September 25, 2018
Long before the creation of Los Angeles Opera, L.A. had to rely on imports for its supply of arias, predominantly from the New York City Opera, which would perform an annual fall season at the (then relatively new) Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center.
In 1967, NYCO’s season included a production of Don Rodrigo by the Argentine composer, Alberto Ginastera. The title role was sung by a rising star of the company— a 26-year-old Spanish tenor named Plácido Domingo.
How remarkable that on Saturday, 55 years later, a nearly 78-year-old Plácido Domingo strode onto the same stage in a role with exactly the same name. Only this time (as a baritone) Domingo was singing the role of Rodrigo, the Marquis de Posa, in Verdi’s Don Carlo.
But what was even more amazing was the dark-haired wig, the trimly cut costume, and the robust makeup that allowed Domingo to convincingly appear as a character a half-century his junior! In fact, the transformation was so convincing that no one recognized him when he made his entrance, a moment that up to now has always been greeted with a warm round of applause.
“Which one is Plácido?” I heard a woman ask her friend during intermission. “I think he’s the King, the guy in gold,” she responded. He was not the “Guy in gold.”
Domingo, who formerly displayed his splendid tenor in the role of the lovelorn prince, Don Carlo, proved he could be equally impressive as Carlo’s comrade-in-arms, Rodrigo. His voice, now in its baritone incarnation, maintains all of its luster as well as Domingo’s signature amber hue. He has also lost none of his strength as a dramatic actor.
In this season-opening revival, Domingo is accompanied by tenor Ramón Vargas as Don Carlo; soprano Ana María Martínez as the woman he cannot have, Elisabeth de Valois; mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova as the jealous Princes Eboli; with basses Ferruccio Furlanetto as the mighty monarch, King Philip II of Spain, and Morris Johnson as the Grand Inquisitor.
Verdi’s original 1867 French version of the opera, Don Carlos, was not very successful with Italian audiences, partly, Verdi concluded, because it was too long. In 1882, working alongside a French librettist, Verdi revised the opera, trimming it from five acts to four, jettisoning its ballet, and making major revisions to the score. This is the version that L.A. Opera is presenting. Two years after the new version’s 1884 premiere, Verdi allowed a performance in Modena that restored the opening act — the opera’s only scene of romantic bliss between Don Carlo and Elisabeth of Valois in the forest of Fontainebleau. (Verdi’s publisher issued an edition of this score.) In contrast to that leafy setting, the four-act version thrusts the action immediately into the dark, oppressive world of the Spanish court and the horrors of the Inquisition.
When L.A. Opera first presented this production in 2006, I found the single unit set design by John Gunter, with its dripping blood color scheme and massive depictions of writhing martyrs oppressive and unrelenting. Nothing has changed.
Surprisingly, the oppressive nature of the production seemed to affect the conducting by James Conlon, which was listless throughout the first act , bogged down in slow tempos, and generally lacking energy. Even the rousing tenor-baritone duet between Vargas and Domingo, “Dio, che nell’alma infondere” (God, who kindles love and hope in our hearts),lacked the level of bonding bravado it usually produces.
Fortunately, the vocal and orchestral performance gained strength and dramatic momentum in the series of confrontational duets, trios, and quartets. Voices that had been underwhelming in Act I became dynamic, even ferocious, led by the explosive force of Smirnova’s Princess Eboli. But whoever chose the red fright wig she wears (that makes her look like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland) did her no favor. When the Russian mezzo sang Eboli’s remorseful final aria, "O don fatale" (O fatal beauty) there were laughs in the audience that she certainly must have heard.
Furlanetto was a force to be reckoned with as King Philip, reaching a zenith is his grand aria of love-lost despair, Ella giammai m’amò (She never loved me). Ramon Vargas is a tenor of bright tone with a reasonably impressive upper range. He is not, however, a tenor of heroic proportions. His declarations of love to Martínez were overshadowed by a persistent low-energy delivery. Carlo may be indecisive, but he’s always certain of his love for Elisabeth. For her part, Martínez projected a regal sense of stoic grandeur and sang with dulcet lyricism.
Taylor Redpath played the role of the squire, Tebaldo, and Morris Robinson once again proves himself a bass among basses as the Grand Inquisitor.