`Carlo' is a splendid journey

`Don Carlo' is intriguing

Review: Washington Opera offers a stirring production of this Verdi classic.

March 24, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Opera, like the movies, isn't the most reliable source of history.

If Verdi's "Don Carlo" were an accurate portrait of late 16th-century Spain, the title character would be an epileptic teen-ager with a humpback, a limp and a nasty disposition, not a romantic leading tenor. But for all its liberties with the facts, "Don Carlo" delivers compelling lessons on patriotism vs. rebellion, church vs. state, love vs. lust.

Those lessons hit home vividly in the Washington Opera's current production. Verdi's grandly scaled score is served by a cast with grandly scaled voices and a seasoned conductor who knows how to make four hours in an opera house pass quickly.

Gianni Quaranta's scenery drives home, perhaps a little too heavily, a primary point - the cold supremacy of a despotic authority. Huge, unadorned stone walls appear in every scene, oppressive, confining. They're complemented in outdoor scenes by thick, towering tree trunks.

Thus framed, the characters attempt to resolve their problems with the cards, or the sets, invariably stacked against them. The walls belonging to King Philip II do not just imprison his subjects and his dysfunctional family, but himself. For he, like everyone else, is walled in by another ruler - the Catholic church, in the grips of the Inquisition.

Verdi had a lot of issues with the Catholic church. Here, he let them all hang out in one of his hardest-hitting (and most musically riveting) scenes, a confrontation between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor (significantly, an old, blind man). Each tests the other's limits, and there is no doubt who will have the ultimate sway.

On Thursday evening, that scene was brilliantly performed by Paata Burchuladze as Philip, Daniel Sumegi as the Grand Inquisitor. Burchuladze's penetrating sound (though prone to sharpness) and sensitive phrasing got to the heart of the king's poignant monologue, "Ella giammai m'amo." His subsequent exchange with the Inquisitor was masterfully shaded to reveal slowly simmering fury. Sumegi, likewise producing rich bass tones, was just as effective at conveying his character's inner strength and determination.

The source of the Inquisitor's anger, the king's liberty-minded confidante Rodrigo, was sung by baritone Dwayne Croft with exceptional warmth and keen appreciation for the eloquent arch of a Verdian melodic line. Dramatically, too, he was highly persuasive.

Ramon Vargas, as the king's restless, resentful son Carlo, started out with a somewhat edgy tone, but steadily warmed up. His attractive, vibrant tenor and ardent phrases made up for rudimentary acting that rarely had him connecting with others onstage.

As Elisabetta, the woman once promised to Carlo but made queen by his father, Veronica Villarroel used her subtle soprano instrument with great intelligence and eloquence. Her delicious soft notes were as compelling as her emotion-packed outbursts; all of her phrases invariably rang true. Her farewell to her maid-of-honor in the first act was a particularly exquisite moment.

Elizabeth Bishop had the vocal weight and color for the showy mezzo role of Eboli. Although she could have milked the ending of "O don fatale" a little more, her delivery was otherwise sizzling. Throughout the performance, she made this troublesome woman a strangely sympathetic presence.

There were ringing sounds from Rosendo Flores as the monk. Juliana Rambaldi floated soothing tones as the Celestial Voice. The chorus, prepared by Steve Gathman, provided consistently disciplined, expressive work.

A few more personal touches in terms of phrasing and emphasis would have been welcome, but there was much to admire in the propulsive, finely detailed conducting by Sir Edward Downes, a veteran of the Royal Opera House in London. Except for scattered bloopers in the brass, the orchestra turned in a solid performance.

Sonja Frisell's direction tended toward by-the-numbers blandness, but got the job done. She wasn't able to make the notoriously problematic, deus-ex-machine finale look any less anti-climactic than usual. Even so, the cumulative power of "Don Carlo" - and Verdi's commanding vision - remained undiminished.

`Don Carlo'

Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, 2600 Virginia Ave., NW, Washington

When: 2 p.m. tomorrow, 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 3 and April 6, 7 p.m. March 31

Tickets:4 $79-$259

Call: 202-295-2400; 800-876-7372

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