Review: Brandon Jovanovich Triumphant in Historic “Don Carlos” Production – Houston Grand Opera, April 13, 2012

By 1866, Giuseppe Verdi’s ideas for setting Schiller’s “Don Carlos” had been realized, but the French language opera he created was deemed too long for contemporary Parisian tastes, and Verdi was prevailed upon to shorten the opera by a specific number of minutes. The composer was allowed to decide what should be cut. The “composer’s cut” was given great weight, both by those Parisians in 1867 and by later generations.

Thus, substantive cuts to Verdi’s completed work were made before its first performance. Opera company managements, mindful of the popularity of shorter operas – one of the points on which many 19th and 21st century opera company managements would likely agree – were quick to embrace the composer’s final five-act French version in the abridged form of its 1867 premiere.

Verdi felt compelled to revise the opera several more times, and in 1884 authorized a new four act version in Italian. Then, for a period of several decades, it existed as a seldom performed operatic “rarity”, re-entering the standard repertory in its four act form in the mid-20th century.

A New Production at Welsh National Opera

Houston Grand Opera’s former General Manager Anthony Freud, now at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, was at the Welsh National Opera (Cardiff, Wales) when this production was created. Conceptualized by John Caird, with sets by Johan Engels and costumes by Carl Friedrich Oberle, it originally debuted in 2005.

The new production, rather than being based on either the 1867 French five-act premiere production or the 1884 four-act Italian revision, restored the cuts Verdi was forced to make before the opera’s opening night performance.

The Houston management, now led by HGO Managing Director Perryn Leech, who had been technical assistant to Freud in Cardiff,  bet that the version that was too long for Paris in 1866 would be found acceptable by Houston audiences.

[Below: Don Carlos (Brandon Jovanovich) approaches a campfire that warms the Fontainebleau foresters and their families; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The production’s opening night proved the HGO management to be right. The great mass of the Houston audience stayed throughout the four hours, and demonstrated appreciative applause throughout and enthusiastic ovations at opera’s end. Patrick Summers conducted the Houston Grand Opera orchestra impressively.

Improving the Story Line of “Don Carlos”

The “new” material, previously unknown to most Verdi aficionados, proved revelatory, strengthening character motivations, especially of Elisabeth, Philippe and Carlos, clarifying plot points, and proving that all of the music struck out before the Paris premiere was of the same level of quality as the music that “made the cut”.

Even the “wood-chopping” music, evoking the sound of swinging axes that begins the 1867 version of the opera with which we are familiar, has a context. A long and, I think, effective scene begins the opera, in which the Fontainebleau foresters and their families bewail their poverty and hunger.

They are watched by Don Carlos, the Spanish heir to the throne, who has traveled to France to get a glimpse of his betrothed in a marriage of state negotiated by the emissaries of France and Spain.

[Below: A group of foresters and their families, observed by Don Carlos (Brandon Jovanovich, top right center)  congregate in the Fontainbleau woods and warm themselves at a campfire; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The character whose stock rises the most in the full version is Elisabeth de Valois, who accompanied by her page and lady-in-waiting, comes across the down and out forester families and shows compassion and charity, even giving the furs off her back to shivering children and elders.

The chorus finds a reason to abandon the fire’s warmth and exit the stage, and opens the opportunity for Don Carlos (telling Elisabeth that he is an emissary of the prince, rather than the prince himself) to stir the embers and warm and charm the French princess.

Such a scene of outdoor domesticity involving  two sheltered royal offpring is affecting, and makes wholly believable Carlos’ instantaneous attraction to her, and Elisabeth’s reciprocal expression of love when Carlos’ supposed emissary proves to be the same person portrayed in the locket he states contains Don Carlos’ image.

Carlos, who has fallen in love with the woman whom royal affairs of state had chosen for him, is devastated and angry when he learns that his bride-elect has suddenly become his stepmother-elect. Elisabeth’s sense of duty and rapport with the foresters’ families pleading for peace between France and Spain causes her to consent to King Philippe’s formal offer of marriage. The enraged Carlos, whose relations with his father were obviously strained before this time, is now inimical and rebellious towards the King.

Brandon Jovanovich’s Don Carlos

Brandon Jovanovich, whose Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen” demonstrated his effective delivery of the French dramatic tenor sound [see my review at Krasteva, Jovanovich Sizzle in Chicago “Carmen” – Lyric Opera, March 15, 2011] was a striking Carlos, displaying a brilliant top and a seductive middle voice that showed both lyricism and power.

Already excelling in the spinto Italian roles [see my reviews of his Pinkerton (see The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III “Madama Butterfly” – December 8, 2007 and Kaduce’s Incandescent Cio Cio San, Jovanovich’s Injudicious Pinkerton, Emblazon Blakeley’s “Butterfly” – Santa Fe Opera, July 16, 2010) and his Luigi (see Gavanelli, Racette, Jovanovich In Rousing “Tabarro” at San Francisco Opera – September 15, 2009) ] and the jugendlicher Wagnerian roles [see my reviews of his Siegmund (Power Singing, Powerful Imagery in Zambello’s “Walkuere” – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2011) and Froh (“Rheingold” Evolves in First Full Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2011)], with matinee idol looks and effective acting skills, the Montana-born American tenor has the ingredients for operatic super-star status.

The object of Carlos’ affections, Elisabeth, was sung by Tamara Wilson, an alumna of the Houston Studio Artists. She has taken on the core dramatic soprano roles of the Verdi canon, notably at Houston Grand Opera, which might be regarded as her home company [see, for example, Review: Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo” – Houston Grand Opera, November 2, 2007.]

[Below: Elisabeth of Valois (Tamara Wilson, under crown at left) accepts her fate to become Queen of Spain as her page Thibault (Lauren Snouffer, right, with hands behind back) looks on; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Images of the Counter-Reformation

The opera is one of two productions mounted this April at Houston Grand Opera – the other being Donizetti’s “Mary Stuart (Maria Stuarda”) – by Italian composers loosely based on plays by Friedrich Schiller, which are loosely based on dramatic events during the 16th century Catholic Counter-Reformation.

I do not expect to come across anyone in the 21st century who would argue that the Spanish Inquisition was not deplorable, nor that the Catholic forces could ultimately have prevailed in the United Kingdom. But “Don Carlos” and “Mary Stuart” are neither documentaries nor biographies.

In the Caird/Engels production, oppression of dissent in both Spain and Flanders is represented by crosses, some towering above the stage and some hand-held. That these crosses have nothing to do with a redemptive Christian message is chillingly displayed in this production’s treatment of the auto-da-fe. (The burning heretics were welcomed into heaven, by a Celestial Voice, sung by Brittany Wheeler.)

[Below: an Auto da Fe; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

A traditionalist might demur at Oberle’s costuming scheme, which embraces a 21st century fashion of mixing costume styles from various periods, so that a 16th century Dominican monk might stand next to persons in contemporary dress who would attract no stares at Houston’s upscale shopping malls. And, like so many contemporary operatic productions, Phillip II’s soldiers carry assault rifles (although this one eschews mixing AK-47s with crossbows as one sometimes sees on the operatic stage these days).

But I will offer a mild defense of the costuming, which, for me, assured that the conceptualization of the staging dealt with the pyschological impact that each of the principal characters have on each other. “Don Carlos” especially is about personal passions, both lofty (e.g.,  for the personal freedom and national self-determination of oppressed persons) and more obviously emotional (e.g., love, jealousy, the mutual anger of father and son).

Christine Goerke’s Eboli

Vanity, jealousy, treachery and self-delusion are all traits of the Princess Eboli, sung by Christine Goerke, one the several plum lead roles in “Don Carlos”.

Goerke is one of the truly superb contemporary dramatic mezzo-sopranos (whose repertory encompasses roles usually associated with either the mezzo or the soprano range). [See my reviews of her Ortrud [Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009], her Ariadne [Goerke, Claycomb, Graham in Stylishly Accessible “Ariadne auf Naxos” – Houston Grand Opera, April 29, 2011] and her Rosalinde [“Die Fledermaus” in S. F. – September 16, 2006].

Her wide range and vocal flexibility permitted her to perform both of Eboli’s arias (the Veil Song and O don fatal) admirably, whereas many a mezzo-soprano has been known to be less effective on the one than the other.

[Below: Christine Goerke is the Princess Eboli; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Andrea Silvestrelli’s Philippe and Samuel Ramey’s Inquisitor

Perhaps the most famous scene in “Don Carlos” is the chilling scene between two bassos, King Philippe (sung by Andrea Silvestrelli, a veteran of the Welsh National Opera production) and the Grand Inquisitor (Samuel Ramey).

Silvestrelli portrayal of Philippe, guided by a substantial increase in the “content of his character” that the restoration of cuts provides, was of an insecure, disturbed monarch – even more deeply troubled by his interactions with and suspicions about his wife and his son than either of the usually performed versions. This is evident in the encounter between Philippe and the Inquisitor, in which he asks the priest’s absolution should he have to order his own son’s death (Why not? God, himself, did it, is the Inquistor’s chilling response.)

Ramey’s voice, who, as he enters his 70s, is not the instrument that so regaled us during the decades of his prime, proved to be an extraordinary presence. His first phrases were uttered with the excessively wide vibrato that usually signals vocal decline, but within a few moments one detected the power and dramatic punch of the Ramey voice. It was a searing portrait, an extraordinary addition to this important cast, which I will remember alongside the great Ramey performances I attended during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

[Below: Philippe (Andrea Silvestrelli, left) asks absolution, should he have to execute his son, from the Grand Inquisitor (Samuel Ramey, right); edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Scott Hendricks’ Rodrigue

It has been several years since I last reviewed a performance in which Scott Hendricks starred [see Cura, Futral Shine in New San Diego Opera “Pagliacci” – March 22, 2008.] Although he is not particularly associated with the French repertory, it was a pleasure to hear his lyric baritone engaged in performing one of the mid-19th century French roles for which his voice seems particularly suited. (Valentin in Gounod’s “Faust” was written seven years before “Don Carlos” and Mercutio in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” had its first performances in the same year as Verdi’s Parisian opera.)

Hendricks, like Silvestrelli, is a veteran of the original Welsh National Opera production. His Rodrigue, like Carlos, Elisabeth, Eboli and Philippe, has much rich material – both vocal and dramatic – in the restored sections.

[Below: Rodrigue (Scott Hendricks, left) visits the cell in which Don Carlos (Brandon Jovanovich, right) is imprisoned; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

I confess to liking several of the eccentricities of the staging that Caird and company have created. At the end of the Fontainebleau scene, we discover that the “campfire” at which Don Carlos wooed Elisabeth is made up of a large number of crosses, one of which each chorister picks up on his or her way to the next scene. The women who attend on Princess Eboli all are twirling distinctive broad-beamed parasols. Eboli’s page Thibault (Lauren Snouffer) is dressed like a slightly older Cherubino, and engages in flirtations with Eboli and Elisabeth’s (mute) lady-in-waiting, Countess Aremberg.

[Below: Don Carlos (Brandon Jovanovich) meets his ultimate fate; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Not only do I recommend this performance unreservedly for the Verdi aficionado, I recommend that any lover of Verdi’s operas consider traveling a great distance to be able to hear the opera as originally written, particularly with Jovanovich singing the title role.

See also: Rising Stars: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich.