Eric Owens’ Debut In Philly ‘Don Carlo’ Another Bold Feat

Owens, Robinson
King Philip II (Eric Owens, right, in his role debut) obtains harsh advice from the Grand Inquisitor (Morris Robinson).
(Philadelphia Opera ‘Don Carlo’ production photos by Kelly & Massa)
By Lesley Valdes

PHILADELPHIA — When Opera Philadelphia staged its first Don Carlo in 2004, it called upon native son and emerging artist Eric Owens to step in at the eleventh hour — to sing the Friar.  To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the company has mounted a new production of “the big Verdi” around and for the superstar bass-baritone, who calls his debut in the role of King Philip II  “a homecoming for my voice.”

Owens, Crocetto
King Philip II (Eric Owens) accuses Elisabeth, his Queen, of betrayal. (Leah Crocetto).

His Philip doesn’t disappoint. Owens’ presence, neither overdone nor underwrought, headlines a cast and orchestra that understand the “big Verdi” is first of all and ensemble work — about the push-pull between intimate argument and intense despair. Opening night at the Academy of Music on April 24, I came away pondering the portrayal’s moments of stillness. Owens understands the king caught in the web of church-and-state, the husband ensnared in a loveless marriage, the father who knows himself too well — unlike the son who knows himself too little. Like Shakespeare, Verdi gives us such complicated characters: ourselves.

Eric Owens on the regal role of Philip: ‘A homecoming for my voice.’

From his first commanding appearance, King Philip looms silent. After dismissing his queen’s lady-in-waiting, Philip doesn’t move a muscle: He’s practicing marital and political strategy. When the liquid voice pours out, emotions shift as in a kaleidoscope. One of the most effective of his duets, for the suppleness of its blend, was Owens’ with Troy Cook’s Rodrigo: the latter the political idealist, the king, hardly. Not that this Philip doesn’t demonstrate there will be room to grow. Cook, also new to the role, is a tremendous production asset, the baritone agile, the quality of the singing-acting elastic.

Still another solid contributor is soprano Leah Crocetto, who is singing the role of Elisabeth for the first time. Her delicate voice soars; it is strong without turning metallic, and Crocello applies it fearlessly. It was lovely to hear this young woman convey emotion so assuredly. A find. Pleasures come from casting, from collaboration.

Verdi, the master of ensembles, demands keen direction. Music director Corrado Rovaris has honed this orchestra for a decade; sensitivity is a strength. Rovaris rarely overdoes things. He’s fortunate in his string sections, and in timpanist Martha Hitchens, who knows both how to rouse and when to nuance. Innovative English director Tim Albery’s background in stage psychology appears to have deepened the quality of intimacy in this production, those moments of stillness I sensed opening night — and not only from King Philip. Nonetheless, before each of the final curtains, I wished intensity had been ramped up, stretched, darkened.

Elizabeth (Leah Crocetto) rejects Don Carlo's (Dimitri Pittas) declaration of love
Honor bound, Elisabeth (Leah Crocetto) rejects passionate Don Carlo (Dimitri Pittas).

This production is the four-act Italian version that opens with the lovelorn Carlos, sung by Dimitri Pittas, a tenor whose instrument has ardor. Pittas has performed the role before. The singing showed some stress but increased in bloom as the night deepened, particularly in the duos with Elisabeth and with Rodrigo. The prison scene accentuated the dramatic tension between baritone and tenor.

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who sang Princess Eboli, gamely went on despite some cloudiness in the voice. She was recovering from bronchitis, though this was not revealed until the following day, when the company  announced that the singer would walk the role at Sunday’s matinee and Ekaterina Gubanova, who recently sang Eboli at the Metropolitan Opera, would sing offstage. DeYoung is expected to complete the final three performances.

Michelle DeYoung as Eboli
Jealous Eboli (mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung) plots a deception.

There are aspects of considerable beauty to designer Andrew Lieberman’s minimal set, though some of it looks far better on the opera website than on the Academy stage. The opera opens with the interior of a downed tower of the Escorial, situated on its side: at stage rear, the tower’s cupola. The cupola is wonderful: light streaming in, wisps of clouds that suggest El Greco. We should need little more than these cloud lines to evoke Verdi’s emotional terrain.

But early on the cupola confuses. It rotates, changes its lighting, suggests perhaps a silver umbrella or postmodern Catherine wheel. Distracting, too, are the tower walls whose burnished copper looks so contemporary I imagined a modern condo. Nor did I “see” the grave slabs intended by the rectangular windows. Since the design concept was online and not in the program book, director Albery wanted the audience “to make their own discoveries.” I suspect some audience members were also confused. And I had read the concept.

The most effective visual elements are the clouds. They backlight the Grand Inquisitor as if he had been painted by El Greco. They make a gorgeous drop for Philip’s fourth-act aria, when he meditates on Elisabeth never having loved him. There’s nothing to interfere with the king, the song, the cello’s accompaniment — before the big voice moves from its quietness, before it erupts into the jealousy the king cannot contain. This is the joy of a minimal set: We can focus.

Cook, Pittas
Tragedy deepens as Rodrigo (Troy Cook) dies in the arms of Don Carlo (Dimitri Pittas).

The production is bold. It avoids scene changes (nor are acts indicated in the program book). There are only two drop-downs: The same black gate is used for Eboli’s garden seduction of Carlos and for the prison scene. No problem, but why not change the lighting? The intention surely is to show the Escorial as claustrophobic, prison-like. Must it be so heavy-handed? Closest to suggesting the beauty of a garden are the gowns Constance Hoffman has designed for the women of the court, whose arrival precedes the seduction scene. In nuanced neutrals, the costumes are elegant against the spare set. The choristers who wear them also are elegantly trained by chorus master Elizabeth Braden.

Another disappointment is the auto-da-fé, in which doomed heretics are seated on little black chairs to be burned. Yes, nice fiery red lighting, but the chairs also pose the question: Is this how the Inquisition burned people? It challenges belief and distracts us.

I have said nothing about Morris Robinson, the Grand Inquisitor, whose basso is impossibly impressive. At the Vatican, I understand the job still exists. If he sounds anything like Robinson, even Pope Francis should beware.

Lesley Valdes is a writer, critic, and poet living in Philadelphia. She is completing her first manuscript of poems, In the Starlight Room.

King Philip II
King Philip II visits the Queen in the new production, designed by Andrew Lieberman and directed by Tim Albery.