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Don Carlo Features Notable Debuts, Returns

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
10/24/1998 -  and 27, 31 October, 5, 8*, 11, and 14* November 1998
Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo
Sergei Larin (Don Carlo), Nina Rautio, Marina Mesheriakova (11/14) (Elisabeth of Valois), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa), James Morris (Philip II), Markella Hatziano (Princess Eboli), Victor von Halem (Grand Inquisitor), Cassandre Berthon (Tebaldo), Reinhard Hagen (a monk), Matthew Lord (Count Lerma), Norman Shankle (a royal herald), Tammy Jenkins (celestial voice), Kathleen Jepsen (Countess of Aremberg)
Orchestra and Chorus of the San Francisco Opera, Emmanuel Joel (Conductor)
Emilio Sagi (Director)

A series of strong solo performances gave life to a handsome new production of Verdiís late masterpiece, Don Carlo at the San Francisco Opera despite a quirky staging and soggy conducting.

The edition used was essentially the four act, 1884 "Modena" version with the shortened Fountainebleau scene included and with one notable inclusion, that of a duet in the Act IV prison scene between Philip and Carlo, "Chi rende a me quest'uom. The piece does impede the dramatic flow and Verdi, a man of the theatre, was quick to recognize that. But he also knew he had written an effective piece and later used it again in the Lacrimosa of his Requiem.

In the title role, Sergei Larin gave his best performance yet with the San Francisco Opera. His strong, spinto tenor had plenty of ring and heft to carry easily over some of the heavier ensembles, but Larin also scaled it down for some beautiful intimate moments. Emotionally, he also displayed considerable range from the playful joy in the first scene with Elizabeth to the deep anguish at the death of Rodrigo. Only the hysterical desperation of such scenes as the auto-da-fe failed to convince.

Nina Rautio made an auspicious company debut as Elizabeth, her huge, dark soprano beautifully controlled and capable of handling Verdiís long-arched phrases with grace and musicality. She too maintained a consistent dramatic involvement in the opera with a regal, womanly presence and clearly defined characterization. When singing softly at the top of her register, Rautio doesnít always stay connected and the sound does not carry as it should, but this was her only vocal shortcoming. In general it was a welcome performance.

Anthony Michaels-Mooreís voice does not have the ideal warmth and bite for the role of Rodrigo, but that hardly mattered with his suave singing and strong, masculine presence. Michaels-Mooreís elegant musicianship and superb breath controlled resulted in a beautifully sung performance. In particular, he filled Rodrigoís death scene with the long, noble lines and emotional intensity to make it a highlight of the production.

James Morrisís stage presence is ideally suited to the role of Philip II. With his propensity for understated, command of a scene and his ability to convey inner turmoil through subtle means, Morris portrayed Philipís conflicting position with both clarity and economy. Vocally however, he is less well suited to the role. The voice lies to high to fill out the lower lying phrases and the top phrases lie too easily within in his range to give them the requisite poignancy and urgency. Morris sang with a bright forward tone at the expense of warmth or depth that robbed the music of its weight and gravity.

Markella Hatzianoís vocal technique was not up to the rigorous demands of Eboli with its wide range, florid passages and shifting tessitura. She gave her all in this, her company debut, but frequently came short of the mark. Hatziano was at her best in the garden scene where she conveyed Eboliís romantic aspirations as well as her fiery rage as the woman spurned in both vocal and dramatic terms.

Victor von Halemís Grand Inquisitor was suitable fanatical and aged sounding with a sort of imposing fury that made his power palpable. Cassandre Berthon was a lively, light-voice Tebaldo, her clear soprano blending nicely with Hatziano in the veil song. Matthew Lord at Count Lerma, Tammy Jenkins as the celestial voice and Norman Shankle as the royal herald all acquitted themselves with honor in this production.

As a director, Emilio Sagi elicited well defined performances from his principals, all of them giving dramatically involving performances well above the usual standard. But he also had his share of flaws including a complete lack of ability to use the chorus effective, a major flaw given the chorusís role in the opera and the San Francisco Opera Chorusís abilities to do justice.

Visually too Sagi seemed to find just the right touch at times and be horrible off at others. The contrast between the graceful flowing banners of the French court at the beginning of the first scene and the stiff formal ones of the Spanish court at the end of the same scene set off the differences between the two courts perfectly. On the other hand, the bodies, some dolls and some actors, slowly floating upward at the end of the auto-da-fe scene was ludicrous.

Whatever his previous achievements on the podium may be to warrant the responsibility of leading this new Don Carlo, conductor Emmanuel Joel was the wrong man for the job in this case. His flaccid leadership lacked any sense of rhythmic structure or architecture. And several times the sections were poorly balanced, allowing, for instance, the repeated bass figure in Elisabethís farewell to her lady-in-waiting to virtually overwhelm not only the other instruments, but the soloist as well. At the final performance, Joelís leadership showed no signs of improvement.

On the other hand, a new soprano of great promise graced the stage. In yet another company debut, Marina Mesheriakova was a luminous Elizabeth. Her voice has not the imposing size of Rautio, but it easily filled the large house. Evenly produced throughout the registers, her warm middle voice and pure, plangent tone gave this Elizabeth a feminine warmth and vulnerability. She also has superb mastery of her pianissimo and used it to beautiful, telling effect, particularly in the final scene.

Thomas J. Munnís evocative lighting set off Zack Brownís generally handsome sets and sumptuous costumes and together they created a series of atmospheric settings. From the lush forest outside Fountainebleau to the harsh white light of the Spanish day and the cool magical night in the garden, each setting provided an apt visual counterpart to Verdiís richly varied score.

Kelly Snyder



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