Women spark “Don Carlos” to elevate Lyric’s low-voltage Verdi

Thu Nov 10, 2022 at 2:25 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Clementine Margaine (left) as Eboli and Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Elisabeth in Verdi’s Don Carlos at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

First, the good news.

Chicago opera audiences are finally getting an opportunity to hear Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos in its original, five-act French version, which opened Wednesday night at the Civic Opera House. 

The not-so-good news? Almost everything else. Three out of the six principal singers were wanting. The production offered awkward direction and numbing visuals over a long evening. And, most critical of all, Enrique Mazzola’s on-and-off conducting consistently diluted the sweep, originality and roiling drama of this fascinating work.

Don Carlos was not a success at its 1867 Paris premiere for a variety of reasons, primarily political controversy and a distinguished cast having a bad first night. Verdi revised it repeatedly over the following decades. The four-act Italian version (Don Carlo) is occasionally staged—and last heard at Lyric in 1996—but productions of the French original are still rare occasions, as with this way-belated Chicago premiere.

Don Carlos, son of King Philippe II of Spain, meets Elisabeth of Valois (daughter of the French king) in the forest at Fontainbleau and the young couple falls instantly in love. Inconveniently, Elisabeth has just been betrothed to Philippe in a political alliance between the two countries. She remains faithful to the king in a loveless marriage. Carlos relates his secret romantic dilemma as well as his anti-royalist sympathies for the oppressed people of Flanders to his loyal friend Rodrigue, Count of Posa. In a case of nocturnal mistaken identity, Carlos confesses his love for the faithful Elisabeth to the unbalanced Countess Eboli. Hilarity doesn’t ensue, as she vows to reveal his illicit love to the king and court and destroy him.

Don Carlos has some creaky plot devices and, for a work spanning 230 minutes, few celebrated arias or set pieces, apart from Eboli’s “O don fatale” late in the evening and the loyalty oath duet for Carlos and Rodrigue, the theme of which is reprised at key plot points.

What Don Carlos does have is a vast panoramic canvas, inspired range and variety of music, and a remarkably deft blending of the personal and political—here often the same thing—with six principal characters, nearly all of whom are conflicted and painted by Verdi with characteristic insight and sympathy.

When Lyric Opera announced that it was presenting Don Carlos in a David McVicar production, one was heartened to think that we were getting the new and sumptuous Metropolitan Opera staging unveiled to much acclaim last season (and currently running in a revival).

No such luck. This is a cost-effective 2007 McVicar staging that originated in Frankfurt, consisting of a single set. (Who does Don Carlos with a unit set?) The stark Robert Jones design consists of towering white brick columns with numerous steps and parapets, which unsuccessfully stands in for the Fontainbleau forest, monastery cloister, a pasture, the queen’s gardens, Valladolid Cathedral square, the king’s chambers and a prison. There are some half-hearted attempts to vary the bleak visual ennui in the latter acts (a large cross and jail gate descend from above). But staring at this barren industrial image for four hours was like being held captive in a Soviet munitions factory.

It was a rapid promotion indeed for Joshua Guerrero to go from Macduff last season to the title character in Verdi’s most epic opera. The young Mexican tenor possesses a juicy and Italianate instrument and started off well, singing with ardent tone and worthy power. Yet his low-lying voice sounded stretched at the top and he seemed to tire halfway through the evening. Top notes became tenuous or were whiffed on completely.

Dramatically, Guerrero was even less consistent in this pivotal role, though revival director Axel Weidauer can shoulder some of the blame. There was little of the stalwart Carlos from Guerrero until the final two acts; too often his was a weak Carlos—not a courageous passionate hero, but a louche, cringing neurotic, holding his head in anxiety or laying around on the steps in too-casual fashion.

Joshua Guerrero (left) in the title role and Igor Golovatenko as Rodrigue in Don Carlos. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

In his company debut, Igor Golovatenko was a similarly unimpressive presence as Rodrigue, Carlos’s close friend and political ally. His anoydne, middle-weight baritone and generalized opera acting made little out of this conflicted and potentially compelling character.

The two lead female singers gave this up-and-down evening its finest moments.

In a staging that too often descended to the obvious and banal, Rachel Willis-Sørensen brought some much-needed dignity to the proceedings as Elisabeth. In the early going, she sounded a bit shaky in the upper tessitura, but the soprano grew from strength to strength as the evening progressed, conveying the despair of Elisabeth’s Act V aria with sensitive and affecting vocalism. This kind of thankless, long-suffering character is not easy to pull off but the American singer’s characterization was dramatically focused, vocally consistent and, ultimately, quite moving.

The standout performance of the evening came from Clémentine Margaine as Countess Eboli. Her initial appearance in Act II seemed misjudged, singing the “Song of the Veil” in a strange and overemphatic way—perhaps designed to show that the volatile character is already somewhat unhinged. 

Hell hath no fury like a countess scorned and the French mezzo-soprano—the only native singer in the cast—raised the temperature several notches in Act III with Eboli’s explosive jealousy after Carlos’s rejection. Margaine rose to “O don fatale” with refulgent, hall-filling tone and world-class artistry, charting Eboli’s emotions from despair at her banishment to eventual repentance at her selfish actions. Margaine’s thrilling vocalism made one more acutely aware of the prevailing tepid quality of too much of the evening.

Dmitri Belosselskiy was a merely serviceable Philippe, lacking regal presence, wobbly in his Act IV soliloquy and jarringly weak at the low end.

No such problem existed for Soloman Howard. As the Grand Inquisitor—possibly the strangest character in all of Verdi—the American’s singer’s firmly focused bass may have sounded youthful for the 90-year-old character but Howard sang with sure dramatic impact and subterranean resonance.

Peixin Chen was a deep-voiced Monk, Laureano Quint a sturdy Lerma, Denis Velez a piping Thibault.

After seeming to get its hapless stage direction back on track in recent productions, Lyric was back to the bum of the month club with another undistinguished debut. The desolate set was clearly no help but Weidauer’s traffic cop stage direction did little to aid the cast in exploring character. Too often the principals were reduced to walking up and down the stairs and picking their way carefully through this be-bricked smelting plant.

Worse were the addition of the soap-opera staging cliches. Since Philippe denouncing Elisabeth for her presumed infidelity is not strong enough, Weidauer (of course) has to have the king slap her hard across the face too—the go-to cliche of lazy directors and an intrusive but perennial Lyric device.

And Verdi’s poetic and mystical ending to the opera—where the endangered Carlos is rescued by the Monk (who may actually be Charles V)—is jettisoned completely to invent a new action-packed finale where Carlos is stabbed to death in a sword fight and dies on the bier of Charles. That kind of artistic arrogance is of a piece with the inane and polemical program note, which states that the true relevance of Don Carlos today is to warn us of “threats against democracy from the forces of anti-truth” and “a public culture tainted by fear of other groups and people.”

But the main problem with this Don Carlos was not the uneven casting or dispiriting production but, once again, the mundane conducting of Enrique Mazzola.

Lyric Opera’s music director brought textural clarity and mostly worthy balancing to the proceedings. Tempos were well-judged apart from the death crawl for the final love duet for Carlos and Elisabeth.

Yet too often the sense of a broader dramatic arc was lacking from the pit—not just in the overall architecture of this huge work but across each act and in individual scenes. There was little sense of musical ebb and flow or a dramatic through-line. Isolated bursts of excitement happened and then disappeared as quickly as they came. Too many richly inspired sections of the opera just plodded along in a kind of alert yet faceless efficiency, even with some superb playing by the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

The chorus looked and at times sounded undersized for this epic opera yet rose to most of the big moments under chorusmaster Michael Black.

Don Carlos runs through November 25. lyricopera.org

Posted in Performances

6 Responses to “Women spark “Don Carlos” to elevate Lyric’s low-voltage Verdi”

  1. Posted Nov 10, 2022 at 5:42 pm by Alex Vesselinovitch

    I agree wholeheartedly with this review, except that we didn’t last after the intermission. In over 30 years of attending opera performances at the Lyric, this stage set and design were the worst. I suppose in that sense it will be a memorable experience.

    I think Lyric seems sadly short of capital–it is beginning to show.

  2. Posted Nov 10, 2022 at 8:27 pm by Jim Patti

    While I cannot speak to the nuances of vocal range or the quality of conducting, I will concur with this review’s distaste for the set and direction. We found the set quite impressive at the start—-that is, until we found out that it was a forest (what trees?) and that there was a fire (what flames?). The set quickly then grew old and eventually distractingly ugly as it was unchanged from act to act.

    With the exception of the lead sopranos, the acting (perhaps due to the direction) was stiff and unrealistic, with poor Carlos having little to do other than walk up and down the stark stage while quivering nonsensically about the undying sadness he felt for not being with the woman he fell in love with after three minutes. And the abrupt ending was horrible other than it being the long-awaited opportunity to leave the theater.

    On the other hand, the costumes were excellent and we loved the choice to keep the story in its original time and context instead of modernizing it in some cringy political way. And really, what indeed was that inane comment in the program note?

  3. Posted Nov 11, 2022 at 8:25 am by GCMP

    Well, only the lower 2/3 of the cross is visible from the boxes, so I gather the balconies see even less of it . . . did no one from Lyric check that problem ahead of time?

  4. Posted Nov 12, 2022 at 2:37 pm by Peg Ryan

    Only Anthony Freud could destroy Verdi. In all the years I have been coming to the Lyric, this production of Don Carlos was truly awful.

    The recent production at the Met was outstanding. I wept thru it.

    The best production of Don Carlos I ever saw was January 2002 at the Met. It is hard to beat a cast with the great Sam Ramey and the late, irreplaceable Dmtri. My lap was filled with Kleenex. So moving, such passion.

    Being held captive in a Soviet munitions factory is a great description of the Lyric production. I left at intermission, could not stand one more minute of the disaster. Sorry to have missed Solomon Howard, one of the most exciting singers to grace the stage in recent years.

    For those who wish to see a gorgeous production of Don Carlos, check out the La Scala 1992 performance on YouTube. Samuel Ramey owns the role of King Philip. The marvelous, gifted Ricardo Muti is the conductor.

    I am sorry to say this will probably be my last year visiting the Lyric. It has hit rock bottom.

  5. Posted Nov 21, 2022 at 12:59 am by Cameron

    You can hear people whispering “horrible” during the intermission. The single-set stage is indeed horrible.

  6. Posted Mar 30, 2023 at 8:53 am by WEL

    I too left at the intermission, a first for me. The single set for 4 hours became monotonous.

    Unfortunately, the problem (IMO) is that the cost of the production has to be amortized over only 5 performances. So how do you control costs…Cast, Staging, etc. where do you cut?

    Too many empty seats these days at Lyric. Sadly, us diehards are indeed dying off.

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