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By the Numbers

New York
Central Park
04/09/2000 -  
Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlos

New York Grand Opera
Vincent La Selva (conductor)

When Rudolph Bing was appointed the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in the 1950's, the buzz in this town was that he must be just a little bit crazy because he insisted on inaugurating his reign with a production of Verdi's Don Carlo, the most difficult opera to cast in the entire standard repertoire, primarily because of the inclusion of three powerful roles for the rare bass voice. Similar innuendoes of quixoticism greeted the announcement by Vincent La Selva some seven years ago that he would mount the entire output of the Parma master in chronological order with the limited forces of the New York Grand Opera. Now that Maestro has almost totally accomplished his Herculean feat, he joins Bing as a legendary figure in the pantheon of this most musical of cities. From its pedestal high above the plaza overlooking Central Park's Summerstage, the bust of Friedrich Schiller looked down upon the proceedings last evening and this is fitting because it was his dramatic structure in the play Don Carlos which gives this great opera its cohesiveness. Written for the conventions of Paris, this is Verdi's only "number opera", that is, each of the five major characters has one or two opportunities to stop the show with a blockbuster aria designed to show off their vocal pyrotechnic range and emotive power. The music of Don Carlos doesn't flow like that of Rigoletto, rather it is designed to be frequently interrupted (hopefully) with applause. Even Feodor Chaliapin, the master of Stanislavskian realism, used to step to center stage and repeat King Philip's big number, Ella giammai m'amo, to the detriment of the story but the delight of his adoring, mostly female, fans.

Although not exactly Ponselle, Martinelli and Chaliapin, the New York Grand soloists navigated the five-act, original French version (the opera is, of course, more familiarly known as Don Carlo in its Italian incarnation, the Paris production not having been heard in New York since 1877) with considerable style. It is legitimate to consider Carlos as a weakling, mentally deficient and morally bankrupt. There is considerable historical justification for this interpretation as well as many hints in the Schiller. If this were the impression for which Maestro La Selva was striving, he was immeasurably aided by Dallas Bono, a tenor incapable of staying on pitch at any volume level above a mezzo piano, forcing the audience to view the title character in anything but an heroic light. The rest of the cast was fine, however, even Don Yule as a reptilian Grand Inquisitor and Nancy Cruz Benenson as a spirited Thibault, partnering with Cynthia Springsteen’s Eboli in the Moorish Love Song like a veteran Broadway song and dance gal. Ms. Springsteen was powerful in O Don Fatale (I’m afraid that I only know the Italian names for these pieces) as was Valentin Peitchinoff in Phillip’s emotional soliloquy. The best of the numbers were reserved for Michael Corvino’s affecting Rodrigue, who sang ebulliently in the "gee, but it’s great to be friends" aria and nobly in his more than simply impressive death scene.

But as I get older, I realize that Don Carlos is really Elizabeth’s opera. I didn’t know this as a youth because the first act was always cut from productions and recordings worldwide. Without it, one has no sense of her prior life in France and the music of the last act, designed to reprise these idyllic days, never really made any sense. Now, however, we see where the emotional roots are in this masterwork, even though New York Grand’s minimal staging seemed to imply that the forest of Fountainbleau is actually the front yard of the Escurial. Katherine Luna was certainly the star last evening, saving her big Tu che la vanita for a boffo final scene. In an inspired bit of staging, her marching off to betrothal in Act I looks exactly the same as the later victims’ journey to oblivion in the Act III auto-da-fe. With the first act restored we get a sense of how severe Spain really was during these bloody times and applaud Maestro not just for his encyclopedic completeness (he mercifully deleted the ballet composed for the Paris original), but for his scholarship as well. Not just another fine night in the park under a waning moon, New York Grand offers an intellectual and emotional experience far superior to many of the indoor events of the "real season". And just think, it’s only ten more months until Aida!

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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