30 September 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – DON CARLO (G. Rivero, A. Raspagliosi, S. Heltzel, M. Nansel, W. Powers, S. Ramey; Wichita Grand Opera, 27 September 2015)

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi's DON CARLO at Wichita Grand Opera, 27 September 2015 [Image: Costume design for Filippo II in the Teatro alla Scala production of Verdi's revised version of the score in four acts, 1884]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Don Carlo [1882 – 1883 La Scala version in four acts]—Gaston Rivero (Don Carlo), Annalisa Raspagliosi (Elisabetta di Valois), Sarah Heltzel (Principessa Eboli), Michael Nansel (Rodrigo, Marchese di Posa), William Powers (Filippo II), Samuel Ramey (il Grande Inquisitore), Gregory Brumfield (Un frate), Lily Guerrero (Tebaldo), Carline Waugh (Una voce dal cielo), Riad Ymeri (Un araldo reale); Chorus and Orchestra of Wichita Grand Opera; Martin Mázik, conductor [Stanley M. Garner, Stage Director; Set designs by Margaret Ann Pent; Stefan Pavlov, Scenic Artist; Lighting designs by Dan Harmon; Costume designs by Suzanne Mess; Wichita Grand Opera, Century II Concert Hall, Wichita, Kansas, USA – Sunday, 27 September 2015]

Since the première of Claudio Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea in 1643, the world's operatic stages have often been the playgrounds of royalty. Emperors of Rome, Egyptian Pharaohs, Tudors and Hapsburgs, and crowned heads from virtually every chapter of history have been resurrected in opera, their lives scrutinized from widely varying, often anachronistic perspectives. The tempestuous milieu of Spanish politics was a fertile environment to which Giuseppe Verdi turned in several notable instances during his long career. In Ernani, the Spanish king Carlo effectively reinvents himself upon his election as Holy Roman Emperor, and strife among rival factions in Il trovatore pits Manrico against the Conte di Luna in a fight that not even death wholly settles. In Don Carlo, originally composed in fulfillment of a commission from Paris’s storied Opéra to a French libretto, adapted from a Schiller play, by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, the focus is on the collisions of destinies between Hapsburg Spain and Valois France. In the same vein as the confrontation between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I so memorably set to music by Donizetti, the illicit love between the Infante Carlos and his stepmother Elizabeth that is central to Schiller's drama has no basis in history aside from an arranged marriage between two juveniles who had, in fact, never met, but the potency of the emotional confrontations in Verdi's Don Carlo render historicity insignificant. Not even in Simon Boccanegra, Aida, and Otello did Verdi portray the devastating consequences of public duties upon private lives as powerfully as in Don Carlo. At its core, the prevailing theme of Don Carlo is gloriously simple: to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, the souls of Verdi's characters select their own societies and then find the doors of their hearts closed even to feelings that might bring them happiness and save their lives.

Like many operas, Don Carlo has been afflicted in recent years by the disease of enforced relevance, directors having deemed it necessary to editorialize in order to make the opera more 'relevant' to modern audiences. It is true that, as Peter Schaffer's Mozart suggests in Amadeus, almost anyone would rather converse with his hairdresser than with Hercules, but Verdi was very meticulous—and, thereby, wholly successful—at populating Don Carlo not with kings and princes who sometimes behave like ordinary men but with ordinary men who happen to bear titles. The difference perhaps seems merely semantic, but the distinction is important to appreciation of Verdi's score. There is no question in the course of his great monologue that Filippo is first a man and then a monarch: his personal tragedy is that he must always act as a king when he feels as a man. This dichotomy manifests itself in so many aspects of life that, whether one is a stockbroker or a store clerk, the sentiments of Don Carlo are familiar without the meddling efforts of directors and designers.

Under the stage direction of Stanley M. Garner, Wichita Grand Opera's production of Don Carlo provided a sumptuous, thoughtfully-conceived setting in which the drama came to life rather than seeking to provide the drama itself. Though Schiller and Verdi exercised considerable historical freedom, a production of Don Carlo that has no resemblance to the Spain of Charles V is difficult to justify. The increasingly popular conceit of suggesting, more overtly in some productions than in others, that Carlo and Rodrigo are lovers panders to Twenty-First-Century sensibilities without increasing a listener's understanding of the relationships among the characters as Verdi presented them. With luxurious costume designs by Suzanne Mess and simple but effective sets by company founder and Artistic Advisor Margaret Ann Pent, WGO's production visually and stylistically placed the action in Sixteenth-Century Spain without overwhelming the opera's strong current of lyricism with gaudy spectacle. Utilizing the 1882 – 1883 edition of the score in four acts, first performed at Teatro alla Scala in 1884, the production exercised great imagination in the context of a splendidly evocative 'traditional' setting. Ingeniously illuminated by Dan Harmon's right-place, right-time lighting designs, scenic artist Stefan Pavlov's work shone like a gallery in the Prado. Celia Chin's work with hair and wigs and Patrica Myers's makeup artistry gave every individual upon the stage a clear identity without interfering with the mechanics of singing. The grandeur of the staging of the Auto da fè contrasted tellingly with scenes of greatest intimacy, not least Filippo's monologue and his subsequent audience with the Grand Inquisitor, conducted in a chamber that seemed increasingly claustrophobic as the pair of voices thunderously filled the space. This production 'worked' so remarkably because every member of the team assembled to devise and present it drew inspiration and instruction first and foremost from Verdi's score.

With WGO's Principal Guest Conductor Martin Mázik on the podium, the musical components of this Don Carlo were built upon an impeccably sturdy foundation. Trained by chorus master Matthew Schloneger, the WGO choristers acquitted themselves impressively, meeting Verdi's demands unflinchingly and with security of intonation from which their colleagues in many larger opera companies' choruses could learn much. The gentlemen of the chorus having launched the performance with a resonant account of the monks' chorus, 'Carlo il sommo Imperatore, non è più che muta cener,' they and the ladies rose to the occasion of the Auto da fè with power and clarity, their imposing sound beautifully complemented by soprano Carline Waugh's soaring, comforting Voce dal cielo. Mázik's conducting was propulsive but considered, his pacing enabling the principals to create fully-developed characters. Considering the difficulty of Verdi's score, there were astonishingly few mistakes in the orchestra. The handful of suspect pitches in the brasses were not bothersome, especially when the most exposed passages were played so well. Mázik's conducting lent ample power to scenes requiring it but also engendered great tenderness in delicate passages. The score's crucial motifs—those representing Carlo's and Rodrigo's friendship, Elisabetta's longing for her native France, and the Grand Inquisitor's malevolence, for instance—were insightfully spotlit without being glaringly over-accentuated. Mázik's expert cueing—an endangered art among conductors of opera—enabled a laudable avoidance of mishaps in coordination between pit and stage, and his management of ensembles was virtually flawless. Like the production staff, Mázik clearly viewed his task as one of executing Verdi's directions, not reinterpreting them.

Introducing the solo voices with a stirring account of the Frate’s ‘Ei voleva regnare sul mondo,’ bass Gregory Brumfield returned in Act Four on equally granitic form as the enigmatic voice discerned by the Grand Inquisitor as that of the dead Emperor Carlo V. His estimable singing was matched by that of soprano Lily Guerrero, who impersonated Tebaldo with boundless energy and charm. She sang ‘Di mille fior si copre il suolo’ delightfully. Also impressive was young Kosovar tenor Riad Ymeri, whose declamation as the Araldo reale was appropriately assertive.

Acclaimed among a veritable bounty of triumphs as the finest interpreter of his or any generation of the title rôle in Verdi's Attila, Kansas native bass Samuel Ramey has to his credit Verdian credentials more remarkable than those of almost any other singer active in the 114 years since the composer's death. Having sung lead rôles in scores dating from all periods of Verdi's career, Ramey possesses an unique understanding, born of experience, of the ways in which Verdi's style evolved from the bel canto of Oberto and Nabucco to the dramatic grandeur of Aida and Otello and the rapier's-point comedy of Falstaff. Anyone who heard him sing the rôle in the 1998 Opéra National de Paris production or the 2003 Cleveland Orchestra concert performance of Don Carlo cannot have doubted that they were witnessing an extraordinary portrayal of the tormented Filippo II. In WGO's Don Carlo, Ramey traded Filippo's crown for the ecclesiastical robes of il Grande Inquisitore. Any questions about Verdi's stance on the Church are resolutely answered by his characterization of the Grand Inquisitor, whose dogmatic implacability is as menacing as Ramfis's warmongering and Iago's jealous villainy, and Ramey brought the ferocious old man to life with chilling intensity. Though blind, this Inquisitor peered into the darkest recesses of Filippo's psyche, sensing every twitch of uncertainty like a coiled viper. Ramey's voice is no longer the rock-solid instrument of extraordinary agility that it was when he first erupted onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera as Argante in Händel's Rinaldo in 1984, but this mattered not a jot. He uttered 'Nell’ispano suol mai l’eresia dominò' with such unanswerable authority and piercing power that the tremulousness of the sound made it all the more momentous. Ramey's intonation was faultless, and every note of his part was well within his grasp. Hearing a revered singer in the Indian summer of his career can be dreadfully disappointing, but the only disappointment produced by Ramey's performance was the brevity of his time on stage. His was the rare Inquisitore who merited the honorific Grande.

The trend in recent years, surely a circumstance of necessity, has been to cast singers who can do justice either to Principessa Eboli's canzone del velo or to the dramatic aria 'O don fatale, o don crudel.' Few performances of Don Carlo can boast of an Eboli who can manage both of her solo scenes with comparable excellence, but Wichita Grand Opera defied the trend by casting mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel as the vengeful but ultimately repentant Princess. Whether toying with Rodrigo, luring Carlo into an assignation, or confessing her treachery to Elisabetta, Heltzel's Eboli maintained a fiery presence that placed her at the center of the drama. WGO's production downplayed Eboli's rôle as the king's mistress, but Heltzel's alert acting made the character's hypocrisy unmistakable. It is strange that, after rescuing Carlo from prison in the wake of Rodrigo's death, Eboli simply disappears, not unlike Bellini's Adalgisa, presumably seeking refuge either behind cloister walls or beyond Spain's borders. Still, Heltzel depicted an Eboli who was dramatically present even when physically absent. Her account of the canzone del velo, 'Nel giardin del bello saracin ostello,' was effective if not definitive: the Moorish-influenced flourishes were trials for her, but she sang the number far more credibly than many Ebolis manage to do, ascending to the many top As with imperturbable confidence. Eboli's rendezvous with Carlo having revealed that Elisabetta is the actual object of his affection, Heltzel unleashed the potent fury of a spurned woman in the heart-stopping trio with Carlo and Rodrigo, her ‘Al mio furor sfuggite invano’ flowing over the stage like lava. The depth of emotion that Heltzel conveyed when Eboli discovered that her jealousy has exacted such a cruel toll on Elisabetta gave unusual credence to the high-strung Princess's remorse. Heltzel's singing of 'O don fatale, o don crudel,' the climactic top C♭ and B♭ produced with unperturbed élan, was justifiably acclaimed by the audience. Portraying Eboli's hauteur is not difficult, but doing so whilst singing some of the most challenging music that Verdi composed for the mezzo-soprano voice is anything but easy. Heltzel managed to both sing and act Eboli brilliantly. For that alone, WGO's Don Carlo was memorable.

In the hands of a capable singer, Rodrigo can be the dramatic and sentimental epicenter of a performance of Don Carlo. The trouble, of course, is that baritones capable of singing Rodrigo's music as it deserves to be sung are now as rare as great Normas and Isoldes. In Michael Nansel, however, Wichita Grand Opera had a Marchese di Posa whose voice and technique proved worthy of the music. From the first phrase of his entrance in Act One, Nansel sang with alternating steel and velvet, encountering few difficulties with his rôle’s perilously high tessitura. In the grand ‘friendship duet’ with Carlo, ‘Dio, che nell’alma infondere,’ Nansel’s voice rang out handsomely, and he united every ideally-projected tone with a dramatic gesture of similar accomplishment. The trills were approximated in the baritone's lovingly-phrased traversal of Rodrigo's romanza ‘Carlo ch’è sol il nostro amore vive nel duol su questo suol,' but there was nothing approximate about the intonation or security of the singer's top F♯s. In the duet with Filippo, Nansel delivered ‘O signor, di Fiandra arrivo, quel paese un dì sì bel’ with the eloquence of a great orator and the passion of a champion of liberty: more to the point, he sang his lines magnificently, revealing that Rodrigo stands out as a man of exalted character even in the presence of a king. In the Act Two trio with Eboli and Carlo, this Rodrigo was forceful without hectoring, his sudden animosity towards the threatening Eboli obviously motivated by his loyalty to Carlo. Nansel made Rodrigo's death scene in Act Three the emotional climax of the opera. The beauty of his singing of the aria ‘Per me giunto è il dì supremo’ heightened the expressivity of the music, this Rodrigo seeming genuinely proud to sacrifice himself for friend and cause. Felled by the Inquisitor's assassin, he defied the fatal bullet with a gently moving traversal of 'O Carlo, ascolta, la madre t’aspetta a San Giusto doman.’ Musically and histrionically, ‘Io morrò, ma lieto in core’ was the apotheosis of Nansel's performance, his top G♭s dispatched with the elation of a soul rising to heaven. Acting almost as well as he sang, Nansel was a Rodrigo who touched the heart and ravished the ears.

Bass-baritone William Powers portrayed a Filippo II for whom violence was a refuge from the insecurities of his reign. When wielding the iron fist of tyranny, he was wholly in command of his realm, but, when contemplating his willful son and young wife or cowering before the Grand Inquisitor, he struggled to control his own mind and actions. What was consistently under Powers's thumb, however, was Verdi's sublime music for Filippo. Bounding onto the stage with a regal authority that revealed his identity before he sang a single word, Powers intoned ‘Perchè sola è la Regina? Non una dama almeno presso di voi serbaste?’ with petulant grandeur. In both the duet with Rodrigo in Act One and Filippo's animalistic sparring with the Grand Inquisitor in Act Three, Powers moved and sang with the pent-up frustration of a monarch losing his grasp on absolute authority. It was first in his pained realization that he has perniciously wronged the innocent Elisabetta and then in his exquisite monologue in Act Three that this Filippo’s humanity pierced the armor of his public persona. Powers sang ‘Ella giammai m’amò!’ with insightfully-shaded tone that was beautiful even when the weary king was raging against the cruelties of his fate. The king who inspires fear being reduced to a man who fears for his own survival proved incredibly moving in Powers’s performance, not least because Filippo’s music was so securely, attractively, and heartrendingly sung.

The rôle of Elisabetta di Valois in Don Carlo is one of Verdi's greatest creations for the soprano voice, the high level of inspiration sustained throughout his music for the part. At first glance, it can seem that a character who must wait until Act Four for an aria of substance plays a small part in the drama, but Elisabetta's music is at the very heart of Don Carlo, just as the woman is the nucleus of the drama. Were her aria at the start of Act Four, 'Tu, che le vanità,' the only music that she sang in the course of the opera, she would be one of Verdi's most remarkable ladies, but the composer lavished on the conflicted queen music that represents the pinnacle of his lyric genius. In Wichita Grand Opera's production of Don Carlo, the rôle of Elisabetta was entrusted to the company's de facto prima donna in residence, Italian soprano Annalisa Raspagliosi. Acclaimed in Wichita in rôles as diverse as Violetta in Verdi's La traviata, and Puccini's Tosca, Raspagliosi is an artist of uncommon stylistic versatility and charisma, qualities admired by audiences throughout Europe but inexcusably under-appreciated in America. To an extent, Raspagliosi is representative of a bygone era of adventurous Italian sopranos who lavished idiomatic chiaroscuro on their performances and earned the devotion of followers utterly committed to 'their' diva—singers like Caterina Mancini, Marcella Pobbe, and Anita Cerquetti. Though her singing was sometimes cautious, which any soprano's should be in music as challenging as Verdi's, Raspagliosi's Elisabetta possessed qualities that brought each of these three celebrated forebears to mind. Her stage deportment was characterized by Mancini's fearlessness, and she shared with Cerquetti an innate nobility of phrasing. Perhaps most enriching, however, was her resurrection of Pobbe's sovereign beauty of tone, especially in the middle octave of the voice. The poise of her singing in Act One was disturbed by the agitation of the towering duet with Carlo, in which she voiced ‘Prence, se vuol Filippo udire la mia preghiera’ with blazing seriousness, the richness of her lower register contrasting with her piercing top B♭. The romanza ‘Non pianger, mia compagna, non pianger, no, lenisci il tuo dolor,’ Elisabetta’s heartbroken effort at comforting the Countess of Aremberg—portrayed with grace by Sierra Scott—after exile is imposed upon her by Filippo, drew from Raspagliosi a stream of shimmering tones. In Act Three, she demanded ‘Giustizia, giustizia, Sire!’ of her suspicious consort with startling impetus before perceiving the enormity of Filippo’s accusations in the subsequent quartet. Raspagliosi’s expressive singing of ‘Tu, che le vanità conoscesti del mondo’ made the aria an intimate survey of virtually every nuance of Elisabetta’s personality, accomplished with the purest outpouring of song. The effect of the soprano’s serene but tortured farewell to her beloved in the duet with Carlo was poignant, her floated top B like the sigh of an angel. Reaching her breaking point as Filippo and the Inquisitor rushed in to enact their ultimate sentence and the mysterious monk emerged from the tomb to claim Carlo, her final top B was hurled out into the concert hall like a grenade, the tone igniting the air. That Raspagliosi is not heard as widely in America as she is in Europe is another of opera’s inexplicable failings, but the quality of her Elisabetta left no doubt of the legitimacy of the affection that she receives from Wichita audiences.

Whether sung in French or Italian, Don Carlo is one of Verdi's most daunting tenor rôles. Making his American début in this production, Uruguayan tenor Gaston Rivero made a strong impression in Carlo's music. Despite an unbecoming wig, the young tenor was a dashing, unapologetically romantic figure, a Latin lover to the life. He conveyed an appealing boyishness at his first entrance in Act One [the historical Infante Carlos was only twenty-three years old at the time of his death, after all], mitigated by the stinging despair of his recitative ‘Io l’ho perduta! Oh! potenza suprema!’ Rivero summoned ample lyricism for Carlo’s andante cantabile aria ‘Io la vidi e al suo sorriso scintillar mi parve il sole,’ and, here and throughout the performance, he produced the many top B♭s of his rôle without strain. In the famous duet with Rodrigo, ‘Dio, che nell’alma infondere,’ he joined with Nansel captivatingly, but his best singing of the afternoon was in the Act One duet with Elisabetta, in which he voiced ‘Quest’aura m’è fatale, m’opprime, mi tortura, come ul pensier d’una sventura’ with near-explosive fervor. In the Act Two trio with Eboli and Rodrigo, Rivero lit a fuse of emotive fireworks with his singing of ‘Sei tu, sei tu, bell’adorata, che appari in mezzo ai fior!’ From that point until his last note in the opera, the tenor credibly portrayed a man broken by circumstance: his truest friend dead, forced to flee from the company of the woman he loves, and his own father seeking his blood, he was forced to the cusp of irrationality. Many Carlos are either off-puttingly arrogant or psychologically unhinged from the start, but Rivero created a portrait of a young man of reason and wit whose psyche is compromised by misery. Though his vocalism was unrelentingly loud and occasionally coarse, Rivero sang Carlo’s music with noteworthy swagger and red-blooded musicality, signaling the arrival on the American ‘circuit’ of an important artist.

One of the foremost powers of opera is the ability to unite an audience of aficionados, neophytes, connoisseurs, and Philistines and transport them en masse from an opulent opera house, a run-down theatre, a glistening concert hall, or a musty auditorium to any niche of the human imagination. Why it is now often argued that an old Rodolfo cannot love a fat Mimì and an ugly Violetta cannot break a weathered Alfredo's heart is a disheartening conundrum that undermines opera's enduring appeal. The sincerity with which the cast of Wichita Grand Opera's Don Carlo sang their music and portrayed their characters obscured the fact that they were, in fact, an attractive ensemble. The disfiguring ugliness of the Grand Inquisitor's warped morality masked the handsome face that communicated it, and Elisabetta's beauty radiated most beguilingly from her unsullied tones. If members of the audience had been polled during the performance, it is doubtful that they would have said that they were in Wichita. For three hours, they were in Spain, at the court of one of Sixteenth-Century Europe's most powerful monarchs. That is the most distilled essence of opera, and Wichita Grand Opera, celebrating the company’s fifteenth anniversary, put on a marvelously-sung, honestly-interpreted performance of Don Carlo that honored Verdi, the audience, and every embittered family, unfortunate lover, and true friendship touched by life's tragedies.