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A Vocal Triumph Nonetheless!

Lyric Opera
11/09/2022 -  & November 12, 17*, 20, 25, 2022
Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlos
Joshua Guerrero (Carlos), Rachel Willis‑Sørensen (Elisabeth), Igor Golovatenko (Rodrigue), Dmitri Belosselskiy (Philippe II), Clémentine Margaine (Eboli), Solomon Howard (The Grand Inquisitor), Denis Vélez (Thibault), Peixin Chen (Monk, Charles V), Laureno Quant (Lerme), Alejandro Luévanos (Royal Herald), Lindsey Reynolds (Heavenly Voice)
Chorus of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Michael Black (chorus master), Orchestra of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Enrique Mazzola (conductor)
Sir David McVicar (stage director), Axel Weidauer (revival stage director), Robert Jones (sets), Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costume designer), Joachim Klein (lighting designer), Jan Hartmann (revival lighting designer), August Tye (choreographer)

J. Guerrero, R. Willis‑Sørensen (© Todd Rosenberg)

Don Carlos is considered by many to be Verdi’s masterpiece. It is a colossal work, Verdi’s longest, and among the most demanding of his operas to cast. Premiered in Paris in 1867 in the French language, it was soon presented in London and all over Europe in its Italian version. Its original five acts were seen as too many, therefore a four-act Italian version became the standard. However, the omitted “Fontainebleau” first act, or at least some of its music, started to be reintegrated into the work in the 1970s, while the 1980s saw a revival of the original French version. Though the Italian Don Carlo is still much more common than the rarely performed original French version, there is hope for the original version to become increasingly popular. I have a preference for the French version as the work was conceived for the Paris Opera in the “grand opera” tradition, one that was introduced and perfected by the neglected genius that is Giacomo Meyerbeer.

Meyerbeer’s grand operas had historic themes such as the plight of the Protestants in France in Les Huguenots or the blasphemous John of Leiden in the Netherlands during the early days of the Reformation in Le Prophète. They also involved dazzlingly grand spectacle and a quintet or sextet of super-singers covering all registers of voice: usually a tenor and soprano for the amorous couple; a mezzo and a baritone rival; perhaps a couple of basses as parents or evil conspirators. There lies the difficulty in reviving Meyerbeer works or operas written in his style: it invites a ruinous budget to mount an elaborate production, not to mention the difficulty and cost in finding a half dozen first‑tier singers.

In this belated Chicago premiere of the French Don Carlos, 155 years after the opera’s creation, Lyric Opera of Chicago achieved a marvel in the vocal department. However, the staging and visual production were both sadly forgettable. John McVicar’s austere sets evoked nothing regal, despite the opera taking place in an epoch when Spain ruled half the world. The nondescript structure used throughout the opera could well be the Monastery of Saint‑Just, as a place of retreat, where austerity is de rigueur, but it most certainly was not the Forest of Fontainebleau, nor did it conjure the interiors or gardens of the Escurial Palace. While the libretto clearly calls for trees and flowers in both the Fontainebleau first act and the garden scenes, trees and flowers were absent in this stark production, and they were missed.

Eboli’s Act II aria, “Dans le beau jardin du palais sarrasin” takes place in the gardens of the monastery of Saint‑Just, and the Eboli-Carlos-Rodrigue trio, “Malheur sur toi, fils adultère!,” takes place in the Queen’s garden in the Escurial Palace. One feels pity for such a Queen, married to a man her father’s age and condemned to live in austerity. Instead of reigning over the Spanish Empire, this production sees her reign over a cement desert, so bereft is it of warmth or joy. Particularly in Eboli’s song, there is a high degree of oriental sensuality that can only make sense in a place evocative of the sumptuous gardens of Spanish palaces, inspired by the Alhambra. Alas, no such beauty is afforded here, which entirely diminishes the opera’s effectiveness.

In the first act, Carlos travels to France to see Elisabeth, daughter of the French King, promised to him as part of a peace treaty between the Spanish Hapsburgs and the French Valois houses to end the Italian Wars of the mid‑sixteenth century. In his first aria, “Fontainebleau! Forêt immense et solitaire!,” Joshua Guerrero displayed his clarion tenor, a voice that is both young and powerful, with a notable vibrato that may not appeal to all. In the forest of Fontainebleau, Carlos presents himself to Elisabeth as a Spaniard, not revealing his true identity. When Elisabeth inquires about her betrothed, Carlos elegantly reveals his identity by giving her a chain with “her fiancé’s portrait,” which she discovers is his own. As soon as the two young people timidly start enjoying each other’s company, “Ne tremble pas, reviens à toi... Ah! Je tremble encore, mais non d’effroi,” a horn announces the signature of the treaty and the Spanish King’s decision to wed Elisabeth himself, rather than have her marry his son. The disappointed Princess consents, knowing that if she does not, the war will resume.

Soprano Rachel Willis‑Sørensen memorably triumphed in Act I, merely uttering an oppressed “oui” to that very question. Subtly, she was able to convey both her nobility of character and her compartmentalized emotions. The omission of this first act in the Italian version makes it hard to understand Carlos and Elisabeth’s mutual infatuation.

In Act II, a distraught Carlos seeks solace at the tomb of his grandfather King Charles V. His loyal friend Rodrigue, Marquis de Posa, reminds him of their commitment to the Flemish cause. In one of Verdi’s most cherished baritone-tenor duets, “Toi! mon Rodrigue! C’est toi que dans mes bras je presse,” Carlos confesses his love for the Queen, and Rodrigue comforts him. Russian baritone Igor Golovatenko’s voice is naturally elegant and his timbre warm, blending perfectly with Guarrero’s. In the monastery’s garden, Princess Eboli entertains the noble ladies with her sarcastic “Chanson du voile” (veil song), “Dans le beau jardin du palais sarrasin.”

French mezzo Clémentine Margaine portrayed a self-confident yet sensuous Eboli. Her voice was secure throughout this role which, despite some quite low notes, mostly lies in a high register. Carlos manages to see the Queen to ask her to obtain the King’s permission for him to go to Flanders in the duet “Je viens solliciter de la Reine une grâce.” Testament to their marvelous acting capabilities, Guerrero and Willis‑Sørensen were able to maintain a distance despite their obvious passion. When Carlos leaves Elisabeth, she is alone in the garden, contrary to the rules of the Spanish court. King Philippe summons her lady in waiting, Countess of Aremberg, and banishes her. In a very brief aria, “O ma chère compagne, ne pleurez pas, ma sœur,” Elisabeth consoles her friend and conveys both dramatically and vocally her dignity in the face of the King’s public humiliation.

In the third act, Eboli sends a message inviting Carlos to a secret meeting. Carlos assumes the message is from Elisabeth. When he discovers his mistake, it is too late – Eboli knows his guilty secret and threatens to expose him “O Ciel! Quelle pensée vous tient pâle, immobile et la lèvre glacée?.” Guerrero adroitly changed from amorous to terrified and Eboli undulated her voice supremely in “Et moi qui tremblais devant elle!” mocking the Queen’s virtue. Auspiciously, Rodrigue arrives to save the day and threatens to kill Eboli if she does not keep the secret. Despite the vocal bravura of the three protagonists, it was more unfortunate to witness this powerful scene unfolding before the unsightly structure used throughout the opera, as opposed to easily available flora with which to convey both sensuality and ensuing menace.

The act ends with an “Auto da fe” scene, where heretics are burnt at the stake by the Inquisition in front of the Church of Our Lady of Atocha, in the presence of the King, the Queen, Rodrigue and the courtiers. Don Carlos intrudes with a group of Flemish representatives and demands his father make him ruler of Flanders. When Philippe refuses, Carlos draws his sword. Rodrigue intervenes and disarms him and Carlos is arrested. This scene shows a rash Carlos, which is more consistent with the actual historical figure, who was mentally unstable.

The libretto is based on Friedrich von Schiller’s play, Don Carlos (1787). His work made a heroic figure out of Carlos, a man torn between his illicit love for his stepmother and his idealistic obsession with the cause of Flanders’ freedom. In this production, the imposing “Auto da fe” scene was ill‑conceived. The King and his entourage, as well as the crowd, appeared modest, without animus or charisma. The “heretics” consisted of a few emaciated prisoners unconvincingly paraded to the front of the stage. The pyre on which they were to perish was not seen; mere smoke in the background was meant to convey the atrocity. To note the positive, both the chorus and orchestra, under the baton of the highly capable Enrique Mazzola, played masterfully, especially in this pivotal scene. And in contrast to the grim sets, the bright costumes of the royal couple, especially Elisabeth’s dazzling dress, did much to ameliorate the austere design choices plaguing the production.

In the fourth act, King Philippe reflects on old age and his unloving wife in the aria, “Elle ne m’aime pas,” with Russian bass Dmitri Belosselskiy movingly capturing the work’s most powerful aria – possibly Verdi’s most glorious writing for a bass. His voice was both powerful and suave, and his interpretation touching. My only reservation was regarding his French diction. In fact, all other cast members displayed more than decent French, an admirable feat, proving Lyric Opera of Chicago employs a top‑notch language coach. In contrast, Belosselskiy’s French was not easy to comprehend. This was followed by Philippe’s duet with the Grand Inquisitor. Except for Russian opera, where basses are legion, this is the only known duet for two basses in the repertoire. American bass Solomon Howard’s voice is even lower than Belosselskiy’s. It is important the two voices do not sound alike; and it is more effective if the Grand Inquisitor has the lower voice, to convey his imperiousness. So menacing was the Inquisitor’s admonishing of King Philippe that it sent shivers down one’s spine.

Finally, the Queen’s jewel box, which contains the portrait Carlos had given her at Fontainebleau, has been stolen by the spurned and vindictive Eboli. When the King confronts the Queen with his son’s portrait, she faints. Eboli is guilt‑ridden and confesses the theft to Elisabeth. She also confesses to being the King’s mistress. The Queen orders her banished the same day. Eboli sings her signature aria “Oh! Je ne verrai plus la Reine! O Don fatal et détesté,” lamenting her fatal beauty, and swears to save Carlos from prison. Margaine brought the house down with this aria, impressing with her velvety voice and temperament. Rodrigue visits Carlos in his cell and conveys a message from the Queen, imploring him to meet the next day at the Monastery of Saint‑Just. Knowing that Carlos, as the crown prince, is more useful to the Flemish cause than himself, Rodrigue has taken Carlos’s secret papers and thus the blame for the Flemish rebellion. Knowing his death is imminent, Rodrigue bids farewell to Carlos in “Oui Carlos! C’est mon jour suprême,” as he is shot by the Inquisitor’s agents. Golovatenko was extremely effective in this most moving of death scenes. He sang elegantly, avoiding excess. A crowd, organized by Eboli, gathers in front of the prison and in the ensuing chaos, Eboli manages to help Carlos escape.

In the final act, Elisabeth awaits Carlos in the monastery and sings the opera’s most famous aria, “Toi qui sus le néant des grandeurs de ce monde.” Debuting in this role, American soprano Rachel Willis‑Sørensen was a revelation. Her rich spinto voice was ideally suited to the role. Hers is a beautiful voice with natural trills, and easily recognizable within seconds. Watch out for this woman, as she will go far. Moreover, her diction in French is impeccable. Every word was properly enunciated, enabling her to nuance emotion, rendering her acting supreme. Simply stated, she knew of what she was singing. Elisabeth is a role that requires charisma and Willis‑Sørensen has loads of it!

Elisabeth bids farewell to Carlos, reminding him of his mission to free Flanders and wishes them both happiness in the next world. Agents of the Inquisition come in search of Carlos. The ending is left unclear in most productions as well as in Verdi’s reworked versions of the opera. Traditionally, a monk, who is the spirit of Carlos’s grandfather Charles V, snatches Carlos away from the Inquisitor’s agents. However, in this production, the King himself stabs his son to death. This gruesome ending was highly disappointing. It cheapened Verdi’s Don Carlos from “grand opera” to mere gory verismo. It would seem the historic figure of the mentally unstable Don Carlos was no match for his father! How sad. While this production offered some bright moments and some marvelous singing and acting, it was ultimately marred by its unimaginative staging and sets, and that’s a shame.

Ossama el Naggar



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