Andrea Carè (Don Carlo), Jodi Henson (Elisabeth), Mary Phillips (Eboli), Brett Polegato (Rodrigo), Peter Volpe (King Philip), Gregory Frank (The Grand Inquisitor), Chad Louwerse (Friar), Kristin Hoff (Tebaldo), Martin Saad (Count Lerma), Jonathan Darlington, conductor; directed by Paul Peers, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, May 10, 2014.

There is a myth current today that we can make life ‘play up’. With our democratic promise, our cure-all medicine, our technology, our self-help, we believe ourselves to be largely without limit. But those living in autocratic regimes or in third-world poverty might beg to differ; they might say we are controlled, thwarted, helpless. Certainly, the characters in Verdi’s Don Carlo would agree with the latter, constrained as they are in one of the most repressive regimes in history: Spain during the Inquisition.

Joni Henson as Elisabeth and Andrea Carè as Don Carlo

Joni Henson as Elisabeth and Andrea Carè as Don Carlo

Don Carlo is a dark opera, about narrow options, oppression, and disappointment. It portrays a world in which human dignity does not trump brutality. Is this perhaps why we have had to wait such a long time since the last production: the opera presents such a pessimistic view of the human enterprise that we would rather not contemplate it? Partly, perhaps. But many people also prefer their Verdi energetic and straightforward, blood-and-thunder, showing powerful extrovert emotion.  Don Carlo is a very different animal, with its sprawling plot and the complexity and inwardness of its characters.

The opera is also a very expensive one to perform. The cast includes a premier tenor, three premier basses, one premier baritone, two premier sopranos, and one premier mezzo-soprano. That’s eight first-string singers to employ — a lot of money even for the biggest opera companies. It’s also hard to find singers with the required stamina; the opera goes on for four acts (five in some versions). And the forces are massive, with a huge chorus and augmented orchestra.

The opera is based on Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien, a work with such a variety of personae and emotional investment that it is hard to find its center, either in plot or character. It is ‘about’ a number of things, each of which features a representative figure, and operates on a variety of different levels: political, religious, domestic. All deal with disappointment in life and all the characters are to some extent paralyzed by circumstance or their own temperament. Don Carlo falls in love with his betrothed, Elizabeth, only to have Henry II of France give his daughter to Carlo’s father instead. This shuts him down; he withdraws into himself, even though he is politically devoted to the cause of liberty, and thus in opposition to his father, a despot afraid of change. Elizabeth, equally disappointed, struggles to keep her dignity and fidelity to her husband, even though she is in love with Carlo. She also strives to galvanize Carlo, to bring him back to life by steeling his resolve to take on the Flemish cause. The king contends with his son—the primary conflict of the opera—the older generation afraid of the younger, maintaining inflexible rule for fear of loss of order, as well as struggling with his wife’s lack of love and his suspicions of her involvement with Carlo.  Entangled in these situations are the secondary characters, Posa and Princess Eboli, also caught up in ambivalence of situation and motive.

Brett Polegato as Rodrigo and Andrea Carè as Don Carlo

Brett Polegato as Rodrigo and Andrea Carè as Don Carlo

Such complexity is aided by the leisurely pace Verdi allowed for its development. This comes from his use of the house style of the Paris Opera, for whom he wrote the work in 1867. Grand opéra encouraged complexity and the length to pursue it, most often going to five acts, as more than one version of Don Carlo does.  So we are left with a brooding, ruminative work with its moments of grand confrontation to be sure— indeed, Verdi’s specialty — but predominantly featuring a group of frustrated people attempting unsuccessfully to make life work. Yet it is precisely this that lends greatness to this most ambitious of Verdi’s operas, its recognition of the convolutions of the human predicament and the complex lives we all lead, both inside and outside our heads—and the glorious music that realizes all this. Verdi revised the opera for the 1884 Milan production, investing it with his late style, the transcendent music he was writing toward the end of his life.

So, what of the current Vancouver Opera production?  First of all, every staging of Don Carlo has choices to make. Which language: French (in which it was written) or Italian (into which it was translated)? Should Act 1—the so-called Fontainebleau Act—be dropped, as it was in the Milan revision, or reinstated, as it was in the 1886 Modena edition—presumably Verdi’s last word?  Vancouver Opera has chosen to go with the Milan translation of 1884, thus gaining some musical strengths (the fabulous opening, for example) but losing one of the most poignant sequences Verdi ever wrote, one that makes palpable emotional sense of what follows. This is a legitimate choice, though a disappointment to this lover of the opera.

For the rest of it, the production was impressive. The set was stunning—suitably somber, flexible, essentially the same for every scene, with different locations signified by changes in lighting, furniture and the deployment of scrims. The costumes were sumptuous and in keeping with the period. The direction was overall good, though occasionally static. Too many times characters simply stood and delivered. And I thought the days were over of portraying a declaration of love with the lovers on opposite sides of the stage. The assignation scene between Princess Eboli and Carlo lost conviction for this reason, though it was probably done to motivate their mutual lack of recognition. Yet most often the direction worked. The third act confrontation between King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor was powerful. And the last act was terrific, well staged and with fine singing from Andrea Carè and Joni Henson. A daring touch was Philip’s stabbing of Elizabeth; it’s not in the libretto and I’ve never seen it happen before. But it brought home starkly Elizabeth’s courage, the fact that she was taking her life in her hands by meeting Carlo in the first place.

Peter Volpe as King Philip and Brett Polegato as Rodrigo

Peter Volpe as King Philip and Brett Polegato as Rodrigo

The cast was strong. Andrea Carè as Don Carlo sang stylishly, though he sometimes cut a wooden figure, both when acting and reacting. On stage, Carè was seemingly playing the role of Don Carlo, not Carlo himself. On the other hand, his final duet with Elizabeth, ‘Ma lassù ci vedremo’, was moving and beautifully sung. Peter Volpe as Philip showed characterful singing and acting throughout in his portrayal of this most complex figure in the opera. He had me worried with some wobbly moments in the first half, but he came through in spades with the king’s great aria, ‘Ella giamai m’amò’, which he sang with grace and a sad dignity, moving deftly through its contrasting moods. His encounter with the Grand Inquisitor was riveting, these two oppressive patriarchs squaring off against each other. During this scene, Volpe movingly displayed the king’s vulnerability as he wrestled with the necessity of executing his son, and his loneliness, as he fought for the life of Posa. He had a worthy opponent in Gregory Frank, who played the Grand Inquisitor as a feeble old man with a frightening amount of power in reserve. Brett Polegato made a staunch Rodrigo, inhabiting his character with authority; his death scene was terrific and beautifully sung (Ah! io morrò, ma lieto in core). Also strong in voice was Chad Louwerse as the monk-ghost of Carlo V.

The women were excellent, beginning with Tebaldo, played with panache by Kristin Hoff. Mary Phillips as Eboli was persuasive, singing her veil song engagingly and playing her repentance scene with Elizabeth with great conviction. But the most rewarding for me and the star of the evening was Joni Henson as Elizabeth. She sang her difficult arias beautifully and she is a fine natural actress, commanding the stage at every appearance. She shone in the quartet in the jewel box scene—itself one of the high points of the evening -- and in her final aria,‘Tu che le vanità’, navigating its several moods with great facility.

Finally, there was the chorus, singing splendidly and actually acting as the various groups they represented—court, monks, regular folk. They lent impressive weight to the Act 3 concertato finale, the grand auto da fé scene, with every member of the cast on stage.

The orchestra under Jonathan Darlington played with finesse, with tempos well judged, as in the wonderful opening of the opera, with its soft brass of somber forewarning. Yet there were instances where the orchestra seemed in conflict with the singers, growing too loud, drowning out the voices. Is this is about the acoustics of the pit, I wonder?

Altogether, this was a very solid and enjoyable production of a demanding opera, seen far less often than it should be, and the audience had every right to display the enthusiasm with which they greeted the cast and orchestra at the curtain call.  Vancouver Opera should be congratulated on providing a great and rare opera to the city in so creditable a performance.


© Harvey de Roo 2014

HARVEY DE ROO taught for many years in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University. For the past eight years, he has taught opera history and appreciation in Simon Fraser University’s Continuing Studies program at Harbour Centre. He was the founding secretary of City Opera Vancouver.