BWW Reviews: DON CARLO Sounds Splendid But Misses Key Plot Points
When it comes to operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Don Carlo has to be the most challenging one to produce. Which version do you use? The French version? The Italian translation? Given the over four hour running time of the full version, where do you make cuts, and why? And once you answer those questions, there's the content to deal with. How do you pack in the opera's themes of love, war, betrayal, politics, and the Spanish Inquisition? The later question is one that Austin Lyric Opera's current production fails to answer. While Don Carlo is 3 hours and 30 minutes of aural bliss, the story is handled in a clumsy and sometimes unfortunate way.
As should be expected from Austin Lyric Opera, Don Carlo sounds extraordinary, largely due to the incredible orchestra led by Maestro Richard Buckley and the outstanding performers in the chorus. Still, there's a mixed bag of successes and problem areas in the production, and that begins with the cast. Some are excellent while others seem lost in the complexity of the material. Michael Chioldi is fantastic and thrilling to hear as Rodrigo, Carlo's friend and a fierce protector of the Flemish who are at war with Spain. Mary Phillips is incredibly versatile as princess Eboli. Her mezzo-soprano voice is stunning, and her acting is just as exquisite. As the Grand Inquisitor, Gustav Andreassen is outstanding and absolutely chilling. He's frail and feeble to the eye (mostly due to Andreassen's physical performance choices and a few costume and makeup tricks) but he possesses a booming voice that brings you to The Edge of your seat. Peter Volpe is also remarkable as King Filippo II. He may come off a bit tepid in the first half but comes alive in the second, especially in his moments with Andreassen. When the two are allowed to play opposite each other, they bring back much of the tension that is lacking throughout the evening, and the result is breathtaking.
Unfortunately Keri Alkema as Elisabetta is far less effective. As the beloved of our hero, Don Carlo, who was forced to marry her lover's father, King Filippo, in order to foster peace between France and Spain, Elisabetta should be an intriguing character, but Alkema is incredibly stale. Her voice is absolutely gorgeous, but her feelings towards Carlo are left ambiguous until very late in the game. It's clear that he loves her, but we never truly see if she loves him still, or if she ever loved him at all. Alkema also completely ignores the conflict between her duty to her country and her feelings towards Carlo. And despite the pomp and circumstance surrounding James Valenti's Austin Lyric Opera debut, he's underwhelming as Don Carlo. He's incredibly handsome and has a full, rich tenor voice, but there's something lacking in his performance. He seems disconnected from the material and those around him. Overall, he reads like a supporting character rather than a compelling hero.
Director Garnett Bruce falls victim to some of the same problems. The romantic plotline between Carlo and Elisabetta is incredibly underdeveloped until the final scenes, and the political plotlines are absent from most of the scenes in the first 90 minutes. While these threads should extend through the entire evening, both fail to even start until the later scenes, so the first half of Don Carlo is a bit dull while the second half frantically tries to pick up the pace and make up for lost time.
The aesthetics of the production are a bit puzzling as well. The lighting by James Sale is beautifully emotive and lush, but the costumes and sets-co-produced by Hawaii Opera Theatre, Vancouver Opera, and Opera Hong Kong-seem at odds with each other. The costumes by Suzanne Mess are detailed, ornate, and period appropriate, but the set by Peter Dean Beck is a confusing mess of disparate ideas. He gives us contemporary iron gates and windows, spinning towers, a jade chessboard floor straight out of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, and what appears to be the remnants of a bombed portcullis. It's difficult to know where and when we are from scene to scene without consulting the program.
While there are plenty of things to love about Don Carlo, those elements are quickly eclipsed by two problematic leads, pacing and plot issues, and a bizarre set. Granted, it's an incredibly difficult piece of work that Verdi himself revised several times over, but we can and should expect more from Austin Lyric Opera.
Running time: Approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes, including one 25 minute intermission.
DON CARLO, produced by Austin Lyric Opera, plays its final performance at The Long Center for the Performing Arts at 701 W. Riverside Drive, Austin, 78704 on Sunday, November 24 at 3pm. Tickets are $24-$200. For tickets and information, visit www.austinlyricopera.org.
Photo: Keri Alkema as Elisabetta. Photo by Mark Matson.