Opera Review: DON CARLOS (Lyric Opera Chicago)

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by Barnaby Hughes on November 14, 2022

in Music,Theater-Chicago


Don Carlos is every bit the grand opera that audiences should expect, from the size of the chorus and the number of principal roles to the length of the performance and complexity of plot. It’s full of gorgeous music that ranges from the introspective to the anguished, the festive to the brooding. Don Carlos isn’t just big; it’s excessive! The cumulative effect of it all is overwhelming, which isn’t helped by the pacing of the production. Three acts go by before the first and only intermission — a long and trying wait of two hours. Then the remaining two acts follow for a total of 3 hours 50 minutes. The first intermission probably should have followed the second act, with a second intermission after the third act. This alone makes Don Carlos inaccessible for all but the most hardy and dedicated opera goers.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Joshua Guerrero

It’s fitting that Lyric Opera is performing Don Carlos hot on the heels of Ernani, since the action of the one follows that of the other. In Ernani, Don Carlos is the King Charles I of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The eponymous hero of Don Carlos, however, is the Prince of Asturias and grandson of King Charles. Son of King Philip II of Spain from his first marriage to Maria Manuela of Portugal, Don Carlos was mentally unstable and died young. His short life was reimagined as a competitive and tragic romance by playwright Friedrich Schiller, whose work Verdi and librettists Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle adapted for the Parisian stage.

 Igor Golovatenko, Clémentine Margaine

At the beginning of Act One, we find Elisabeth of Valois, daughter of King Henry II of France, betrothed to Don Carlos. Yet, just as soon as the two meet and fall in love at first sight, Elisabeth is betrothed instead to Don Carlos’ father, King Philip II of Spain. To put this into better perspective, you should understand that Philip’s first wife died shortly after giving birth to Don Carlos and that his second wife was Queen Mary of England. Elisabeth, then was Philip’s third wife. Elisabeth  and Don Carlos, however, were the same age, while Philip was eighteen years older.

Soloman Howard, Dmitry Belosselskiy

So what happens in the rest of the nearly four-hour production? To put it simply, Elisabeth and Don Carlos love each other at a distance, while King Philip tries to care for a troubled son and a wife who doesn’t love him. Of course, there are multiple subplots that enrich the story. One involves the unsuccessful attempt by Don Carlos and his friend Rodrigue to go to Flanders where the Eighty Years’ War or Dutch Revolt was brewing. The larger subplot sees the noblewoman Eboli, who professes to be in love with Don Carlos, out the son’s love of his step-mother to the father who confronts his wife. Eboli admits having been the king’s mistress and Elisabeth banishes her. Moreover, a further subplot involves the king’s friendship with the Grand Inquisitor, who seeks and obtains the death of Rodrigue for his alleged part in the Flemish rebellion. And this is by no means the whole plot, which could have been far simpler. But perhaps that is the reason why Verdi revised this opera so much, which exists in Italian translation as well? This production opts for the 1886 five-act French version, which is the composer’s longest opera.

Joshua Guerrero, Peixin Chen

Unlike Ernani, Don Carlos features a much fresher cast. Of the eleven named roles, four are Lyric debuts. The remaining seven have only appeared in one or two productions. Each one is so outstanding that it is difficult to single out just a few. Joshua Guerrero, seen last season as Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth, gives voice to a wide range of emotions as the eponymous Don Carlos. His light and limpid tenor seems almost effortless, though his understated acting could have used a bit more effort. Rachel Willis-Sørenson plays Elisabeth with grace and sympathy, mirrored in her full, yet youthful, soprano. Clémentine Margaine, previously Dulcinée in Massenet’s Don Quichotte, naturally sings her French with excellent diction as Eboli. Her tour-de-force performance of the famous Veil Song (“Au palais des fées”) shows off her rich mezzo-soprano and some acrobatic coloratura.

The Company of Don Carlos

Among the Lyric debuts, pride of place goes to Russian tenor Igor Golovatenko as Rodrigue. His soaring and sinuous voice features a gorgeously sonorous tone. Third-year Ryan Opera Center member Denis Vélez is always a delight to behold, this time in the trouser role of Thibault. Her bird-like singing and playful acting provide some of the few light-hearted moments in an otherwise serious opera. Also noteworthy are basses Dmitri Belosselskiy as Philippe and Soloman Howard as the Grand Inquisitor. Their Act Four scenes together are some of the most solemn of the whole production.

The Company of Don Carlos

Sir David McVicar directed the original Oper Frankfurt production; Alex Weidauer directs this Lyric revival. Don Carlos is rather typical of McVicar’s dark, gothic style of direction, replete with processions of miserable heretics on their way to a certain and painful death. The only real hitch in the production’s pacing comes at the end of Act Four, when the music stops while Rodrigue’s body is removed. Robert Jones’s spare, monochrome set is functional, but uninspiring. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costume designs and Sarah Hatten’s wigs mostly evoke the opera’s sixteenth-century Spanish setting, but there were a few anachronisms, such as Thibault’s pony-tailed wig. As always, Enrique Mazzoli conducts with a well-controlled and practiced hand, moving the score along at just the right speed.

Joshua Guerrero, Igor Golovatenko

If the season’s earlier production of Verdi’s Ernani seemed stale, Don Carlos is undoubtedly fresh, helmed by a wonderfully dynamic and talented cast. Grand in every way, Verdi’s Don Carlos is not for the faint of heart or the casual opera goer, but it is an incredibly impressive achievement. The performance is long and excessive in almost every way, but there is moment after moment of sublime beauty. Take it in if you dare and prepare to be overwhelmed. Next up is Rossini’s uproarious romp Le Comte Ory.

The Company of Don Carlos

photos by Todd Rosenberg

The Company of Don Carlos

Don Carlos
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on November 25, 2022
for tickets, call 312.332.2244 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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