Grand opera in 5 Acts by Guiseppe Verdi
Original French libretto by Camille du Locle and Joseph Mery, based on the dramatic play, DON CARLOS, INFANT VON SPANIEN by Friedrich Schiller (1787).
First Production commissioned by the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra ( Paris Opera) and premiered at the company’s theatre, the Salle Le Peletier, on 11th March 1867.
Performance by Houston Grand Opera on Sunday, 22nd April 2012 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center Houston, Texas.
A co-production with the Welsh National Opera and Canadian Opera Company.
Conductor Patrick Summers
Director John Caird
Scenery Designer Johan Engels
Costume Designer Carl Friedrich Oberle
Lighting Designer Nigel Levings
Choreography Denni Sayers
Chorus Master Richard Bado
Don Carlos Brandon Jovanovich
Elizabeth de Valois Tamara Wilson
Princess Eboli Christine Goerke
Rodrigue Scott Hendricks
Phillipe II Andrea Silvestrelli
Le Grand Inquisitor Samuel Ramey
Spirit of Charles V Oren Gradus
Thibault Lauren Snouffer
A Celestial voice Brittany Wheeler
Le Comte de Lerma Boris Dyakov
Forrester Mark Diamond
DON CARLOS is the 25th of the 29 operas composed by Verdi, and his third fully blown, French grand opera composed for the Paris Opera. Verdi had toyed with the idea of setting Schiller’s play, ‘Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien’ twenty years earlier in 1850. The idea had not left his mind when he visited the Spanish royal palace – the Escurial in 1863. Commissioned by the Paris Opera, the initial work on the libretto was commenced by Joseph Mery, and completed by Camille du Locle, the son-in-law of the the General Manager of the Paris Opera. Most of the work on the opera was done in 1866 but due to a conflict between Italy and Austria the work was interrupted. Verdi in fact asked to be released from the contract but was refused and the premier was scheduled for the autumn of 1866. However, the opera was not premiered until March 11, 1867 due to various obstacles, including a strike and illness. In its original form it was an elaborate spectacle featuring a ballet, huge crowd scenes, and twice as much music as LA TRAVIATA. When the rehearsal period at the Grand Opera was coming to a close in February of 1867, Verdi had to make extensive cuts because of the length of the opera. Some of the scenes that were cut, included a long Prelude and Introduction to Act 1, part of the Philip-Posa duet in Act 2, and both the Elisabeth-Eboli and the Carlos-Philip duets in Act 4.
The historical milieu at the time of composition and the operas premier saw the Italian States still fighting for unification, the war with Austria over the Venetian States had failed, but Austria – which had been defeated by Italy’s ally Prussia, was forced to give up the Venetian States to France (which eventually gave them to Italy). Only 2 years earlier in 1864 France had agreed to the withdrawal of the troops of Napoleon III from Rome if the Papal States were preserved, and arguments continued in both France and Italy concerning the temporal power of the Catholic Church and the fate of Rome. Is it no wonder that Verdi was attracted to an opera pitting the characters against forces of Church and State, and freedom or suppression in the midst of a family melodrama ? Indeed these conflicts are as relevant today as they were for Verdi in the 19th century.
Houston Grand Opera has bravely staged the original DON CARLOS almost as originally envisaged by Verdi. Back were the opening chorus for the foresters and their wives in the Fontainebeau Scene, the duet for Elisabeth and Eboli in Act 4, Scene 1, the duet for Carlos and the King after the death of Posa in Act 4, Scene 2, an exchange between Elisabeth and Eboli during the insurrection in the same scene and several other previously cut sections. The ballet “La Pérégrina” was not performed. The production was originally staged for the opening of the Wales Millennium Centre. Interestingly Australian director Neil Armfield had originally been engaged to direct the production with designers Brian Thompson, Carl Friedrich Oberle and Nigel Levings, but Armfield was forced to drop out 5 months prior to the opening due to a health scare. John Caird, an experienced stage and musical director who had never directed an opera, but had recently staged the Schiller play Don Carlos was approached, and became the director of this production.
Caird and his new set designer, Johan Engels have produced a staging that constantly reminds the audience of the influence of the Church. With a fixed set consisting of black walls, tiers of black steps on three sides, individual scenes were promptly altered by additional elements either being flown in, or the black, back wall up stage opening, to reveal new design elements. The forest in the Fontainebleu scene consisted of a forest of gigantic crucifixes amidst swirling fog, the chorus entered for the Auto-da-fe all baring red crucifixes in their hands which were later stood on the stairs around the stage for Phillipe II’s room. The stage action moved well and characters were well delineated by an exceptional cast of singing actors. With the gigantic stage of the Brown Theatre the chorus of 72 with 8 extras had difficulty in filling the set particularly for the Auto-de-fe scene. The heretics were burnt on a pile of crucifixes atop a wagon down stage centre, and the unusual finale saw Don Carlos eye cut out prior to being killed.
Musically the production was in the exceptional hands of Houston Grand Opera Music and Artistic Director, Patrick Summers.Together with the exceptional Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus the performance was a stunning musical treat of probably Verdi’s darkest and edgiest score. The chorus work in particular was exceptional and extremely precise. Their sound was very bright and open rather than the warmer, fuller sound usually experienced in Australia and Europe.
The title role was delivered in robust style by American tenor, Brandon Jovanovich. Here is a voice to watch ! With good looks, stage smarts, and a voice capable of so many colours his was a stunning performance and justified the staging of this opera (well Don Carlos is the title role !). Jonas Kauffman better watch out, because the US is nurturing their home grown version. Tamara Wilson, who was a stunning Aida in Sydney a few years ago, has developed beautifully since then. Her voice is even more secure and focused, her beautiful golden tone even more luscious, and her dramatic abilities have also considerably developed. Again here is a true star in the making. Her singing in the final scene was electrifying.
Mr Summers opted for a soprano Eboli with Christine Goerke. She is a true force of nature with a big dramatic voice and bottom notes that many a mezzo would die for. Coupled with her highly dramatic instincts this was an electrifying performance from start to finish.
Samuel Ramey, who had just turned 70 years of age was singing his last operatic performance as the Grand Inquisitor. Although the voice had a prominent wobble on this occasion, it took nothing from his musical and sinister performance of the role. His performance was an abject lesson in the use of stillness to achieve dramatic tension. Less successful were Scott Hendricks as Rodrigue and Andrea Silvestrelli as Phillipe II. Hendricks singing was a little inconsistent and seemed not quite in the same league as Wilson, Goerke, and Jovanovich. While Silvestrelli, who possesses an enormous voice suffered from an excessive vibrato. Smaller roles were well sung, particularly Boris Dyakov as the Comte de Lerma.
Well, was the full version worth hearing ? – a most emphatically yes. There was not a dull moment or wasted section of music in the score presented, and the performance seemed to pass far too soon. This was a striking and musically vivid performance of one of Verdi’s great masterpieces that deserves to be heard much more frequently in its original French without the cuts.