The LA Opera has kicked off its 2018-19 season with gusto. Verdi’s “Don Carlo” is grand opera with a capital ‘G.’ The music is lavish and all enveloping – orchestra and cast meet the challenge head on. The full LA Opera Chorus is a force unto itself.
King Phillip II (Alexander Vinogradov) — known as Phillip the Prudent, though from the picture painted in “Don Carlo” he was anything but – was the ruler of the Spanish Empire, said to be the first empire on which the sun never set. The time was the 1500’s. The Inquisition was in full sway. Blood flowed freely as Phillip wrapped himself in the mantel of the church and reveled in his own power. Don Carlo (Ramon Vargas), his son and expected heir, is miserable. Elisabeth (Anna Maria Martinez)) had been promised to him. When they finally met he was besotted. However, subsequently when Phillip, his father takes Elisabeth for himself in a peace settlement with France, Elisabeth becomes Don Carlo’s stepmother. Don Carlo is devastated. His dear friend Rodrigo (Placido Domingo) attempts to be the peacemaker.
The stench of the Inquisition hangs over it all and is well conveyed in the blood red maze of arches that fill the stage, dripping with gruesome, renaissance style representations of torture victims. John Gunter’s somewhat abstract set leaves no doubt that no good is going to come to the young crown prince. Except for some minor clumsy (and seemingly unnecessary) set movements in Act I, the effect is powerful.
But how, you might ask, is Placido going to convince an audience that he is the equally youthful buddy of our lovesick hero, Don Carlo? Fret not. With a bit of Domingo magic the effect is perfect. The duets that Ramon Vargas and he sing are stunning. Vargas is a strong tenor and Placido has gone from years as a tenor to baritone roles. At times this has received some criticism, though in this case he sounds wonderful. LA Times critic Mark Swed named the quality of his voice here as “Domingotone.” Why not? The effect has set a new standard.
Although attention always goes to Placido, this production is beautifully balanced and exceptionally well cast. Anna Smirnova is the epitome of palace intrigue and Ana Maria Martinez is alluring in voice and action. Then there is an LA Opera favorite, Morris Robinson (the Grand Inquisitor). Robinson is a formidable figure who is able to convey the ultimate power of the church, even over the likes of King Phillip.
As wonderful as the individuals are, extra laurels must be awarded to the chorus. Buoyed up by James Conlon’s magnificent orchestra, the massive chorus alone is worth the price of admission. It truly renders “Don Carlo” as grand.
Do the good guys win? No, you knew that, but the audience does with three and a half hours of beautiful music and a story well presented.