Tom’s Review: Los Angeles Opera’s “Don Carlo” – September 20 and 28, 2006

After much anticipation Los Angeles Opera’s new and dazzling Don Carlo arrived as, without any doubt, one of the 10 best productions I’ve seen in LA since enjoying opera in LA since the nifty-fifties (seen Sept 20 and to be seen again Sept 28!!).  It was advertised widely in the  LA press as (quote) “One of the grandest of Grand Operas — a star-studded cast brings Verdi’s spellbinding masterpiece of politics and passion to life” in John Gunter’s superb interpretation with the scenery crafted in nearby San Diego.

[Below: Don Carlo’s “auto da fe” scene; edited image of a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]

That, from any perspective, was an understatement!!  James Conlon (LA’s brand-new Music Director) brilliantly conducted a greatly enlarged orchestra with a fervor and enthusiasm not often seen in LA with notable exceptions as when Kent Nagano conducts. And it was truly a star-studded cast, what with Dolora Zajick as Princess Eboli, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Phillip II, Annalisa Raspagliosi as Elizabeth de Valois, Eric Halfvarson as (absolutely the most convincing and formidable) Grand Inquisitor and Salvatore Licitra bringing down the house in the title role.

The basic and very workable (and totally appropriate) set was silently adjusted and repositioned effortlessly (i.e. no crashing thuds, no hammering nails) throughout the many scene-changes. At opening curtain, we are in a vast Spanish castle with soaring arches everywhere, all in Medieval ochre-red with colossal Caravaggio frescos of El Greco-esque figures in torment – one tragic figure is shown having frontal neck surgery (of sorts) with a sword.

In the rear is the vast tomb of Carlos V. A ghoulish, towering figure in ancient, tattered monk’s robes paces about. All of the period-appropriate costumes of the protagonists are in black, save when Philip II arrives in the famed (and utterly sensational) Auto de Fe scene when he outdoes even Boris Godounov at the latter’s ubiquitious coronation scene (Note: LA audiences will get to see that Boris scene next month in Orange County when Russia’s justly famed Kirov Opera presents its original pre-Shostakovitch and pre-Rimsky version).

[Below: Princess Eboli (Dolora Zajick) sings the “Veil Song”; edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]

The very enthusiastic audience, in a standing ovation, gave Dolora Zajick the most rousing reception for a sensational performance well-earned, followed closely by Ferruccio Furlanetto whose acting and stage presence eclipsed any other artist I’ve seen do this (gotta be) fun role. His every gesture was that of regal splendor, power, authority — with a voice to match. I well remember a similar blockbuster presentation at the Met years ago in a special evening with Nicholai Ghiaurov opposite Samuel Ramey, not to mention San Francisco’s sensational French version before the turn of the Century.

Young Salvatore Licitra was outstanding (LA loved him) and Annalisa Raspagliosi did wonderfully after taking some time to warm up. Our Rodrigo (Lado Ataneli) was terrific — the classic Don Carlo/Rodrigo duet garnered tumultuous applause, especially from me, since by that time, I was conducting . . . .

[Below: Salvatore Licitra (Don Carlo) and Lado Ataneli (Rodrigo); edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]

Maybe the most extraordinary scene of the many was the arrival of the blind, aged, Grand Inquisitor who was costumed in the red-raimant of a cardinal, terribly arthritis-stooped over (sound familiar?) and wearing shades as he supported himself on the shoulders of two cherubic, white-clad alter boys. The confrontation scene with Phillip II was loaded with dynamic tension with electricity in the air — yes indeed, Grand Opera at its Grandest!!! For once there was truth in advertising !

Rodrigo takes Don Carlo’s assassin’s bullet at the end, saving Don Carlo, but then the giant, ghastly sepulchral figure, again in tattered monk’s robes, emerges from the skeleton-sculptured tomb — taking Don Carlo back into the tomb with him — it’s the ghost of Charles V  !! Fabulous!!!  This is what we come to see, truly more cluck for the opera-mega-buck !!

LA rarely gets a treat like this. But shortly LA gets Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon in Massenet’s Manon relocated to the Paris of the fifties. Keep tuned !