I saw *Don Carlo* at Kennedy Center on 3/5/18. I read about a year ago that the National Portrait Gallery had an exhibition about Marlene Dietrich - - she was my first movie star, and I’m still crazy about her, so I put that on my list of things I needed to do. I read recently that it was closing in April, so clearly that intention had to turn into a PLAN. I took a couple of days off work, booked a room at the Days Inn, and round trip passage on the Megabus. Richard stayed behind. I hadn’t stayed alone in a hotel since I went to Japan in 2006.
I left town on a Monday and came back the next day, and my plan was to go to the National Portrait Gallery the afternoon I arrived and then hang around (as I like to say) in my bra and panties in my hotel room that night, watching trashy TV and eating trashy food. But then, a couple weeks before the trip, I thought maybe I should check to see if there was anything worth seeing at Kennedy Center that night. Sure enough, Washington National Opera was doing *Don Carlo,* an opera I love, with a cast of either people I had heard and liked or people I’d heard about and was curious to hear. I bought a ticket and that was that.
*Don Carlo* is a Verdi opera from 1867. It was written for Paris but is rarely performed in its original French, it’s almost always done in Italian. It’s about King Philip II of Spain, his son, Carlo, and Philip’s wife, Elisabeth. The libretto is based on a play by Heinrich Schiller. I saw the play in DC years ago and I seem to remember that the program notes said that the play is seen as a German-language *Hamlet.* Carlo has the same kind of daddy issues as Hamlet, and the same vague melancholy, but instead of Hamlet’s slightly Oedipal relationship with his biological mother, Schiller gives us an unrequited love between Carlo and his stepmother, Elisabeth. They’re more age-appropriate, and they were supposed to have been matched before Philip decided he wanted Elisabeth for himself. Bad move.
The other two main characters are Princess Eboli, a hothead in Elisabeth’s court who’s having an affair with the king, and the Marquis of Posa, a friend of Carlo and unofficial advisor to the king. Posa is the conscience of the piece - - he tries to get the king to reconsider that whole Spanish Inquisition thing he’s got going on. Another bad move.
I’ll discuss the singers in the ascending order of how I liked them.
Russell Thomas, tenor, played Carlo. He has a beautiful, strong, secure voice, with thrilling high notes. He had a lively presence onstage, actually all of the singers were good actors. He was missing personality in his singing. Maybe this is a new role to him, or maybe he’s just a young singer who hasn’t really established his vocal personality, but his musicality was a little lackluster. Though he sounded really wonderful in his bromance duet with Kelsey early in the show, that was his best singing of the night. I wonder what that says.
Here are Jonas Kaufmann (known as "Yummy Jonas" in some parts) and Thomas Hampson (no beefcake nickname, to my knowledge) singing the bromance duet:
Leah Crocetto, soprano, played Elisabeth. She has a gorgeous, even, pearly voice and gave us some chesty low notes, always a thrill. She had pitch problems in her lyrical first act aria. I think she knew what the pitches were supposed to be, but she didn’t always hit those pitches square on target. I was looking forward to her aria at the the end of the opera, it’s a great, long aria, but (don’t tell anyone) I fell asleep.
Eric Owens, bass-baritone, played Philip. He’s an extraordinary singer - - I heard him most memorably as Alberich in the Met Ring cycle. He was unbelievable in that. His singing was beautiful as Philip, but I wanted more of that delicious Verdi line. Strangely enough, I had the same criticism of Rene Pape when I heard him sing this role at the Met in 2006. Owens did a wonderful job with his big aria, “Ella giammai m’amo,” he brought out all of the Shakespearian subtlety in it.
Jamie Barton, mezzo soprano, was Eboli. I heard her in recital years ago but had never heard her in an opera, so I was most curious to hear her. Her first act aria was a little sketchy. The somewhat rapid little notes were vague and suggested, rather than really defined. But wow, she brought the house down with her other big aria, “O don fatale.” She is a big, broad, old school voice. I’m hearing her as Fricka in *Die Walküre* next season at the Met, that’s going to be a treat.
Here's the late great Shirley Verrett holding nothing back in "O don fatale:"
The highest honors go to Quinn Kelsey, baritone, as Posa. Talk about personality, this guy had LOADS of personality in his singing. A deep knowledge of the Verdi style and intelligent, glorious singing all night long. He is the real deal. One of his most-performed roles is Rigoletto - - I will totally be there if he does it at the Met.
The lowest honors go to the woman who sang the Celestial Voice, a voice from heaven (aka offstage) that appears during the auto da fe scene. I feel a little bad speaking so ill of a singer, so I'm not going to tell you her name. She had a frack on a high note that was one of the worst things I've ever heard in a professional performance. She sounded like she was picking up shortwave radio. If that's what singing sounds like in heaven, maybe I'm better off with what they're playing in hell (with my luck they'll be playing "Loving You" by Minnie Ripperton on a constant loop).
I don’t often mention the chorus in an opera review, but wow, they were fantastic. They had a rich, colorful sound, but the sound was essentially young and pretty. A nice change from the Met chorus, which doesn’t sound like that.
Philippe Auguin was the conductor, and he was marvelous. The orchestra played beautifully - - I’ll give a special shout-out to the trumpet fanfare in the auto da fe scene, and to Amy Frost Baumgarten for her ravishing cello solo in Philip’s aria.
The production was a co-production with Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera. Tim Albery was the stage director, and it was quirky but not really oddball. I think he must have seen the Nikolaus Lehnhoff production of *Parsifal* that I saw at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2002. This show had the same pile of sand on the left side and the same wooden chairs scattered around the stage. Also the singers communicated the same sense of abandonment and general malaise. Sadly, this show didn’t have the leading lady being hatched out of a giant egg, but you can’t have everything.