn character in this bunch, but in this world she was just one of the gang hard driving towards her own id. Prior to Phillipe’s poignant aria that opens Act IV she appears with Elisabeth’s jewel box and demonstrates her affections just to clear that business up. The costumes were mixed in terms of period, but there was a heavy 20th-century streak in the show. And if the supernatural elements are part of the reason you love this opera, you might be disappointed in the representation here as little more than a feverish dream Carlos himself has in his final moments before meeting his own maker. Life is brutal and short in the physical look of the production as well with its enclosed U-shaped configuration of black risers lit in blood reds and harsh whites. This did set off the many red crosses the chorus carries in the final acts, but it strained the outdoor effect in Eboli’s entrance in Act II. On the plus side the crypt of Charles V was ready to go at any moment.

Conductor and HGO Music Director Patrick Summers elected not to pick a fight with the severe visuals of the show, instead steering the orchestra down a middle path that kept the musical dynamics in a cooler range without necessarily going for something one might think of as a lighter French sound. The vocal artists themselves seemed to hang back early on, which isn’t a bad idea in so long an opera, saving their more emphatic singing for the home stretch. This was especially the case for Christine Goerke’s Eboli who seemed a bit slushy in Act II, but caught fire after her character’s gig is up in Act IV. Now that Eboli has found religion, so to speak, her pledge to protect the lovers ripped through the hall receiving the biggest ovation of the afternoon.

The Rodrigue, Scott Hendricks, also delivered just a bit more in his character’s final moments adding an increased poignancy to his sacrifice for his friend Carlos. And then there was Brandon Jovanovich who always seems game to sing just about anything from Don Jose to Siegmund to the title role here. And good for him, bucking against the ever-increasing tendency to pigeon hole vocalists into increasingly small areas of repertory specialization. He was solid throughout, lusty and heartbroken if not especially convincing in Carlos's more overtly political moments. When he holds the point of his sword to his father’s throat in Act III, you know he means business. And considering this is a Don Carlos that doesn’t want you to miss anything by way of subtlety he availed himself nicely. On balance the winning portrayals by Goerke, Wilson, and Silvestrelli helped carry the day over any excesses of the production. You can see all of this varied cast for one more performance on the 28th.



This - and the crawfish - are very good reasons to visit Houston these days.
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