A Second Look Review: “Don Carlo” at the San Francisco Opera, June 18, 2016

In my review of the opening performance of San Francisco Opera’s 2016 mounting of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” [see Review: A Legendary Performance of “Don Carlo” at the San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2016], I had praised the cast, conductor and orchestra, suggesting it was one of the most deeply cast and moving performances of the work in San Francisco Opera history.

[Below: Crown Prince Don Carlo (Michael Fabiano, left) and Elisabetta di Valois (Ana Maria Martinez, right) retain strong feelings for each other, even though she, as the new Queen, becomes his stepmother; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Having attended the third (June 18th) of the production’s six scheduled performances, my assessment remained the same – that the performances by New Jersey tenor Michael Fabiano, Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez, Polish baritone Marius Kwiecien, German basso Rene Pape, and Italian-born American basso Andrea Silvestrelli deserved the highest praise.

My assessment of the debut performance of Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva was also very positive. However, I found this, her third performance in the role at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, to be even stronger than the first, her bright coloratura more evident in the veil song in the scene that introduces her character, her dramatic power more evident as the opera progresses.

[Below: the Princess Eboli (Nadia Krasteva, right) whose romantic advances to Don Carlo (Michael Fabiano, left) have been spurned, draws a sword on him in anger; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


This review of a second  “Don Carlo” performance whose cast has not changed, is an opportunity to devote time to Sagi’s production, to the ultimate source of Verdi’s opera – the fertile mind of German poet, dramatist, historian and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, and to its place among the final three operas of the tenure of retiring San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley.

Emilio Sagi’s Production

San Francisco Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” was conceived and directed by Spanish director Emilio Sagi in 1998, with sets by Zack Brown (Sagi’s collaborator also for an elegant Washington National Opera production of Verdi’s “Otello” seen here at the San Francisco Opera in 2002). The Sagi “Don Carlo” production was last mounted in 2003 (directed by Gina Lapinski) in the original French version.

The production (utilizing the Italian Modena version of the opera) effectively conveys a sense of both the elegance and the oppressiveness of the Spanish royal court while allowing fluidity of dramatic action.

The basic set consists of a front grill dressed in a Spanish style that descends at various times, sometimes representing the exterior of a monastery and sometimes an interior of an official building.

A movable structure. that can be wheeled into place, often frames the back of the stage. Director Sagi uses the structure’s top walkway for the first act royal procession.

Significantly, in the scene at the Atocha Cathedral, Sagi uses this space above the auto da fe, for the Grand Inquisitor’s appearance (even though Verdi’s opera does not call for him to appear in the scene).

[Below: the Grand Inquisitor (Andrea Silvestrelli, center, at top of photograph), surrounded by his cardinals, hovers above King Philip (Rene Pape, bottom of photo, left center); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Merely through the Grand Inquisitor’s “behind-the-scenes” presence, Sagi remind us that the authoritarian Spanish church controls that grisly ceremony, as it does all aspects of the royal court and the Spanish empire.

Particularly striking in the auto da fe scene is the burning at the stake of three penitential heretics is represented by the body of each penitent being raised upward as a Heavenly Voice (in this production soprano Toni Marie Palmertree) announces their acceptance into heaven as Silvestrelli’s blind Grand Inquisitor listens ominously from his vantage point above the crowds.

[Below: the Zack Brown sets for the royal gardens covered by the representation of a canopy; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Friedrich Schiller’s Influence on Opera

The German historian-dramatist Friedrich Schiller’s works were a strong influence on 19th century opera.

Schiller was a strong proponent of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and an admirer of the American Revolution and was despondent about the excesses of the French Revolution. The opera composers attracted to Schiller’s plays were concerned with the arbitrary uses of state power by authoritarian states to suppress individual liberty.

This remains a lively subject in the 21st century. I believe that the political and dramatic content of Schiller’s work should still resonate with opera audiences today.

At the beginning of San Francisco Opera’s 2015-16 season, I wrote of the continued relevance to our present day of Friedrich Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe, the work on which the company’s 2015 opening night opera, Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” is based. [see Review: Michael Fabiano’s Star Ascends in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 2015.] That work takes aim at the destruction of individual liberties by the authoritarian state.

Even more relevant to current times is Schiller’s Don Carlos, the lengthy play that inspired Verdi’s “Don Carlo”. Its scathing indictment of totalitarian thought control, as exemplified by the Spanish Inquisition and the suppression of Flanders, provided Verdi with some of his most inspired operatic scenes.

[Below: Rodrigo, Duke of Posa (Mariusz Kweicien, right) suggests that Don Carlo (Michael Fabiano, left) champion the cause of the suppressed people of Flanders; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


“Luisa Miller” and “Don Carlos”, of course, are not the only operas that are based on a Schiller work. The San Francisco Opera has also performed Rossini’s “William Tell”, Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” and Tchaikovsky’s “Maid of Orleans” all ultimately derived from Schiller’s brilliant mind.

Some of Schiller’s influence on opera is more indirect. I don’t believe it is possible to really understand all that is happening in Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” without having a sense of how Schiller’s Wallenstein influenced it.

Famously, Puccini’s “Turandot”,  is not directly based on Gozzi’s original play, but on Maffei’s translation of Schiller’s extensive reworking of what Gozzi wrote. For example, Puccini’s Ping, Pang and Pong, inspired by Schiller’s reconcieved commedia dell’arte characters, express a realistic and thoughtful view of the failings of Turandot’s authoritarian state, that would not have occurred to their empty-headed equivalents in Gozzi’s play.

There are two important Schiller-derived Verdi works that have not yet been mounted at the San Francisco Opera – “I Masnadieri”, based on Schiller’s first great success, “The Robbers” and “Giovanna d’Arco”, Verdi’s version of Schiller’s “Maid of Orleans”. (I have seen San Diego Opera performances of “Masnadieri” with Joan Sutherland and “Giovanna d’Arco” with Adriana Maliponte and Luis Lima.)

I can envision each of these works in newly rethought productions on the War Memorial Opera House stage.

Thoughts on the Final Three Gockley Offerings

San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley, upon his arrival at the beginning of calendar year 2006, pledged to restore the company’s reputation for world-class performances by great operatic artists.

He achieved that goal, not by concentrating the company’s resources on “name” European stars (although some did appear), but on fostering the careers of North American artists. Unlike the immediate postwar years of the mid-20th century, North American artists of international rank abound, and their presence has enriched the “Gockley decade”.

The San Francisco Opera summer season was the occasion for the return of two European directors, Sagi and French director Olivier Tambosi, both who worked previously during the “Gockley era”.

The two mountings of Sagi’s “Don Carlo” took place under the administrations of Gockley’s two predecessors, but Sagi did create a new production for Gockley [See Lucas Meachem, Javier Camarena and Isabel Leonard Romp in Sagi’s Sprightly New “Barber of Seville” – San Francisco Opera, November 13, 2013.]

Tambosi directed productions of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”, Verdi’s “Falstaff” and Janacek’s “Makrapulos Case” in addition to this season’s “Jenufa” [See Review: A Beautifully Performed “Jenufa” by Byström, Mattila and Burden, San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2016.]

The summer was also the occasion for a new San Francisco Opera production based on the work of the sometimes controversial Spanish director, Calixto Bielto [See Review: A Spanish “Carmen” from Calixto Bielto, May 28, 2016.]

The three productions shared dramatic intensity, and, particularly in the Verdi and Janacek, unsurpassed vocal performances. They were altogether symbolic of the progress that San Francisco Opera achieved during a decade led by David Gockley.