Sunday, November 27, 2022

Don Carlos in Chicago

Despite some solid casting Lyric's first take on the 5-Act French language Don Carlos (seen in its last iteration on November 25th) was not so much a revelation as a reminder about what a slog this show can be. I think a lot of the blame has to go to Lyric MD Enrique Mazzola on the podium, who conducted a performance that seemed to be trying to convey how important and momentous a show this is but just ended up sacrificing any sense of momentum or excitement in the music. For all it's epic sweep Don Carlos still operates by the same musical logic as other Verdi potboilers and it needs to be played with an eye towards building tension and milking the drama like usual. There were a few glimmers of life in random places like the Posa-Philip scene and stretches of Act IV but the norm was plodding and uninspired. Endless pauses in transitional moments added to the sense of stasis. The length of the piece and relative lack of showpieces means you really have to sell the musical tension in every scene, but this reading felt  content to coast on the obvious greatness of the music. 

Perhaps even more than the Met's outing of the French language version last year, the text sounded very mushy and more like a factor that inhibited the singers than one that enlivened the drama. I remain convinced that the French can be great given some of the recordings I've heard, but we are clearly at an early stage where any routine collection of principals is not really prepared to sell the French text, and one sorely misses the expressiveness they might have been able to deliver in more familiar Italian (maybe?).

Some takes on the principles:

  • Joshua Guerrero has the right natural sound for Don Carlos to be sure and he was mostly a pleasure to listen to, though at times there is a tightness in the top half of the voice that verges on uncomfortable. Character-wise this seemed like an attempt at playing up the moody, neurotic version of Don Carlos and ending up with something that just felt inert. The tempi from the pit certainly didn't help, with big moments like the opening Fontainebleu aria and the Act 2 scene with Elisabetta DOA.
  • The beauty of Rachel Willis Sorensen's voice is undeniable, though in most of the early part of the evening she was dogged by twin handicaps of noticeable caution and thinning of the sound in Elisabetta's big soaring moments and a volume level one notch softer than what most of her counterparts were putting out. That said, she seemed to address some of these issues by the final Act and "Tu che le vanità" (sorry too lazy to look up the French names) was legitimately engrossing.
  • Clementine Margaine's vocal presence and dramatic commitment as Eboli popped hard against the lukewarm temperature onstage and in the pit--at times you could almost feel her trying in vain to push the whole opera into a higher gear. This was surely the most confident and stylish vocal portrayal of the evening, with all the pungent turns, dynamic creativity, and generally irresistible energy I remember from her DC Carmen a few years back. That said, the Veil Song had lovely moments but also included some strong choices that seemed like maybe an attempt to sell the piece on something other than its own merits. While her "O Don Fatale" was absolutely a highlight due to Margaine's exciting vocalism, the great climax wasn't as fully locked in as one might have hoped, no doubt due in part to a lack of inspiration and responsiveness from the pit.
  • Dmitri Belosselskiy's Philip had the welcome heft to fill the hall and the right gravitas for the part. The big Act IV scene was one of the first really moving stretches in this production, even if the aria didn't quite come together as an integrated whole, I think in part due to a limited sense of that Verdian line, but perfunctory pit business was certainly an issue here too.
  • I liked Igor Golovatenko's Posa quite a bit, with a warm musical sound and nice sense of legato. "Per me giunto è il dì supremo" was a bit pedestrian.
  • Solomon Howard, very familiar to DC audiences, was a very compelling Grand Inquisitor and a counterpoint to my recent complaints about casting very young singers in (very) old roles.
There has been a lot of ire directed at the physical production, which I suspect may be in part an expression of disappointment in the snoozy musical presentation. But it is definitely not good. Apparently before David McVicar foisted his off-putting Met Don Carlos on New York audiences' eyes he was testing out his theory that the audience should experience the visual analogue of the characters' pain and hopelessness in real time with this 2007 prod for Frankfurt. The set, entirely composed of white bricks, looks a bit like a neglected Eastern European sauna. Little platforms of bricks raise and lower at times but except for one platform representing Carlos V's tomb it is unclear why they are doing this. One might be ok with looking at this for 4 hours if it was used more creatively, but it was not. I'm not calling for 10 sets and realistic ramparts or whatever but the lack of creativity in some of these budget post-COVID stagings is worrying.