From Development server
In Review > North America

Don Carlo

Washington National Opera

In Review DC DOn Carlo lg 618
Russell Thomas, Verdi’s Don Carlo at WNO
© Scott Suchman

A FORTUITOUS CONFLUENCE of talent onstage and in the pit made Washington National Opera’s Don Carlo so memorable musically that any reservations about the new staging by Tim Albery—a joint venture with Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera—became less nagging. On March 3, the company’s soon-to-depart music director Philippe Auguin exerted his usual calm authority on the podium as he shaped the four-act version of the score with exceptional sensitivity to architecture, atmosphere and emotion, drawing such expressive playing from the orchestra that it was hard to complain about the voices sometimes getting swamped.

The intensity from the instrumentalists was matched by the work of an exciting, incisive cast. Making an auspicious company debut, tenor Russell Thomas brought to the title role a voice of intrinsic warmth and a refined sense of style; his exquisite legato proved especially impressive. If Thomas’s acting was stiff and generic at times, the quality of the vocalism, by turns plangent and poignant, compensated at every turn. As Elisabetta, Leah Crocetto started off cautiously (and, at the close of “Non, pianger, mia compagna,” a little shy of pitch), but she soon made her mark, dispensing tonal sweetness or steel with equal control and making dramatic use of her plush low register. The soprano’s poetically phrased account of “Tu che le vanità” was a highlight of the performance. Jamie Barton seized on every opportunity, vocal and theatrical, offered by the role of Eboli. She unleashed her ripe mezzo with enough power to push you back in your seat, but she also drew you in with the communicative animation and depth of her phrasing. The veil song was delivered with delectable color (some sharp pitches on top notes proved a minor matter), while the intensity of Barton’s phrasing made the dramatic weight of “O don fatale” register fully.

With a mix of gravitas and volatility, Eric Owens inhabited the role of the troubled king, a portrayal matched by considerable vocal strength and beauty. The bass-baritone reached a peak with a moving account of “Ella giammai m’amò,” delivering the first few lines while turned to one side, so his voice sounded distant, almost disembodied, underlining the character’s feeling of rejection. Quinn Kelsey, in his company debut as Posa, revealed a velvety baritone and a classic bel canto technique that generated long-breathed phrases alive with tonal subtleties. A stylish actor, too, he conveyed the character’s noble soul in telling detail. Kelsey and Thomas made the famous duet sound quite fresh and vital; the pianissimo they sustained in the second verse was a thing of beauty. Even with hollow low notes, Andrea Silvestrelli was a commanding vocal presence as the Inquisitor. The chorus did vibrant work; the women’s voices achieved an especially lovely quality in the scene outside the monastery.

That monastery, and every other scene, materialized, more or less, through a unit set designed by Andrew Lieberman that evoked the interior of an overturned church; a raked stage likewise symbolized an unsteady world. In the second half of the opera (which was performed with only one intermission), a kind of ashen heap filled half the stage, suggesting the toll of the Inquisition, perhaps, while the back of the set opened to the black-and-white image of an unsettled sky. Aside from a couple of massive chain fences that appeared periodically to provide a semblance of spatial demarcation, the chief props were chairs, which got moved around a lot and even ended up taking the place of scaffolding in a flameless auto-da-fé scene: hoods were placed over the heads of the seated heretics just before the curtain fell. Colors were muted—burnt orange walls, dark shades for costumes by Constance Hoffman—and so was the lighting by Thomas C. Hase.

The upside of this gloomy, spectacle-averse setting was that Albery could keep the focus squarely on the opera’s intimate personal drama, and that made for an involving theatrical experience. He did insert a questionable touch at the close, though, having Carlo suddenly kill himself. Verdi’s ending might not be entirely convincing, but this alternative didn’t feel quite right, either.  —Tim Smith 

Follow OPERA NEWS on FacebookTwitter Button