The Review Is In

Power & mercy: Houston Grand Opera's Don Carlos is an epic that hits on a personal level

Power & mercy: Houston Grand Opera's Don Carlos is an epic that hits on a personal level

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The chorus in Houston Grand Opera's production of Don Carlos Photo by Felix Sanchez
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The heretic burnings in Houston Grand Opera's production of Don Carlos Photo by Felix Sanchez
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Brandon Jovanovich as Don Carlos and Tamara Wilson as Elizabeth de Valois Photo by Felix Sanchez
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Don Carlos and King Philippe Photo by Felix Sanchez
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News_Houston Grand Opera_Don Carlos_Apriil 2012_Heretic burnings
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Such a grand web of emotion, history, and musical thinking is contained in Verdi’s epic Don Carlos that the experience of it is psychologically complicated. I’m extremely grateful to Houston Grand Opera for presenting this masterpiece, especially in its original five-act version with a French libretto.

It is an unstable work, allegedly existing in more permutations than any other Verdi opera, and the only thing that seems to be missing here is a ballet scene that even Verdi himself, in 1883, was willing to cut.

Based on Friedrich Schiller’s dramatic story of the 16th century Don Carlos, Infante of Spain, and the long-standing struggle for power in the Houses of Habsburg and Valois, the opera might seem largely focused on history. Nonetheless, its enduring popularity is no doubt related to how it resonates with the contemporary viewer in a more personal manner.

 As I got into my car to leave, two priests were getting into the car next to mine. They were laughing and smiling, and I wondered what they had thought of the opera. 

As it unfolded, I found my thoughts turning to my high-school philosophy teacher Mr. Harris. On days when he wasn’t teaching Intro to Kant or Camus, he would menace his mostly indifferent students with the irritating question, “Who shall rule?” It’s no small inquiry, and it certainly woke us up.

Each class member had his or her own answer, and as a group we never did solve that most difficult conundrum by the end of the year. It’s just what we’ve been doing as humans throughout history, and for me, this the basic conflict contained in the plot of Don Carlos.

And after witnessing the third-act auto da fé (“act of faith”) burning of heretics, not to mention the assassinations by the Inquisition in the subsequent two acts, certainly my mind turned to the matter of religion. As I got into my car to leave, two priests were getting into the car next to mine. They were laughing and smiling, and I wondered what they had thought of the opera.

How are we to consider those who do not share our religious beliefs? If the first theme of Don Carlos is power, the second (no less subordinate to the first) is mercy.

The third is musical invention. Premiered at the Paris Opera in 1867 (though HGO program notes say that Verdi had been thinking about composing it as early as 1850), the date seems notable as well, since it follows the Munich premiere of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by only a couple of years.

I don’t know enough about Verdi’s attitude towards, and experience of, Wagner, but the structure and texture of his Don Carlos seems much more through-composed than his earlier work. The ensemble writing is even richer, if you can imagine that. Verdi does not appear, however, to hint at the decay of diatonic harmony to the extent that Wagner did.

He has composed distinct arias, but they are skillfully embedded into the larger structure, and the orchestral writing is often lush in a late-Romantic German manner. The second-act aria for Princess Eboli harkens to Bizet’s Carmen, but it couldn’t, since that opera didn’t premiere until 1875, so maybe it’s the other way around.

Suffice it to say that Verdi, by the time of Don Carlos, starts to sound quite inter-European, and the overall skillfulness and sophistication carries the lengthy piece magnificently.

Sticking To The Cross

South African designer Johan Engels has contributed a fascinating set based on the powerful image of the cross. The opening scene, for a chorus of woodcutters, had (by my count) 21 looming black wooden crosses at slight angles, mimicking a forest. A small pile of firewood downstage center turns out later to be assembled from individual smaller crosses as monks file in and each chooses one from the pile.

In a subsequent scene, these same crosses are bright red and held aloft by the chorus during the burning of the heretics. Later, they become the monuments in a cemetery.

An arena of bleachers is effective at times, but in other scenes seems a bit at odds with the more intimate scenes. Engels perhaps wished to show that all personal events in the opera are played out within a public context. His colors are almost entirely red, black and gold, and they are enhanced by Nigel Levings’ classy lighting design.

 Goerke is a brilliant singer and an accomplished actor, and her overall deportment harkens back to the great heyday of golden divas. 

Where Engels’ set design is successful at embodying archetypes rather than any specific historical period, Carl Friedrich Oberle’s costume ideas are fragmented and have a strange problem of dissonance. I noticed Pasolini-like gangsters in black baggy double-breasted suits, complete with Borsalino hats. There were women in bright blue satin 1950s evening gowns. And some of the dress for the central characters looked like 16th century “Spanish-lite.”

The effect was somewhat reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater aesthetic, but it should be noted, that choreographer always used faded clothing that looked as if it came from the resale shop. There’s a metaphor in that, to be sure. Engels’ outfits, however, are a little too pristine and seem self-consciously metaphorical, particularly the Catholic processions in bright-red Ku Klux Klan hoods. I’m aware that such outfits are still worn in Europe by hooded penitents in Holy Week festivities, but they resonate differently with American audiences.

The costuming throughout didn’t quite match the sophistication of Engels’ stage design.

American tenor Brandon Jovanovich in the title role was having some pitch problems in the first act, as if he couldn’t quite hear himself. Those slight sags on the high notes made me worry that I was in for a headache by the finish, but it didn’t happen. It appeared to be a simple matter of warming up, or perhaps dealing with the acoustic situation in the hall.

By the second act, Jovanovich was in fine form and by the fourth he was perfectly sublime. The circumstances of a four-hour opera are complicated in this way. They demand endurance, but the pay-off is that sometimes the length allows the singer to only get better as the scenes pass by. The latter situation occurred and Friday night the handsome young singer made a highly successful role debut at HGO.

Soprano Tamara Wilson was a bit restrained as Elisabeth de Valois, though the clarity of her singing and the stunning consistency of her voice more than made up for it. When her precious jewel box is stolen in the fourth act and she responds with compassion towards the scheming Princess Eboli, she began to more fully embody the opera’s overall theme of mercy (this is already hinted at in the first act, where she takes pity on a crowd of peasants).

Her fifth act aria, where she prays at a tomb and remembers her first meeting with Carlos at Fontainebleau was a highpoint, and we needed it late in the evening. Wilson, however, was a bit upstaged by the emphatic Christine Goerke in the role of Eboli. If you saw last season’s Ariadne auf Naxos, you know what I mean. Goerke is a brilliant singer and an accomplished actor, and her overall deportment harkens back to the great heyday of golden divas.

In the fourth act, her character is admonished and told, “You must choose between a convent and exile; live in happiness!” and her reaction of incredulity, and the concomitant vocalizing was something quite memorable. She cursed beauty, “which makes women so proud,” with everything she had.

Other notable performances include American bass Samuel Ramey as The Grand Inquisitor. He could take a simple phrase like, “De moi, que vouliez-vous?” and make it heartbreaking and terrifying at the same time. His is a rich, resonant, powerful voice and his blind character is a hard one to bring off, though program notes explain that he has a certain predilection for villains. Anyone who saw him on opening night would be hard-pressed to argue that point.

Baritone Scott Hendricks brought convincing fervor to his portrayal of Rodrigue, and Italian Andrea Silvestrelli’s demanding bass, not to mention his overall stunning endurance, made for a thrilling Philippe II.

HGO will perform Dob Carlos three more times — Thursday night at 6:30 p.m., April 22 at 2 p.m. and April 28 at 6:30 p.m.