- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2001

The Washington Opera's new production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Don Carlo" is easily the most magnificent ensemble performance of the season. Without a weak singer-actor in the cast, the company offers an outstanding example of how dazzling opera can be in its take on Verdi's political, religious and psychological masterpiece. As one member of the audience exulted to his companion, "Now this is grand opera!"

Set in Spain in the 1560s, "Don Carlo" weaves a tale of political and religious intrigue in the court of the newly crowned King Philip II. The aging Philip has taken a young bride, Elisabetta, disregarding that she once engaged to his hotheaded son, Carlo.

Spain had become the pre-eminent power of Europe, and it was using that power to suppress Protestantism in the provinces, particularly in Flanders, goaded on by the grim clerics running the Spanish Inquisition. Taking upon himself the cause of the long-suffering Flemish people, Carlo, along with his friend Roderigo, opposes his father. Carlo resents Philip's marriage to Elisabetta. As you might imagine, things don't turn out very well in the end.

Verdi's opera is based on a play by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller. Schiller's huge drama took liberties with history. It turns out that in real life Philip was only in his 30s at the time, and Carlo was a nasty, petulant rake and not very heroic at all.

But no matter. Using parts of Schiller's play, Verdi's librettists, Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle, picked out the most confrontational parts and built their book around that. Originally written in French, and debuted at the Grand Opera in Paris in 1867, the huge, five-act work was a resounding flop, and Verdi retired it for reworking. The opera was shortened by eliminating the first act and other material, and it was translated into Italian for its second "debut" at La Scala in Milan, Italy, in 1884. The Washington Opera has chosen the Italian version in four acts with the "Veil Song" — rediscovered in the late 1960s — added back in to the Act II.

"Don Carlo" is a multilayered opera, and the character in the middle of all the action is Don Roderigo, Marquis of Posa, brilliantly sung by the Metropolitan Opera's baritone superstar Dwayne Croft. The most faithful friend of Carlo and also an intimate of the King, the honest Roderigo attempts to spare each from the other's excesses. Roderigo is arguably the most important vocal character in this opera, and Mr. Croft certainly makes things seem that way. With a vocal attack that is clear and intense, Mr. Croft dominates the scenes in which he appears.

The role of Carlo, splendidly sung by silvery-voiced tenor Ramon Vargas, is actually somewhat secondary to Roderigo. But Mr. Vargas is luminous in his brief first-act arioso, "Io la vidi" (My Life Is Gone") and truly stirring in his militaristic duet with Roderigo, "Dio, Che Nell'alma," where they swear to God to dedicate themselves to liberty and brotherhood.

The role of the conflicted King Philip, sung by bass Paata Burchuladze, like that of Roderigo, carries a great deal of the opera's weight. As a new king — he is actually crowned in the middle of the opera — Philip is loaded with insecurities, which are not assuaged by his fiery son or by the threats of the Grand Inquisitor, who lurks in the shadows. It also does not help when the King realizes that marrying his son's betrothed was not a particularly good idea. Mr. Burchuladze carries the weight of the world on his shoulders — and in his voice — in his sensitive portrayal of the troubled King. His third-act aria, "Dormiro Sol nel Manto mio Regal (Only in Death, Wrapped in Regal Robes, Will I Find Sleep") is the most moving bass solo I have heard over many seasons.

The role of the Grand Inquisitor is small but important. As sung by bass Daniel Sumegi, the Inquisitor is an implacable opponent to justice and decency, a religious fanatic who makes the the late Ayatollah Khomeini look like a kindergarten teacher. Mr. Sumegi's threats and pronouncements, sung clearly in the lowest notes available to a male singer, effectively cast a pall of fear over the entire evening.

Although "Don Carlo" is clearly an opera in which the male voices get the most opportunity to shine, the women get an occasional star turn. As the nasty Princess Eboli, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop makes the most of her opportunities. Flighty and vain, Eboli imagines Carlo is in love with her and reacts in vengeful fury when she is spurned, helping to bring Carlo and Elisabetta to ruin in rather short order.

We see both sides of the virulent Eboli in her signature arias. In the "Veil Song," a coquettish Miss Bishop uses her coloratura skills to unwittingly foreshadow the future, while in her dramatic solo, "O Don Fatale, O Don Crudele" (O Fatal, O Cursed Beauty"), she laments her treachery and vows to redeem herself. In this latter aria, Miss Bishop sounds magnificently and triumphantly Wagnerian in probably the finest vocal performance turned in by a mezzo this season.

As with the role of Don Carlo, that of Queen Elisabetta is small, but soprano Veronica Villarroel makes the most of it. Her buttery voice is well suited to this rather solemn role, and her Act 4 aria "Tu Che le Vanita Conoscesti" (You Who Have Known the Vanities of This World") is a moving prelude to the solemn finale.

The Washington Opera Orchestra, under veteran opera conductor Sir Edward Downes, performed with great feeling and precision on opening night, rarely overshadowing the singers but lending great dramatic heft to the opera as a whole.

The sets, from Chicago's Lyric Opera company, are somber, gray and not much to look at, but they underpin the opera's pervasive gloom and doom. They do serve as a suitable backdrop for Dada Saligeri's unbelievably opulent and accurate period costumes, with nary a zipper to be seen in their lavish puffs and folds. If you're going to do costume drama, this is the way to do it.

[GO BOX: Four Stars.WHAT: "Don Carlo"WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NWWHEN: 2 p.m. tomorrow; 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 3, and April 6; and 7 p.m. March 31.TICKETS: $63 to $146PHONE: 202/295-2400

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