The trouble with Verdi’s “Don Carlo” always has been — like much of Wagner — too much of a good thing. Requiring no fewer than six stellar singers in the leads, making it very costly to mount, it clocks in at some four and a half hours, making it very hard to sit through. For the stalwart, however, there are rewards. One of them is terrific singing, another some wonderful music, including the ever-popular bromance duet between the title character and his buddy, Rodrigo the Marquis de Posa, and the great chorus of the grand auto-da-fé scene (burning of heretics never sounded so good). The problem of length frequently is addressed by eliminating the opening Fontainebleau scene, really a prologue, in which the title character meets his betrothed, Princess Elisabetta of France, they fall in love and are ultimately betrayed when she is given to Carlo’s father, Philip II, the aging King of Spain, as part of a treaty deal. True, this backstory sets the tone for all that will follow but could be dealt with in a paragraph of supertitles. True also that it adds
25 minutes to an already overlong work.
San Francisco Opera gives us the whole enchilada in its current revival. The plot takes us from the aforementioned prologue to the Spanish court in Madrid. Philip and Elisabetta are (not so happily) married; Carlo, something of an unstable wimp to begin with, is out of his mind with frustrated love; his noble friend Posa is trying to save the besieged Protestants of Flanders; the scheming Princess Eboli, in love with Carlo herself, is plotting to take the secret (but chaste) lovers down; and the Grand Inquisitor is gunning for them all. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well. But it sure takes its time getting there.
The singing is fine, often spectacular. The American tenor Michael Fabiano takes the title role, conveying his character’s weakness and indecision nicely. He has a gorgeous upper range, solid low notes but is a little wobbly in the middle. Ana María Martínez is a lovely heroine, both to listen to and see. Here may be the makings of a great Verdi soprano. The great baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is Posa and, as usual, he is wonderful, his death scene at the end a highlight. The equally great René Pape invests King Philip with icy hauteur until he melts in his long soliloquy, alone in his bedroom, when he
realizes that his young wife does not and never loved him. Nadia Krasteva is a fine Eboli, her “O don fatale,” in which she curses the beauty that has brought her to ruin, another standout. Andrea Silvestrelli does the Grand Inquisitor chillingly proud. His duet with Philip (which usually puts me to sleep, perhaps because it traditionally is lit only with a candle) here shone brightly. The San Francisco Opera Chorus, which had much to do, did it splendidly, and the orchestra, under outgoing music director Nicola Luisotti, followed suit.
Director Emilio Sagi’s staging was another matter. It was extremely static, with the singers singing straight to the audience much of the time. And Zack Brown’s stage design looked tired in the beginning (a tiny model of Fontainebleau centerstage was confusing and weird) and too much black marble floor and mirrored walls after that. Even the grand auto-da-fé, meant to be a spectacle, was drab, with only a swath of red fabric (blood symbolic no doubt) and one banner to enliven the picture. But, in an opera with six stars, it is the music that counts and, in that regard, “Don Carlo” is something to sing about.