Giuseppe Verdi, Don Carlo (1867)
Based on: a play by Friedrich Schiller
Setting: Madrid, mid-16th century
Sung in: Italian
Plot in 101 words or less: Don Carlo, heir to Philip II, falls for French princess Elisabetta while traveling on the down low in Fontainebleau. She’s like, same. But, wait, she needs to marry King Philip to keep the peace between France and Spain. No bueno. What’s a not-poor boy to do? I know, save Flanders! Buddy Rodrigo is all over that and swears eternal friendship. Dad and Carlo cross swords and jealous Princess Eboli (for realz?) sets Queen Elisabetta up for a fall. Rodrigo ends up sacrificing himself for Carlo, who nevertheless gets dragged off by a ghost. What?!? Moral: No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.
I was a bit wary of Don Carlo given its length (four hours and thirty minutes, including two intermissions), but was pleasantly surprised to enjoy almost every minute. And it had a lot to live up to after Jenůfa. This has turned out to be an incredible summer season at the San Francisco Opera.
The thing that struck me most about this opera was how utterly believable it was. I’m not sure how to explain, but usually these highly dramatic works involving illustrious personages seem emotionally distant to me. I just don’t often buy that the characters are real people. Not here. My companion (La Maratonista being off in the wilds of Wyoming) agreed and thought it had a lot to do with foreshadowing and structure. Maybe it was just that the singing was so darn good. Because was it ever.
I was expecting as much from Michael Fabiano, who we last saw in Luisa Miller where he unfortunately had zero chemistry with his leading lady, but who had thoroughly impressed me in his SFO debut in Lucrezia Borgia, as Edgardo in the Lucia di Lammermoor I saw in Paris, and as Rodolfo in La bohème, a production I awarded a 2014 Figaro for Best Ensemble.
What I hadn’t expected was the stellar singing surrounding him, especially from the men, which is where I generally tend to find fault. Fabiano’s duets with baritone Mariusz Kwiecień as Rodrigo were quite simply angelic. Bass René Pape as Philip II proved an excellent regal counterpoint to both of them, but also tender and frail with wife Elisabetta, played by Ana María Martínez in a remarkably controlled manner that was perfect for the character. Throw in a fierce Nadia Krasteva (in her SFO debut) as Princess Eboli and it is hard to imagine this cast won’t take home the Figaro for Best Ensemble in December.
The sparsely dressed sets, especially in the first few acts were somewhat disappointing, but they improved as the opera went on. Still, I expected something grander. The costumes were impeccable. Princess Eboli’s dress in Act IV was to die for; it looked velvety rich. You can see some of the details of the costumes in the video below:
There is just one more performance of Don Carlo at the War Memorial Opera House on June 29. Catch it if you can.