By JOHN DeMERS
Despite one of Verdi’s most convoluted and machinery-clunky plots (boy, that’s saying a lot), and despite being his longest opera (the original in Paris was trimmed because people were missing the last train to the suburbs at midnight), go see Don Carlo by Opera in the Heights for the magnificent singing.
The OH chorus is as wonderful as ever and, moved here and there by gifted stage director Brian Byrnes, spends less time than usual being moved here and there. And the leads, in opening night’s Emerald Cast, are some of the most incredible we’ve heard at OH in years. Verdi, to his credit, did fill Don Carlo with orchestral interludes that (as conducted here by Enrique Carreon-Robledo) become their own lush, lyrical chamber concerts, plus his typical assault of stirring arias, duets, trios and quartets. The guy definitely never met a singing voice he didn’t know how to do something with. And take heart as you sneak a glance at your watch: OH spares us the ballet that used to be performed in the middle.
Oddly, the completely unbelievable storyline is that thing modern Hollywood loves best: Based on a True Story. There really was a Don Carlo, who lost his betrothed to his very own father as part of a peace treaty between two powerful dynasties. Verdi doesn’t even change most of the names, though the fact that much of the action seems to concern the politics of Spain and Flanders is enough to give any American education pause. There’s mostly Spain in the 16th century, complete with a Grand Inquisitor you have to beware of and plenty of monks making the sign of the cross. Happily, it’s mostly a love story. Sadly, even though there are tons of swords brandished throughout Don Carlo’s four acts, steel never once clanks against steal. This must be a testament to Byrnes’ reserve, since he stages the swordplay for almost every theater company in town.
A lot of the vocal fireworks are supplied by soprano Emily Newton. Originally from south of us in Lake Jackson, she is now signed to cover (understudy) a major role at the Met in New York City – an immense vote of confidence in her abilities, whether she ever gets to sing a note. She sings quite a few of them in this Don Carlo, and her performance, at every level, is as smooth, as lovely to listen to and, yes, as confident as many on that New York stage she soon hopes to call her own. Newton’s voice is well-matched to that of tenor Neil Darling as Carlo, who gets to recall their brief moments of love whenever he’s not committing his sword and life to making a better Flanders.
And it just wouldn’t be Don Carlo without the male-bonding between the hero and his friend/co-conspirator Rodrigo. Daniel Lickteig brings his powerful baritone to the party, as does Alexander Scopino with his ringing yet also emotive bass in the role of King Philip II, who gets to marry his son’s best girl. Two other standouts are Eric Kroncke, who devotes his unrelenting bass to making the Grand Inquisitor actually frightening, and lovely soprano Rachael Ross, who spends the whole evening in trousers as Tebaldo. Mezzo soprano Jennifer Kosharsky is flawless as the jealous princess sharing a name with a dangerous virus, Eboli. You have to give her full credit, even though the role is so poorly drawn in dramatic terms that we hear her sing vaguely about what she’s going to do and then, at least as vaguely, about what she has done. We never actually see her do anything. But she sings really well.
The impressively minimalist production – scenic design by Mark Kobak, prop design by Kevin Holden, costumes by Dena Scheh – is everything an OH opera should aspire to be: simple, probably not wildly expensive, and completely supportive of the drama. And did I mention: quick and easy to change between scenes, usually by chorus members themselves? My only personal quibble is the dresses, if that’s what they are, hung on the main female leads. The ladies are made to resemble Tom Cruise as a samurai: all odd solid outcroppings and mysterious angles. Knowing that costumers are historical accuracy fetishists, I trust there’s some basis for these dresses. But they are so distorting and unflattering to the female form that I can see why Hollywood never put them on any movie stars in its epics.
Don Carlo, weekends through February 5. www.operaintheheights.org.
Photos by Gwen Turner Juarez: (top) Neil Darling and Emily; (middle) Darling with the monks.