With yet another top-notch performance to add to his illustrious résumé – this time as Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, in LA Opera’s take on Giuseppe Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” which runs through October 14th — Plácido Domingo has proven that being a septuagenarian, let alone Father Time, can’t hold him back from commanding the stage with a timeless spirit and vigor.
With an astounding six decades of professional experience on stage, only Paul McCartney, of the rock/pop realm, can say the same. And like McCartney, who only a year younger at 76 just scored a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 with “Egypt Station,” Domingo has earned the highest possible distinction with his memorable turn in “Don Carlo.” He is aided by the brilliance of Louisa Muller’s stage direction, Kitty McNamee’s well-paced choreography, Grant Gershon’s wonderful chorus direction, and James Conlon’s conducting, who dutifully helps make Verdi’s thunderous music soar ever-powerfully for the modern listener.
“Don Carlo” is an impressive multi-act masterwork by librettists Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, who wrote it originally in French. Still, the commonly accepted Italian translation is just as becoming of the gravitas that intently holds the drama together, as imparted by the gripping plot. The story focuses on a forbidden love in Spain, around the time of the Inquisition, between Spain’s Prince Don Carlo (Ramón Vargas) and Queen Elisabeth de Valois (Ana María Martínez), who happens to be married to Carlo’s father, King Philip II (Ferruccio Furlanetto; Alexander Vinogradov will play the part beginning October 4th).
Carlo, who, with his selfless and trusted confidant, Rodrigo (Domingo) by his side, is encouraged to help liberate the king’s oppressed Flemish subjects in Flanders (in the northern part of Belgium). This is predictably received with harsh discord by King Philip II, who summons the grandiose tough love of the priestly Grand Inquisitor (Morris Robinson). Complicating matters further is not only the verboten love between the protagonists, but the presence of Princess Eboli (Anna Smirnova), whose own desire for Carlo, as well as her actions, get caught in the royal web of secrecy, which precedes uncovered truths and misunderstandings that spur the funereal conclusion.
The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage has never looked more expansive with John Gunter’s scenic design of foreboding red arches, with murals of battle-spilled blood and sacrifice overhead, and a giant red cross displaying a crucifixion, which invites the audience to partake in the darkly harrowing ambiance materialized by lighting designer Rick Fisher. The characters’ adornments, too, are authentic-looking to a preternatural degree thanks to costume designer Tim Goodchild, who incorporates many black and billowing dresses, smocks, swords, crowns, and capes, along with a beautiful ornateness to denote the sparkling splendor of the king and queen.
Domingo, who gracefully comes in almost under the radar at first as Carlo’s confidant and the king’s loyal advisor, is the consummate team player, ensuring that his co-stars shine as bright, if not brighter, than him. Whether his Rodrigo is consoling Carlo about the anguish of losing his one true love (Elisabeth de Valois), or averring his steadfast allegiance to the prince, or even “speaking freely” to the king about the impoverished citizens of Flanders, his baritone vocals ring out with a vibrant and impressive fervor. Without a doubt, they complement the other singers and the overall narrative very well. And yet, when the moment is ripe, and he needs to be front and center, Domingo tugs at every heartstring, emoting his Rodrigo with an indomitable morality — sustained by his determined legato — which, in the context of the opera, is as honorable as it is heartbreaking.
As the quintessential title character, Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas never rests on the laurels of his superstar credentials, proving himself over and over with an admirable effort. He is powerfully poignant and passionate in especially his duets with both Domingo and Martínez — in one instance seeking the guidance and warmth of the father he never had, and in the other, melancholically wishing for a “better world” where his Carlo and her Elisabeth could unite and make due on a promise of their union that sadly never was. Through it all, though, Vargas’ appropriately plaintive timbre is also characterized by a luminescence that is hopeful and reminiscent of a light at the end of a tunnel.
Ana María Martínez, who was last seen in “Carmen,” is immensely likable as the sweet and reluctant Queen Elisabeth de Valois. Martínez expertly brings out her persona’s favorable innocence by accessing the softness of her soprano range, which is conveyed exquisitely and mellifluously. As the emotionally subverted Queen, we observe de Valois’ strength in being kind to those unjustly punished. For instance, there is a moment when she dolefully bids adieu to her childhood friend who was not at her prescribed post, to the king’s chagrin. Where Martínez really grabs us, however, is when she waxes sorrowfully and poetically during a solo near the end, when her de Valois devotedly recalls her short-lived romance with Carlo.
Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova is similarly spectacular as Princess Eboli, who is introduced with her “Song of the Veil.” With red, conic-shaped curls and a black eye patch, Smirnova is energetic and delightful as she sings of the “king inviting [her] to reign with him.” Moreover, just as Eboli is vivacious, she is also a “tigress” whose scorn can’t be extinguished, which manifests itself with operatic arrows dipped in envy and hurt that make their mark on both Carlo and Rodrigo. When her Eboli is confirmed to be a troublemaker, Smirnova growls with increasing intensity, as bolts of forlorn grief are cast out amid curses against her “pride and beauty.”
Ferruccio Furlanetto offers a multilayered portrayal of King Philip II. As the audience, we are predisposed to detesting a despot who is adamant about the rule of law by his own hand, even if others must suffer, to keep an illusory sense of peace. This obdurateness, vis-à-vis the king’s citizenry comes to a head during the finale of Act II when the ensemble asks for the king’s pity, who in turn fires back with rage, as the horns and drums of the orchestra escalate into a voluminous crescendo, urged by Conlon’s baton. Furlanetto’s bass resonance booms with an irascibility that is spine-tingling to experience. However, there is also a piteousness to the king’s cracked armor, revealing a moroseness at the start of Act III, when Furlanetto’s king, with burning candles around him, laments his loneliness, vulnerability, and desire to just “discern the hearts of men.” It is an underrated depiction that earns well-deserved applause.
Last, but not least, is LA Opera fan-favorite Morris Robinson, who in black sunglasses and a maroon/burgundy velvet robe, is the august, bass-toned, and feared Grand Inquisitor. He is empowered by the divine order of the church, and is the voice of reason and caution, proclaiming to the king that he must “silence all to exalt the faith.” Though the Inquisitor is physically enfeebled, he is the last word of the land; Robinson inhabits the role and its message by delivering his musical notes with a charismatic and imposing ferociousness.
Suffice it to say, LA Opera’s “Don Carlo” not only accentuates Verdi’s indelible masterpiece with a technical direction and cast that is phenomenal in its execution of the material, but creates an atmospheric and meaningful drama. Led by Conlon’s impassioned precision, and Domingo’s veteran leadership, resilience, and staying power as a gentle and collaborative stalwart among his operatic peers, “Don Carlo” is an epic odyssey. It leads us into the retributive darkness of Spain in the 1500s, counterbalanced by an enduring love, honor, and sacrifice for the greater good.
For more information about “Don Carlo” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, please visit laopera.org