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Don Carlo Reigns in the New Year

Los Angeles
Los Angeles Opera
09/10/2006 -  and 13, 16, 20, 24, 28 September and 1 October 2006
Giuseppe Verdi : Don Carlo
Salvatore Licitra (Don Carlo), Annalisa Raspagliosi (Elisabeth de Valois), Lado Ataneli (Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa), Dolora Zajick (Princess Eboli), Ferruccio Furlanetto (King Philip II), Eric Halfvarson (The Grand Inquisitor), Lauren McNeese (Tebaldo, a Page), James Creswell (A Monk), David Lomeli (Count Lerma), Hanan Alattar (A Celestial Voice)
Ian Judge (Director), John Gunter (Set Designer), Tim Goodchild (Costumer Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer), Kitty McNamee (Choreographer),
Stuart Canin (Los Angeles Opera Concertmaster), William Vendice (Chorus Master),
James Conlon (Conductor).

After continued success with works such as Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata in the early 1850s, Giuseppe Verdi’s travels took him to other countries, France in particular. It was here that Verdi was able to experience firsthand the genre of French grand opera.

No doubt, the “king” of French grand opera, Giacomo Meyerbeer, had a profound influence in Verdi’s works at the time, yet he always retained a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward this style. Nonetheless, one finds the key elements in Don Carlo that categorize this opera as a work of epic proportions.

After Meyerbeer’s death in 1864, efforts were made to perpetuate his legacy through Verdi. The following year the Paris Opéra eventually coaxed Verdi into producing a historical drama of the Spanish court and Inquisition during the reign of King Philip II of Spain. It was well known at the time that Verdi had a keen interest in big works, yet another predominant factor in his desire to pursue this major undertaking.

Don Carlo is one of the most edited and revised works in all opera. The original composition lasted well over five hours, leading to the vexing question of just how long the opera should actually last. For a lengthy time span, Don Carlo became known as the “problem opera”, virtually wiping it out of the repertoire and dismissed into nonexistence because of the very concerns previously noted. It wasn’t until the 1950s that musical artists began to revisit the work. A rediscovery of the beautiful music lead opera houses to resurrect performances, selecting one of three officially recognized adaptations.

The demands to stage Don Carlo are immense in a fiscal and personnel sense, and require a strong presence of principals in order to make this an effective and powerful drama set to music. With LA Opera’s cast at the helm Verdi would have been proud to have seen the drama and spectacle unfold in front of him, this the twenty-fifth opera in his long operatic career.

Riding on the coattails of LA Opera’s successful 20th Anniversary Season, it appears “full steam ahead” with the 2006/2007 Season kicking off with Verdi’s grand opera Don Carlo. It is clear that the work was well planned, meticulous, and taut. The performance never lagged thanks to the leadership of LA Opera’s new conductor, James Conlon. Mr. Conlon, previously the conductor of San Francisco Opera, brings with him new blood and an energetic force seen first hand within the orchestra’s meticulous legatos, punctuated dynamics, sonorous melodies, and pronounced percussion.

Ian Judge’s creative talents centered around five or six moving blocks, each supported by simplified Moorish arches with aching paintings depicting a crucified Christ above, bathed in an intense red background, a powerful reminder of the Catholic faith that permeated Spain in the 1500s and the blood it shed through territorial conquests.

The curtain was only drawn twice: once at the end of Act II (auto da fé) and the end of the opera (Act IV). All other scenes were delineated by subtly moving the blocks in various positions. Ornamental arches lowered from above gave a minimal yet elegant reminder of the palace interior with the ladies of the court present during Princess Eboli’s Veil Song. Similar touches with the king’s study were his royal chair, desk, crown, and Elizabeth’s casket. The opening and closing of the opera contained an eerie mausoleum, engraved with a macabre bas relief skeleton from which the ghost of King Charles V exits and then returns with Don Carlo enveloped in his outstretched arms.

The fabulous Salvatore Licitra sang the title role, portraying a love-sickened Don Carlo haunted by his beloved Elisabeth de Valois. His confidant, Rodrigo, sung by Georgian-born Lado Ataneli, was exceptional. Together, their big set duet in Act I (“Dio, che nell’ alma infondere”), the Mates Motif, was flawless, synchronized to the tee under the direction of James Conlon. The pairing was an exciting prelude of things to come.

Internationally-acclaimed Dolora Zajick played the role of the scheming, vindictive Princess Eboli. Searing red hair, eye patch, and black gown only added to the effectiveness in her role. Recently completing her successful title role in Tchaikovsky’s Joan of Arc (The Maid of Orleans) in San Francisco Dolora Zajick, a dramatic mezzo-soprano, sang with such passion that the house was riveted to their seats. She sang an exceptionally well executed Veil Song, only to be outdone by her show-stopping rendition of “O don fatale”. Ms. Zajick is a powerful performer and did not disappoint the patrons.

The demands of Elisabeth de Valois are great, but Annalisa Raspagliosi met the challenge with exceptional style. From the moment she graced the stage, the Italian soprano portrayed Spain’s tormented, confused, and heart-breaking Queen. Not only singing her beautiful soaring lines, she is also an equally talented actor that is hard to find in the operatic arena these days.

Equally impressive were the two other principal roles, that of King Philip II, played by Ferruccio Furlanetto and the menacing, powerful Grand Inquisitor, sung by Eric Halfvarson. Both holding a deep, rich bass timbre, they mesmerized the house, and were greeted by a thunderous ovation at the end of the performance. King Philip’s aria, “Ella giammai m’amo!” was stunning to say the least.

Other supporting roles played by Lauren McNeese (Tebaldo), James Creswell (A Monk), David Lomeli (Count Lerma), and Hanan Alattar (A Celestial Voice), helped cement the firm foundation of a strong cast.

It is interesting to note that Tim Goodchild chose primarily shades and hues of black and gray for costumes in this new production of Don Carlo. Although rather stark and drab, the color was somewhat effective in representing the somberness and tragedy of events to unfold, with sharp contrasts such as the red roses carried by the ladies of the court. However, during the auto da fé, the distinction between the masses was somewhat chaotic and confusing. Eloquently stunning were the rich gold robes and cuffs, accentuated by the ornately adorned crowns worn by both Elisabeth and King Philip II during the brief processional in Act II.

Choreographing this grand opera is not an easy task, and Kitty McNamee, attempted to accomplish this with the space allotted. Those who have seen Don Carlo in previous performances would normally expect to see some sort of organized march as the royal court assembles to witness the burning of the declared heretics. Rather disappointing, there appeared to be no cohesion or regimentation of rank that would have been prominent in those days. It looked like mass confusion. Those unfamiliar with Don Carlo and attending the opera for the first time would construe this as being overwhelming disarray. The scene is a true spectacle, full of pomp and circumstance, tragedy, tension, and drama, as this had been deemed as Verdi’s “dry run” to the more well-known Processional March from Aida, but there was no comparison. This unfortunately was rather discouraging.

By and large, the major components were present to provide the audience with an enthralling and enjoyable afternoon on this, the first performance of , and the opening opera of the season. Artistry abounds, and we are fortunate to have James Conlon with us in Los Angeles. We look forward to seeing his continued creative strengths unfold before us.

This rendition of Don Carlo is fast paced, packed with exceptional talent, contains no longueurs, and holds the audience spellbound up to the very end when Elisabeth sings her final high B before the curtain falls. If you have never seen a mature Verdi opera during his pinnacle years, then perhaps it is time to visit the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and see a real gem.

Christie Grimstad



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