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Bel Canto at Caramoor
Larmore and Valenti, Eboli and Don Carlos at Caramoor
© Gabe Palacio 2013
Will Crutchfield's "Bel Canto at Caramoor," subtitled "Verdi in Paris" this summer, delivered fine performances of Les Vêpres Siciliennes (reviewed in September online) and Don Carlos. The two evenings proved highly salutary if not equally revelatory (Vêpres, with its vastly superior original libretto, was more eye-opening). Despite sweltering conditions, July 20's Don Carlos showed Crutchfield at top form not only as an impresario (five of the six lead roles were impressively cast) but as a conductor. His cogent pacing and sensitive leadership proved particularly welcome after Lorin Maazel's unaccountably listless Met readings earlier this year. The Orchestra of St. Luke's played with bracing fire, the cello section — a bit wayward in Vêpres two weeks before — rising to the opportunities Verdi provided with distinction. The fresh-voiced chorus of Young Artists supervised by Rachelle Jonck gave consistent pleasure.
Among prominent American companies, only those of San Francisco, Seattle, Houston and Sarasota have tackled Don Carlos in its original language. July 20 brought not the 1867 text but 1883's revised four-act French version: rather disappointingly, Crutchfield finds much of 1867's initial Fontainebleau Act — crucial to establishing the central romantic relationship and its musical themes — of little interest and elected to use this revision, beginning with the sensational dark brass chords evoking the San Yuste monastery. Crutchfield had his two most accomplished vocalists — Jennifer Larmore (Eboli) and Stephen Powell (Rodrigue), a study in contrasts as to approach but both dynamite — insert small cadenzas between verses of an aria apiece, but otherwise the musical text was much as we are used to hearing it, minus Act I. Even without a single francophone vocalist onstage — Larmore fared the best in making the language an expressive tool, utilizing every syllable for expressive effect — it was great to hear the piece in French, although there is still much interesting Don Carlos material most New Yorkers haven't heard, including rediscovered duets for Élisabeth and Eboli and Philippe and Carlos. (Some of the variants were played and sung by Caramoor Young Artists in ancillary concerts.) Still, the capacity crowd was audibly conscious of being present at a great Verdian evening: it roared approval.
In her first-ever Eboli, Larmore proved electrifying. Leaner of timbre than the role's conventional sound and occasionally swamped in midrange during ensembles, she showed a fresh, easy top range and managed cannily to fill in bottom resonance. This was a riveting, artistically complete concert opera performance. Powell, a genuine lighter-Verdi baritone in command of superb line and infinite dynamic shadings, provided the evening's best vocalism, his death scene a triumph. Soprano Jennifer Check, a trusted Met comprimario since her house debut in 2001, showed off her admirably secure spinto with aplomb as Élisabeth. She sounded slightly short on tonal warmth below but blossomed gorgeously up top; considerably slimmed down, Check proved affecting dramatically. James Valenti, her Carlos, looked a convincingly crazed romantic hero, though textually unspecific; at best he sang well, but the role's treacherously exposed top notes proved chancy, if sometimes thrilling, and pitch periodically sagged. Occasionally reaching for Philippe's top notes, Christophoros Stamboglis boomed forth very imposingly, with passing nuances suggesting that more will come.
Though a potent presence (even in a ludicrously inapposite Miami Vice-style white dinner jacket that scarcely evoked a Grand Inquisitor) with an impactful voice, Mikhail Svetlov fell considerably outside the needed stylistic universe, his singing beset with dry, wide vibrato and jagged Slavic "French." Hsin-Mei Tracy Chang made a healthy-voiced Thibault; clarion tenor Noah Baetge (Herald) sounded spectacular, like a potential Carlos.
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