French ‘Don Carlos’ Another Coup For Grand Verdi Cycle

Eboli (Mary Phillips), Posa (Marco Nisticò) and Carlos (Jonathan Burton) in a tense moment in Sarasota Opera's 'Don Carlos.'  (Production photos by Rod Millington)
Eboli (Mary Phillips), Posa (Marco Nisticò), and Carlos (Jonathan Burton) in a tense moment in Sarasota’s ‘Don Carlos.’
(Production photos by Rod Millington)
By Arthur Kaptainis

SARASOTA — “L’hiver est long”: These are the opening words of Verdi’s Don Carlos in the version unveiled March 7 by the Sarasota Opera as part of the company’s majestic 28-year traversal of every note the composer left to posterity. That there was no sympathetic chuckle from the audience on opening night can be taken as evidence of the blissful indifference of Floridians (and snowbirds) to the hard reality in northern climes. About ten minutes short of five hours later, the cheer that met the final curtain offered evidence of how compelling this much-mangled score can be in its original and uncut form.

Kevin Short asserts his authority as Philippe II.
Philippe II (Kevin Short) asserts his authority.

Uncut is actually putting it mildly. This production is “102 percent” complete, according to Sarasota Opera scholar-in-residence Francesco Izzo, including as it does material excised by the composer before the premiere by the Paris Opera in 1867. Even that initial complaint about winter (from a chorus of woodcutters) got the ax. Yet this choral introduction, far from superfluous, establishes the suffering of the French people and the high-mindedness of Élisabeth, who accepts a loveless marriage to Philippe II of Spain (rather than a passionate attachment to his son, Don Carlos) at the urging of her subjects. As for the understated finale of the 1867 score — opposite in musical character to the brassy fortissimo ending of the established editions — a case can be made that it renders the supernatural deus ex machina resolution more thoughtful and less forced.

It would be beyond the scope of a review (not to mention the inclinations of the reviewer) to document and assess all the alternations and restorations, let alone rehearse the differences between the French and Italian versions (the latter also coming in a few flavors). But it can be said confidently that no follower of Downton Abbey would find the melodramatic flourishes, occasional improbabilities, and sheer lavish length of this piece at all off-putting. If you like opera, you will love the original Don Carlos.

Élisabeth (Michelle Johnson) with Carlos (Burton).
Élisabeth (Michelle Johnson) with Carlos (Burton).

At least if it is presented with scrupulous attention to the score and the text, which is a given at this company. Sarasota sets are realistic, appropriate, and painterly, qualities increasingly hard to find in the revisionist-infected major houses. Long running times are partly due to pauses between scenes and acts. Unlike companies that try to get by with economical one-off sets as directorial concepts, Sarasota gives its subscribers the visuals — the forest of Fontainebleau, the monastery of Saint-Just, the square in front of the cathedral — actually called for by the scenario. And apart from being faithful, this production, designed by David Gordon and a refit of the 1884 French version the company presented in 2009, was consistently handsome on its own account.

Casting also had an authentic feel. There is more music for Posa in the 1867 score, and baritone Marco Nisticò brought a sturdy voice and noble bearing to the role. Occasional pushiness from tenor Jonathan Burton justly reflected the instability of the title character. Bass Kevin Short was impressively dark-voiced as Philippe II. Although I like my soliloquies more sharply phrased, there was still no doubt in Act IV of the humanity of this troubled monarch. No abundance of stage whiskers could make bass Young Bok Kim seem venerable enough to play the Grand Inquisitor, but bass Tyler Putnam, a Sarasota studio artist, was imposing as the monk who goes on to greater things.

Eboi (Phillips) sings "O don fatale."
Princess Eboi (Phillips) sings “O don fatale.”

Michelle Johnson and Mary Phillips made a believable pair, respectively, as Élisabeth and Eboli, the former a pure-voiced soprano of regal deportment, the latter a mezzo-soprano who was prepared occasionally to sacrifice beauty of tone for expressive force. Extra 1867 music nicely clarified their relations. Supporting roles were solidly filled by studio artists. The small chorus (also of young apprentices and studio artists) as prepared by Roger Bingaman sounded robust in the 1,119-seat Sarasota Opera House.

This terracotta-toned heritage space — where another king, Elvis Presley, once performed — has an ample pit. If strings do not project with ideal resonance, the balance with voices is excellent. Getting the mix just right was only one of the virtues with which Sarasota Opera artistic director Victor DeRenzi could be credited. Vital music had spunk and the solemn passages moved with appropriate gravitas. Above all, the drama moved. Not a moment suggested itself as a suitable cut. The Sarasota Opera Orchestra played with high concentration, minus one shaky woodwind solo. Horn intonation was excellent. Stage director Stephanie Sundine managed to make the characters seem large in a relatively small space.

Completionists should note that the Don Carlos ballet music has already been presented in concert in Sarasota. If this production counts as the most ambitious to date by DeRenzi’s company, there will an even grander finale next season in Aida, running in tandem with Verdi’s 14th opera, The Battle of Legnano. I predict a big success — with perhaps a tinge of regret that the Verdi cycle (1989-2016) is over.

Final performances of Don Carlos are at 1:30 p.m. March 15 and 21 and 6:30 p.m. March 18 and 24. For information, go here.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for The Gazette (Montreal) and the National Post (Canada).