Vocal Grandeur: Don Carlo at San Francisco Opera

Verdi – Don Carlo

Don Carlo – Michael Fabiano
Tebaldo –  Nian Wang
Elisabetta – Ana María Martínez
Conte di Lerma – Pene Pati
Rodrigo – Mariusz Kwiecień
Filippo II – René Pape
Eboli – Nadia Krasteva
Carlo V – Matthew Stump
Grande Inquisitore – Andrea Silvestrelli
Voce dal Cielo – Toni Marie Palmertree

San Francisco Opera Chorus, San Francisco Opera Orchestra / Nicola Luisotti.
Stage director – Emilio Sagi.

San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, USA.  Wednesday, June 15th, 2016.

This was something very special.  Two notable singers making role debuts, one of the most incomparable singing-actors returning to a role in which he triumphed a few years ago, and led by the world’s leading Verdi conductor, tonight promised so much – and they really did deliver.  This evening’s Don Carlo was definitely all about the music and we got some fabulous singing.  What I noticed in the previous evening’s Jenůfa was the excellence and imaginativeness of the casting.  At San Francisco Opera the casting is clearly done by someone who truly understands voices and that was certainly evident tonight in a show in which the singers had been hand-picked with care.

Michael Fabiano, Ana María Martínez & Pene Pati (Count Lerma) © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Michael Fabiano, Ana María Martínez & Pene Pati (Count Lerma)
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
The production was the work of Emilio Sagi.  The biggest compliment I can give it is that it did much with little.  He created an imposing vista for the auto-da-fé, although the chorus was just parked unimaginatively.  Sets were basic but what they allowed was for the principals to guide their performances and react to and with each other, and for them to tell the story through their acting.  Don Carlo is a profoundly tragic story of the role of oppressive religion in maintaining power and the struggle of the individual against the state.  It’s a story of passion, oppression and horror.  Yet what the staging gave us was a sanitized version of this.  In the auto-da-fé rather than giving us the shocking sight of seeing people being burned to death, we see them hoisted up into the air like a circus act.  It felt that Sagi was unwilling to explore the issues that really form the core of the narrative.  Instead what it felt that we effectively got was a concert performance in costumes with singers providing their own regie.  The positive outcome was that what we saw was the result of the singers using their own acting and conceptions of the plot to create a vital, living narrative.  And it worked splendidly.

Mariusz Kwiecień & Michael Fabiano © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Mariusz Kwiecień & Michael Fabiano © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
It was clear that the feelings of Michael Fabiano’s Carlo were more towards Mariusz Kwiecień’s Posa rather than Ana María Martínez’ Elisabetta; Carlo perhaps seeing a marriage to Elisabetta as a way to fulfil the requirements of duty with someone who made him happy but with Posa being his true love.  This was exemplified through the chemistry between the two gentlemen and also in how Carlo gave Posa a passionate kiss as Posa expired.  This was a wholly convincing reading of the narrative.  Likewise, we saw Elisabetta as someone whose love for Carlo was deep and profound and who was deeply unhappy with the role of Queen that society had given her.  Somehow, despite the apparent lack of an overarching directorial vision of the plot, we saw performances of great power, produced through precisely that total combination of notes, text and physicality that great opera lives on.

Michael Fabiano & Ana María Martínez © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Michael Fabiano & Ana María Martínez © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
I have to admit I found Michael Fabiano’s Carlo inconsistent.  He is a highly engaging and energetic stage presence – his acting was always moving and he ideally mapped the character’s journey through his stage presence and his wonderfully Italianate savouring of the text.  Indeed, the way he used the words was something very special indeed – as it was for the entire cast.  Carlo is a difficult role in that he has his big aria at the very start at a point when it can feel that he hasn’t quite warmed up, and this was the case this evening.  It felt that the placement of the voice was inconsistent – often the sound was throaty and the top disconnected with pitch heading south.  At other times the voice was really well placed, and when it was, Fabiano gave us a ringing, well-pitched top.  He also gave us some nice pianissimi and was always musical and never mannered.  Certainly, his acting and use of text gave pleasure.

Ana María Martínez © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Ana María Martínez © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Ana María Martínez was a glorious Elisabetta.  She replaced the originally-cast Krassimira Stoyanova and I found many similarities between the two in that both sopranos always sing with what they have rather than pushing the voice beyond its natural limits.  Martínez gave us a performance that really lived off the words and her vocalism was absolutely impeccable.  Her soprano had a beautifully warm, rounded tone, the registers all absolutely integrated; she gave us some exquisite portamenti and ravishing pianissimi.  Her ‘tu che le vanità’ was without doubt one of the very best I’ve ever heard.  She gave us a fabulous hairpin on ‘Francia’ and then at the fermata just before the end of the aria she held on to the high A for what seemed like an eternity only to descend through the rest of the line without taking a single breath – magical.  Tonight Martínez gave us golden age singing.

Mariusz Kwiecień © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Mariusz Kwiecień © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Mariusz Kwiecień returned to Posa, a role in which he gave me an enormous amount of pleasure a few years ago.  What was notable tonight is that his top has gained even metal so that it feels stronger than it has before.  He sang with amplitude, never pushing the voice, yet still managing to fill the theatre.  His legato is a thing of wonder, as he sang to Elisabetta about Carlo in Act 2, he gave us some gloriously long phrases and a genuine trill.  His ‘per me giunto’ was absolutely heartbreaking – again those fabulously long lines, tone of ravishing warmth and a psychological insight that was so deeply moving.  Tonight gave me that unbeatable feeling of seeing a familiar singer develop his interpretation even further and produce something very special.  Kwiecień was magnificent.

Nadia Krasteva © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Nadia Krasteva © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Nadia Krasteva was a tremendous Eboli.  She just went for it and sang gustily with uninhibited passion.  She has a full and resonant chest register and isn’t afraid to use it, and her fruity mezzo has real personality.  She negotiated the veil song with aplomb, if perhaps with the absence of a genuine trill, and ‘don fatale’ was fabulously unhinged with a beautiful legato in the middle section.  René Pape gave us a Filippo clearly in his vocal prime.  His ‘ella giammai m’amò’ saw him willing at times to sacrifice the quality of the sound to exemplify Filippo’s pain and it was always sung off the text.  There was a loneliness to his stage presence that was truly haunting.  The duets between him and Kwiecień’s Posa in Act 2, and with Andrea Silvestrelli’s Grande Inquisitore in Act 4 were absolutely gripping – Silvestrelli somewhat woolly of tone but what a massive sound he made.  The remainder of the cast reflected the high standards for which San Francisco Opera can justifiably be proud.  Matthew Stump’s Carlo V in particular making his presence known with a handsome voice of fine depth and roundness.

René Pape & Michael Fabiano © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
René Pape & Michael Fabiano © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Nicola Luisotti’s conducting reinforced his reputation as one of the greatest interpreters of Verdi around.  The evening passed by in what felt like a heartbeat – minutes felt like seconds and hours like minutes.  Luisotti built the performance organically so that every number seemed like the natural extension of the previous one.  He conducted off the stick, with precise rhythm, but he also phrased even the most perfunctory accompaniment lovingly.  The opening measures of the two scenes of Act 4 were phrased with such extreme beauty.  Tempi in places were quite measured but everything he did felt so absolutely right.  The orchestra, especially the brass, played well for him though the banda sounded a little distant from my seat in the middle of the orchestra section.  The gentlemen of the chorus sang with impeccable depth of tone, the ladies perhaps somewhat unfocused with the vibrato making the sound seem rather soft grained.

René Pape & the San Francisco Opera Chorus © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
René Pape & the San Francisco Opera Chorus © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Tonight most certainly delivered the goods.  We were treated to some exceptional singing and the Verdi conducting of one’s dreams.  If only the staging had been more penetrating it would have been even more overwhelming.  Tonight was without doubt worth travelling halfway around the world to see.  This was a spectacularly good evening of music-making and anyone, anywhere near San Francisco should do everything possible to see it.

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One comment

  1. A fine write up, as usual. I agree with nearly all that you wrote. Fabiano was perhaps more consistent on the night I saw the production. I thought he was ardent and the voice had a really thrilling ring to it throughout, especially in the Auto da fe which made the heartbreak of Rodrigo taking his sword that much more touching. And oh my goodness, Ana Maria Martinez! She has been an artist I have loved and admired for a while now, but as Elisabetta she was transcendent. As you say, golden age singing!

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