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Don Carlo — Opera Philadelphia at Academy of Music

don-carlo-007The artistry of one Giuseppe Verdi hardly needs more extoling, but under the baton of maestro Corrado Rovaris, the Opera Philadelphia orchestra reveals Verdi’s score for his 1867 opera, “Don Carlo,” as a masterpiece, full of color, texture, and perceptive accompaniment for François Joseph Méry and Camille de Locle’s libretto about intrigue and thwarted romance in King Philip II’s Spanish court.

Even as director Tim Albery’s production of “Don Carlo” unfolds on the Philadelphia Academy of Music’s stage, you hear and mind are arrested by the dash, playfulness, and tenderness of Verdi’s lush, evocative music.

I don’t mean to imply that Albery’s “Don Carlo” was more of an orchestral than vocal or operatic event, only that Rovaris and company was the ensemble that merited the most constant and undivided interest.

“Don Carlo” is episodic. While it has scenes that includes masses, most notably its auto de fé sequence in which the odious Inquisition slaughters people whose level of faith doesn’t meet its subjective standards, it is more a set of intense scenes in which characters express their political or romantic passion and sing stirring or touching arias that truly expose the intensity of their feelings. Vocal virtuosity is key considering the length, emotion, and difficulty of these arias. As staged with great intimacy by Albery, acting becomes as important as singing in conveying the full depth of a character’s outpouring of sentiment.

Although the singing in the Opera Philadelphia production is consistent, with each performer acquitting him- or herself with distinction, the acting sets Albery’s staging akilter so that the primary characters, Elisabeth (Leah Crocetto) and Don Carlo (Dimitri Pittas) pale is every way that isn’t purely vocal to the extraordinarily riveting performance of Troy Cook at Rodrigo, or Posa, as he’s alternately called and referred to mostly in the surtitles, the fiery physical portrayal by Michelle DeYoung as the Princess Eboli, and the toweringly majestic work of Eric Owens at King Philip II. Even minor characters, such as Morris Robinson’s Grand Inquisitor, Jeffrey Milner’s mysterious Friar, and Mingjie Lie’s efficient courtier elicit more attention that Crocetto and Pittas, who though elegant in their arias, especially Crocetto, do little to advance allegiance to or concern for their characters in their acting.

Crocetto’s voice is gorgeous, and there’s genuine depth in it, but she is wooden as Elisabeth de Valois and shows no signs of amorous leanings towards Don Carlo, with whom she’s shared an acknowledged love before she was sent to Spain as Philip’s queen as part of a peace offering between Spain and France. Nor does she convey any reason why men should be enamored of her to the point that they would risk their lives and freedom to gain her affection.

Crocetto has no animation. She is more from the “stand and deliver” school still popular among some opera buffs and seems an anachronism is contemporary opera where heroines must act and communicate some reason why men should love them or crave their attention.

NealBoxWell-placed catches in Crocetto’s voice show the torment Elisabeth endures being tied in wedlock to the powerful Philip while being in love with his temperamental son, Carlo, and mourn the betrayal Elisabeth believes has been her lot, but never in her acting does Crocetto reveal the slightest jot of personality, wiles, or taste for intrigue that is a part of her character. For all intents and purposes, Elisabeth de Valois, as an equal force vying for attention among Posa, Philip, and Eboli was absent. Crocetto came to sing. She did it beautifully and expressively. She was another fine instrument in Rovaris’s orchestra. She made no attempt to portray Elisabeth with any sense of grandeur or royalty, let alone conveying romantic vigor and heartsick despair.

Pittas is a bit more expressive, but he, too, did not give acting the same priority as singing, and he came across as a less than heroic, vain, and uninteresting Carlo. Perhaps, in this production Pittas’s Carlo and Crocetto’s Elisabeth deserved one another because they’re both so bland and might bore the other characters.

Pittas is not helped by a costume that looks absurd on him. Costumer Constance Hoffman might have been wiser to assign the button-up doublet worn by Cook as Posa to Pittas and given the open doublet to the thinner and more agile Posa. Especially since Cook is destined to dominate the Academy stage anyhow.

Pittas has no urgency as Carlo. Cook is the amazing combination of diplomacy and daring activism Posa is supposed to be. Though Pittas is not as stationary as Crocetto is and takes part in fights and battles, his physicality is not easy. He doesn’t seem like the soldier Posa is or the force to be reckoned with that Owens, who wrings character and animation from his vocals, gestures, and telling facial expressions, is.

Albery’s “Don Carlo” is weak where is needs to be the strongest. Cook, Owens, and DeYoung can thrill when they’re onstage, but they become the characters you wait for, especially Cook, because except for their voices, Pittas and Crocetto are so neuter.

Because Pittas and Crocetto are not equal to the supporting singers, only parts of “Don Carlo’s” libretto resonate fully. In an opera that is dependent on the audience following and getting involved in the story, this takes a toll. Méry and du Locle’s book is complex but it follows a logical line that is easy to comprehend if all is one the same level. I don’t think Albery ever loses his audience, but there isn’t much to hold them when Pittas or Crocetto are the focus, an exception being Crocetto’s final aria, “Tu che la vanitá conosce” (You who are familiar with vanity), in which the soprano is exquisite. They stagnate action that is quite intense when Cook’s Posa or Owens’s Philip take center stage.

Without meaning to or trying to, Cook wrests all scenes from Pittas’s grasp. His Posa is virile and committed to Flemish subjects suffering under Philip’s rule. You believe Cook when he sings of Posa’s concern for people need his help. You admire Posa’s wisdom and loyalty as he finds ways to appease Philip and keep from being even more extreme than he plans to be while protecting Carlo and rescuing him from certain death at the hands of the Inquisition, which with Philip has conspired to have Carlo branded a heretic and burned on the stake.

Much in Albery’s production is powerful. Owens is as commanding as a king can be. The actor has magnitude to go with his strong and flexible bass-baritone. Cook is excitingly dimensional as Posa. From the moment he enters, “Don Carlo” acquires a luster that was missing from its opening scene. You half wonder whether things were mixed up, and Carlo is taking Posa’s part because Cook provides all of the heroism and verve Carlo did not.

In smaller moments, Robinson’s Grand Inquisitor is a genuine threat who lets it be known he’d be as likely to turn on Philip, the king, as on anyone if he suspected a hint of what he would consider heresy. Robinson, though playing a frail 90-year-old blind man, well represents the power and absolutism of the Inquisition. Méry and du Locle are shrewd enough to show that the Inquisitor is corrupt and can be led or bribed to do nefarious work he hasn’t thought of himself, and Robinson conveys the larcenous, power-loving side of the Inquisitor with great skill and wryness.

Jeremy Milner, who appears almost hidden in his costume’s cowl, also makes good and efficient use of his stage time to convey the mysterious side to his character, one who will figure so importantly as “Don Carlo” comes to its close. Sarah Shafer’s voice haunts sweetly as it wafts from the stage left wings during an epiphany scene.  Mingjie Lei is spruce and sprightly as the royal herald and a Spanish count. Ashley Emerson is prim and correct as the lady in waiting, Tebaldo.

don-carlo-004Albery is also good at staging complex scenes. You cringe with the people summoned to the Inquisition, knowing that the likelihood of getting a fair trail from these religios would be tantamount to getting logical justice from the Sharia crowd today. As the bass tones of Verdi’s score convey the danger the accused heretics face, Albery stages a graphic and intense display of the Inquisition’s power, stripping five people of their outer clothes and possessions and letting us see them go, in various stages of undress, into the pits where the Inquisition prepares them for their deaths.

Andrew Lieberman’s thought-provoking set aids Albery’s concept for “Don Carlo.” Lieberman has set Philip’s palace, El Escorial, which doubles as a monastery, on its side, the windows in its burnished walls looking like ominous portals from which anything can spring or anything can be hidden. El Escorial’s dome, represented upstage center within a circular disk, also looks as if its skylights were doors from which anything, good or evil can enter.

Following the Inquisition scene that ends the first half of Albery’s production, the curtain rises on a palace that has been damaged by the fires of the Inquisition. The entire dome of El Escorial has been blown away, and all you see is angry sky from Philip’s incendiary palace.

Debris and rubble from the dome’s destruction serves well when Albery needs a dungeon scene once Philip has Carlo imprisoned and sentenced to death for adultery and treason.

A prison setting pervades the entire production as tightly latticed walls of chain link come down between sections of the Academy stage to divide one part of Philip’s court for another. These sections include gated doors that open in a manner reminiscent of a prison cell and reinforce the idea that Carlo, and Elisabeth, are trapped in Philip’s domain and are powerless to thwart his jealous eye and imperious commands.

Albery’s narrative and closely focused approach served “Don Carlo” well. The Opera Philadelphia production keeps you interested in all of the palace intrigue. You even care slightly about the Flemish (although no great case is made for their plight, even when a delegation from Belgium is brought before Philip and turned over to the Inquisitor for roasting). It is in romance the production is lacking and that’s because you don’t believe Pittas’s Carlo or Crocetto’s Elisabeth would sacrifice a finger nail, let alone a life, for the other.

The production is slow, but in a thoughtful way that never becomes dull and is seasoned with spirit when Cook or DeYoung bring their abundant energy to it.

DeYoung is lovely as Eboli who, even under a masquerading hood, shows how flattered the Princess is when she thinks Don Carlo is paying amorous attention to her. DeYoung displays a nice combination of happiness and vanity. She is also convincing when Eboli realizes Carlo meant his sweet words, spoken from the other side of one of those grates mentioned earlier, for Elisabeth and turns on Carlo with spiteful anger she puts into action before she comes to her senses and becomes Carlo’s ally again.

DeYoung’s Eboli doesn’t seem as naïve or passionless as Crocetto’s Elisabeth. Her days as a courtier in France, and now Spain, have sophisticated her, and while she has an abrupt reaction when she thinks she’s been mocked or wronged, De Young makes it credible when Eboli adjusts to her situation and resists Elisabeth’s order of banishment (albeit to France, where Eboli would be home and live freely) and remains to be of assistance to Carlo and Posa.

Eric Owens is marvelous as Philip. He exudes a royal presence, looking as if he got his idea for posture and attitude from Holbein’s painting of Philip’s one-time rival, England’s Henry VIII. Owens’s voice is as commanding as his presence. He can engender fear in any who cross him. He also conveys disappointment in not having a son who could be his loyal lieutenant or a wife who loves him and is a true partner.

Owens is a monarch of stature, one who is not be taken lightly or who takes things in his stride. Philip is the master of all he surveys, and Owens makes that indisputably clear.

Thomas Hase’s lighting is a major part of Albery’s atmospheric approach to “Don Carlo.” Light has to stream in from broken portals yet seem sour and diffused. Hase gives the right cast to Carlo’s cell during the prison scene and deepens the sickening feeling left by the Inquisition sequences with his varied lighting during and after it.

“Don Carlo,” produced by Opera Philadelphia, runs through Sunday, May 3 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $239 to $19 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1018 or by visiting www.operaphila.org.

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