SOMETIME after midnight, when the almost four-hour opera "Don Carlo" had ended, one musician leaving the Lyric Opera House yelled a good-natured goodbye to another: "They ought to call this 'Verdi's Ring Cycle.'"
The Baltimore Opera Company chose Verdi's longest opera, dramatic and melody-rich, to open its 41st season Saturday. Even without its original Act I, "Don Carlo" (1867) is a marathon epic using more than 100 for its plot, set in 16th century Spain. Composer Giuseppe Verdi was worried more about the entire lasting impression than he was happy about "short-lived" applause for arias.
After four hours, the overall impression made at the Lyric was good, more than momentary and even sentimental with a fine-spirited celebration at the end for grand old man and still active bass, Jerome Hines, in his 50th year in grand opera. Many things can go wrong in a "Don Carlo" but few did Saturday, aside from lighting mistakes in Act I, Scene 1 and an apparent silencer used on the gun to kill Rodrigo in Act III.
Bass James Morris, his vocal power and richness in total command as King Philip II, led the six major singers and four minor singers. They had no major lapses and some beautiful moments in the many set pieces. One replacement, baritone Yalun Zhang, was a sympathetic Rodrigo, while another, tenor Antonio Barasorda, sang his first Don Carlo energetically.
Director Roberto Oswald, using his original design, showed a sensitivity to the many conflicts -- church vs. state, love vs. duty, selfishness vs. self-sacrifice -- played out on a properly somber, pitched set. Conductor Spiros Argiris and the orchestra took on Verdi's score aggressively. Tom Hall's chorus of monks, ladies in waiting, soldiers and pages showed Verdi as the old friend of choristers. Anibal Lapiz designed lavish outfits, suitable rags and a lot in between.
Act III, Scene 1 was a powerhouse. The brooding Morris as King Philip sang achingly of his unhappy marriage after cellist Gita Roche set his great scene in the world-weary prelude. Hines, as the 90-year-old blind but fearsome Grand Inquisitor, was still the dramatic presence and forceful voice in his clash with Philip. Then mezzo Sharon Graham, as Eboli, soprano Ealynn Voss as Elizabeth and baritone Zhang as Rodrigo joined Morris in a marvelously sung quartet of woes.
Small roles were effectively sung by Stefan Kirchgraber as the friar (and Charles V), Nancy Elledge as the page Tebaldo and Sylvester Graves as the royal herald.
It's a sign of Verdi's genius how his music satisfies audiences, even makes them feel good, as endless miseries unfold on stage.
Virtually everyone in "Don Carlo" could hardly wait to be in heaven and happy, not the least the heretics burned in a well-paced auto-de-fe scene. Its only goodness was the welcome to heaven by the celestial voice. Mystery soprano CeCelia Rae Chaisson sang from the orchestra pit rather than rear rafters, a location used in a past BOC production.
There was only earthbound delight after curtain calls at midnight as Hines was given a book of tributes from 40 operatic colleagues in a lovely gesture by Michael Harrison, general director, and Lowell Bowen, opera chairman. Hines, now 70, began 50 years earlier at the San Francisco Opera as Monterone in "Rigoletto."
"Get out and support The Baltimore Opera," he urged an audience that could notice rows of empty seats in the balcony. "It has been a great joy to sing at the Baltimore Opera," Hines said. A Met regular since 1946, he debuted here in 1986 in "La Forza Del Destino." Baltimore native Morris praised the musicianship and warmth of friend "Jerry."
"Don Carlo," performed in three acts of seven scenes with two intermissions, is repeated at The Lyric at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday and Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Call 685-0692.