Don Carlo Performed by the Cincinnati Opera

Few operas have as tortured a performance history as Giuseppe Verdi’s five act opera to a French libretto, Don Carlos.(Photo:
Few operas have as tortured a performance history as Giuseppe Verdi’s five act opera to a French libretto, Don Carlos.(Photo:

Few operas have as tortured a performance history as Giuseppe Verdi’s five-act opera set to a French libretto,  Don Carlos.

The Opera’s Story

Set at the court of Philip II of Spain, circa 1563, Verdi’s French Don Carlos is based on Friedrich Schiller‘s 1787 Don Karlos, Infant von Spanien.  Schiller defined the romantic age along with Goethe and later Heine,  and a true to life tale of a mad, deformed dwarf, the lot of the historical Don Carlos, wasn’t about to work on the German stage of the time. A writer steeped in republicanism and freemasonry needed a dashing hero, and if history denied the writer, then the writer had to imagine a hero.

Schiller’s Don Carlos is a love struck prince whose heart was broken when Elisabeth de Valois, to whom he was betrothed, was instead claimed by his father. History shows no close relationship and certainly no romance between Don Carlos and his stepmother. The two were both born in 1545 and died in 1568.  Schiller writes a horrid live triangle with Philip, Elisabeth and Carlos, or maybe a rectangle if one includes the mutual devotion between Don Carlos and Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, Grandee of Spain.

Verdi wrote Don Carlos on commission from the Paris Opera, where everything was sung  in French (this continued until after World War II).  The five act Don Carlos, complete with the ballet required by the messieures of the Opera – the better to ogle their mistresses among the corp s- gave way to more than one truncated Italian language version.

Modern Interpretations of the Opera

In recent years the choice in the States has been between five acts, with Act I beginning in the forest of Fontainbleau in Italian, or four acts, minus the  Fontainbleau scene, also in Italian.  French language performances of Don Carlos are rare. This writer sang in the chorus of the American premiere of  what  was claimed to be Verdi’s original-original-original, with Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston in the early 1970s.

Confused? Here’s all you need to know: Verdi and Schiller’s Don Carlos has little to do with history.  This is one of Verdi’s greatest operas in any language. His music gives us King Philip’s loneliness, Carlos’s impetuous feelings for his stepmother, Elisabeth’s dignity, the deep fraternal love between Carlo and Rodrigo, and the sexual passion of the Princess Eboli.

I approach any production of Don Carlo with high hopes and a queasy tummy. It’s a long opera. Even in four acts.  There are generally cuts.  A production in Pittsburgh ten years ago I recall for its musical butchery. Cincinnati gave us four acts in Italian with an second verse omitted here and there.  They also gave us, and they gave me,  a great night at the opera.

The sets were stone work, scrims, grilles and the occasional cross and flown in banner. Everyone looked well. Conductor Richard Buckley ‘s quick tempi could have been cheesy, but Buckley made an exciting opera even more exciting. Now then.  Cincinnati for a number of years had an artistic director named Nicolas Muni. In my opinion he is one of the great minds in opera today.  Someday I’m going to go wherever he is and watch him work, fetch the coffee, take notes, and learn. Muni gave Cincinnati a lot of vivid productions of some esoteric operas.

The Cincinnati Opera’s Interpretation

In recent years, Evans Mirageas has made Cincinnati what the opera world most thirsts for: the great voices.  He finds them early (Marco Caria, Morris Robinson, Antonello Palombi) or brings them back (James Morris, Aprile Millo).  And with the emphasis on great singing, Music Hall is very far from a stand up and sing house.  Don Carlo’s principals looked at one another and saw one another.  Stage director Sandra Bernhard saw to that.  Soprano Angela Brown was an Elisabeth of stunning voice, holding back just enough to let us have a full view of the Queen’s dignity and self control .  (Okay, okay, I would have loved for her to let it rip- Glory Hallelujah).

Frank Poretta was  a Carlo of passion and sincerity. He worked hard and it showed, but if you want an Italianate tenor with complete commitment to the role,  Poretta gave you your money’s worth.

James Morris , a world star for forty years, gave us an imposing Philip-his sound is slimmer and more compact now, but he retains the timbre and “chops” of a great star.  Morris Robinson burned the place down with his magnificent bass voice as the Grand Inquisitor, and Michelle deYoung was beautiful to watch and vocally glorious as Eboli.

And Posa? To me the heart of the opera?  Write this name down: Marco Caria. I had never heard of him.  I thought, around 7 pm, I hope this guy is good-Rodrigo has  my favorite music in this great opera. At 8 pm I was ready to find Marco’s Facebook fan club and sign up. He’s a slim man with a slim voice.  He’s not a honker, but he had a wide range, power when he needed it, vocal beauty and line, line, line.

I was dieting, so I had to skip the chocolate covered Oreos on sale at Music Hall. This stunning Don Carlo was worth chocolate withdrawal. All the thrills were on the stage and in the pit.