A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, May 3. Continues May 8, 10, and 11
From its lush music to its army of on-stage talent, Don Carlo is notoriously challenging. And damned if Vancouver Opera doesn’t pull it off.
A stellar team of leads boosts the company’s first production of Giuseppe Verdi’s complex masterwork in four decades. In Verdi’s melodious flow of arias, duos, trios, and quartets, they ably navigate its extreme musical and character demands.
Take Peter Volpe’s King Philip II: it’s all in a day’s work for Spain’s iron-fisted 16th-century monarch to sternly oversee burnings at the stake, but he secretly bemoans the wife who doesn’t love him in Verdi’s greatest bass aria. Volpe brings a full range of colours to that central Act III solo. And he’s surrounded by equally conflicted, frustrated characters. In the opera—a shorter, four-act version of the much-amended work—he’s married the young French royal Elisabeth, who was once promised to his son, Don Carlo. The younger pair still yearn for each other, further complicated by the fact that the Princess Eboli loves Carlo—and is bent on revenge when he spurns her.
But Don Carlo’s richness comes from much more than stories of a love quandrangle and family conflict: it’s set against the political and religious oppression of the Spanish Inquisition as it tried to hammer the people of Flanders into Roman Catholicism.
As the opera’s title character (but not necessarily its central lead), young Andrea Carè exemplifies the Italianate Verdi style you want from the role, his tenor surprisingly bright with hints of the ringing tone of his one-time teacher, Luciano Pavarotti. His take on the role is interesting, too: he’s not a typical hero here, sometimes childish and weak. But that’s appropriate in contrast to his best buddy, Rodrigo, to whom Canadian baritone Brett Polegato brings energy and confidence in one of his most impressive VO outings yet. Compare the political fire he shows in the first act, standing up for the people of Flanders to the king, with the wounded restraint he displays in his good-bye aria near the end. He and Carè are a lovely vocal match as well, pairing beautifully in their famous friendship duet.
As Elisabeth, Toronto soprano Joni Henson blossoms into a gorgeously shaded “Tu che la vanita” near the end. Mezzo Mary Phillips finds grit and fire as an authentically unstable Eboli, though her upper range lacked control. And Gregory Frank deserves mention, too, not just for his resounding bass: the Grand Inquisitor is usually portrayed as ancient and blind, but his, decked out in Satan-red robes, even has a pronounced palsy—yet more reason to inflict misery on others.
The singers are matched by conductor Jonathan Darlington’s well-paced, mellifluous reading of the challenging score, the ensemble opening with those chilling funereal horns and riding the waves of emotion with authentic feeling. The chorus, too, provides for some real grand-opera moments, with the monks’ droning themes giving it all a haunting feel of doom.
Wielding all of this, director Paul Peers manages to create scenes of both intimacy and spectacle, though his staging of Verdi’s much-discussed cryptic ending is less eerie than usual, with Carlo practically bounding into the netherworld. But the auto-da-fé and stake-burning have the requisite terror: the smoke plumes seem to follow you out to intermission.
The sets, coproduced by the VO with Hawaii Opera Theatre and Opera Hong Kong, shapeshift to provide enough flow to different settings, though they lack striking style. Traditional except for the extreme forced perspective of the tiled floor, they’re a dark collection of gridded screens and towers that morph from plazas to crypts. (Sometimes it's hard to tell where, exactly, you are.) Gerald King’s lighting adds drama, especially in Elisabeth’s final scene, starkly lit in the crypt with the giant cross looming behind her.
The costumes are in keeping with the sombre tone, all period-black knickers, high frilled collars, and gowns, with golden trim the only relief.
In all, it’s a lot to pull together—political intrigue, multilayered melodies, heartfelt intimacy, well-drawn characters—but thankfully, the huge effort isn’t obvious here, especially not in the three hours of transcendent music. The opening-night audience showed its admiration in a long, enthusiastic standing O. There are only three more shows. And if they miss it, Italian-opera fans might have to wait another 40 years to hear it anywhere other than their home or car stereo.