Librettist: Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle
Conductor: Juraj Valčuha
Director: Claus Guth
Don Carlo: Matthew Polenzani
Elisabeth of Valois: Ailyn Perez
Phillip II: Michele Pertusi
Rodrigo, Marquis de Posa: Ludovic Tézier
Princess of Éboli: Elīna Garanča
Grand Inquisitor: Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Keeping the momentum picked up in Rome last weekend, I went to gritty but fascinating Naples on Monday morning to visit my friend and host-with-the-most Vittorio, and enjoy a week of musical treats at the San Carlo, starting with an eagerly anticipated production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo on Thursday evening.
My first and only experience of Don Carlo before Thursday was eons ago at The Met, where I quickly got swept up by the opera’s monumental size, unforgiving historic background, complicated family relationships and ill-fated love triangle, as well as the massive talent of the male singers (Sorry, ladies). I immediately put Don Carlo in my short list of favorite operas and waited patiently for the right opportunity to put myself through its voluptuous drama again.
Fast forward 12 years, and there I was on Thursday evening, in the oldest, probably most splendid, and arguably most prestigious opera house of Europe for another go at it, after a de rigueur pit stop at the Gambrinus in anticipation of the 4.5-hour marathon ahead, which at least started at the civilized time of 6:00 P.M.
Even better, Vittorio and I shared our premium box with only two other persons, a retired science teacher and Italy-trotting opera buff from Padua who had stopped at the San Carlo on her way to Rome for Dialogues des Carmélites, and a deliriously enthusiastic Japanese neophyte whose use of his smartphone to take photos and videos of the performance was so relentless that an usher had to come in and make him stop, at least for a little while. Quite a tiny, random and eclectic community of opera lovers indeed.
Like all the versions of Don Carlo, the Modena one that we were about to see, which incidentally premièred at the San Carlo in 1872 with the first act rightfully in and the ballet thankfully out, is well-known not only for its length, but also for the need of an ensemble of equally excellent lead singers. Fortunately for us, upon taking his position, the San Carlo’s general manager Stéphane Lissner stated that he intended to return it to its former glory, and on Thursday, it definitely looked like he was walking his talk with an ambitious production and a starry cast.
First in line stood universally beloved American tenor Matthew Polenzani, who brought his prodigious singing and acting skills to the complex main character, an uncharacteristically fragile and broken man. His well-established bel canto expertise may not have made him an obvious choice for such a demanding Verdian role, but any doubter would have surely been won over by his refined phrasing and extraordinary middle range that allowed him to convincingly flesh out the deeply neurotic anti-hero that was this particular Don Carlo.
The cause of his bottomless despair was his loss of Elisabeth of Valois, the sweet daughter of the King of France to whom he was briefly—and happily—engaged before she felt obliged to marry his father, King Phillip II of Spain. Consolidating the peace between the two countries was a tough job, and somebody had to do it.
American soprano Ailyn Perez was a lovely princess-turned-queen, readily switching from the pretty white dress and care-free demeanor of her happy French youth to the rigid black outfit and strict protocol of the stern Spanish court, her slender but naturally melodic voice easily riding the score’s long high lines to beautifully express her shattered spirit. That said, she also knew how to turn into a complete bad-ass ruler when needed, and her swift dealing with the princess of Éboli after hearing of her betrayal was one of the most divine operatic catfight I’ve ever gotten a chance to witness.
Of course, it did not hurt that said princess was the perennially fabulous Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, who made the almost secondary but wonderfully juicy role of the besotted, scorned, vengeful and ultimately remorseful other woman her very own, from the gently lyrical veil song to the high-voltage cri du cœur "Oh don fatale" with exacting singing, superb acting, and an exceptionally magnetic presence. In other words, just another day at the office for her. Her impeccable tour de force was not lost to the audience, who made her the clear winner at the applause meter.
French baritone Ludovic Tézier also had an unequivocally triumphant night as Don Carlo’s lifetime friend Rodrigo, in no small part thanks to the inconspicuous but undeniable power of his magnificently burnished voice, a true marvel of nature whose infinite dark shades he handily adapted to the wide range of situations he found himself in with unwavering poise and a strong sense of destiny, whether exchanging confidences with his friend, coolly seducing the King, or nobly facing death.
Italian bass Michele Pertusi was by all accounts a solid King Phillip II, with the authoritative voice and imposing bearing necessary to project absolute command, and enough genuine humanity to show his emotional depth. And, while to my eyes and ears his totally respectable rendition of the quietly poignant aria “Ella giammai m’amò” did not supplant Ferruccio Furlanetto’s take on it at the Met, all the more devastating as he sang it all alone on a bare stage as opposed to the current production’s superfluous side action, my assessment is more sky-high praise for Furlanetto than unjustified qualms about Pertusi.
As far as smaller but not lesser parts were concerned, Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s sinister presence was brief as the grand inquisitor, but it certainly did not escape notice, and even came close to prevailing over Pertusi’s king, in true Inquisition style. The rest of the cast and the chorus all made valuable contributions that helped bring the daunting endeavor that is Don Carlo to successful completion.
Then there was the production, which had a lot going for it, with a starkly contrasting, stylish black and white theme, including a neat hexagonal chess board floor, a Goya-style painting of the Spanish family that discolored overtime to the point of eventually turning all black and symbolizing the tomb of Charles V, the bright white light illuminating the perimeter of the stage every time the king appeared, some discreet tree silhouettes reminding the serendipitous encounter in Fontainebleau Forest, and six high-end chandeliers hanging down almost to the floor in the queen’s garden at night, of all places.
In particular, the various groups were handled with imagination and intelligence, such as the innocent white-clad Elizabeth being slowly but surely swallowed by a crowd of ominous black-clad Spanish nationals; the female chorus fully covered by white veils and symmetrically positioned on the floor for the princess of Éboli’s veil song was an effectively haunting sight. Even creepier, choristers’ heads occasionally materialized behind the wooden choir stalls lining the three sides of the stage for dramatic effect.
But other choices were not as fortunate. For example, the various black and white video segments showing Don Carlo and Rodrigo playing as young boys were not only redundant but needlessly distracting, Polenzani and Tézier being perfectly capable of implying the indestructible bond between the two men. Not only redundant and needlessly distracting, but terribly irritating as well, was the highly agitated, although at least mercifully mute, dwarf court jester that would show up out of nowhere at some key moments and do his own annoying thing.
Like most epic works, Verdi’s score is a challenging undertaking. The San Carlo’s Slovenian musical director and maestro Juraj Valčuha would not allow himself to be intimidated though, and having some first-class musicians and singers under his baton probably galvanized him too. Keeping coordination and balance under tight control while being mindful of letting the music live and breathe to its full potential, he did a terrific job at supervising and guiding this truly exhilarating performance, which kicked off the San Carlo’s new season with a glorious resounding bang. May there be many more.