Giuseppe and I have always had a complicated relationship. I could live without ever hearing Aïda again, and although I love Il Trovatore I can’t get too excited about either Rigoletto or La Traviata. Much as I admire Otello and Falstaff, instead Macbeth is the Shakespeare opera I couldn’t live without. A great Ernani thrills me in a way that no Un Ballo in Maschera ever has and while every encore of “Va, pensiero” makes me want to run to the nearest exit, the final act of Luisa Miller reigns as one of the greatest in all opera. But, for me, Verdi has always meant above all Don Carlos, his greatest, most complex, most moving work.
I have long been eager to hear live this monumental, brooding piece in French, the language in which it was composed. And after the splendid Les Vêpres Siciliennes there two weeks ago, Saturday’s performance as part of the celebration of “Verdi in Paris” at the Caramoor Festival in Katonah, New York promised much. If it wasn’t as consistently fine as Vêpres, it was still a grand and involving evening that did much to help rid my brain of memories of the MET’s dismal Don Carlo in February.
In his earlier discussion with me, conductor and artistic director of “Bel Canto at Caramoor,” Will Crutchfield explained his reasons for doing Verdi’s 1883-4 revision in French in perhaps its first performance ever! As a Don Carlos lover, my usual feeling is that more is more: I want the poignant Fontainebleau act, and the Spanish-flavored exchanging of cloaks by Élisabeth and Éboli and the mourning duet sung by Carlos and Philippe over the dead Rodrigue, etc. But Crutchfield’s decision to present Verdi’s concise, final vision proved convincing. While lacking the grandiose ambition of the edition composed for the largely unsuccessful Paris premiere, Saturday’s familiar version keeps a keener focus on the intense drama transpiring in the somber court of Philippe II of Spain.
Among the joys of attending opera at Caramoor are the symposia and concerts that take during the afternoon before the performance. Saturday’s included a fascinating conversation between Crutchfield, Philip Gossett, author of the indispensable Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera, and critic and translator Andrew Porter whose important discoveries in the late 1960s of the music cut by Verdi (and others) during the initial run of Don Carlos in Paris stood scholarship about this opera on its head.
Afterward, Porter (who also presented an informative introduction just before the opera began) hosted a concert by members of the Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists program in rarely heard passages composed for Don Carlos, some likely unheard since the 19th century and one—a monologue for Carlos originally planned to open the final act—which may have never been performed before at all! Of particular interest were two of the four versions of the great Rodrigue-Philippe duet; it was marvelous to be able to hear the transformations from Paris in the 1860s to Naples in the 1870s (the only passage of the work that Verdi set in Italian) to his final thoughts in the 1880s—the familiar version performed in the evening.
The Rodrigue and Philippe—Stephen Powell and Christophoros Stamboglis—were two of the evening’s strongest performers. Powell, in particular, was a revelation, my first hearing of this outstanding American singer who should be counted as one of the finer Verdi baritones before the public. He had it all: a healthy, colorful voice, secure from top to bottom, eloquently used to portray the idealistic advocate for Flanders. His ravishing first-act “L’Infant Carlos” and his extended prison scene both displayed his fine trill and impressively long-breathed phrasing. This was one of the best Rodrigue/gos I have ever heard.
Stamboglis’s richly sung Philippe was more introverted than some yet one who still thundered implacably when angered. His otherwise anguished “Elle ne m’aime pas” was marred by a few infelicities of phrasing, but he made a powerful partner for the scary Inquisiteur of Mikhail Svetlov, whose ferocious bluster helped one overlook his impenetrable French. Their powerful scene together was another of the evening’s many high points.
On the other hand Jennifer Larmore’s vivid French helped to create a surprisingly effective Eboli. The mezzo, once acclaimed for her work in baroque and bel canto opera, has lately been recreating herself as a dramatic mezzo, including performing in several productions of Verdi’s Macbeth.
I had been skeptical about Larmore’s suitability for the role of Eboli, an uneasiness that only increased with her Veil Song Saturday evening. Performed with an awkward layer of Broadway razzle-dazzle, it certainly stopped the show (and showed off her still impressive agility) but it didn’t seem to have much to do with the Spanish princess. However, she soon put things right in the garden scene where her crushing devastation at being rejected by Carlos gave way to a frightening cry for vengeance. Although I wonder about her ability to pull it off in a large theater, her caustic, self-lacerating “O don fatal” rightly brought down the house.
Since her debut as Clotilde at the Met at the 2001 premiere of the much-unloved John Copley production of Bellini’s Norma, soprano Jennifer Check has more often than not been heard rather than seen in Verdi there, singing Aïda’s Priestess 47 times and Don Carlo’s Celestial Voices 25. Her Caramoor Élisabeth suggested that the Met might do well to put her on stage instead. Although the voice betrayed an occasional unpleasing edge on forte high notes, hers was a secure and grandly sung portrayal rising to a really superb final “Toi qui sur le néant.”
The heart-crushing duet for Élisabeth and Carlos which followed unfortunately again exposed the performance’s weakest link: while Check movingly outlined the queen’s ambivalence in saying goodbye to her beloved tortured step-son, James Valenti as Carlos blandly just pumped out the notes, his face an impenetrable blank. Throughout the evening Valenti offered only soap-opera star good looks and an all-purpose earnestness which rarely responded to what was going on around him. The voice itself isn’t unattractive, but the lunged-at high notes (which often missed their mark) and shallow affect suggested he had no business singing this demanding Verdi role.
Crutchfield’s eloquent and expansive conducting of the score might not have been the last word in excitement and detail, but it made its case handsomely and supported the singers superbly. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s had a much happier evening than at Vêpres where the intense heat may have accounted for some unfortunate lapses in intonation. The young and dynamic chorus composed of many of the performers in the Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists program made a stirring noise, particularly in the thunderous Auto-da-fé.
I admit to having had my doubts when this “Verdi in Paris” program was announced for Caramoor this summer. Performing two long and demanding grand operas—just two weeks apart and in French—seemed a hubristic recipe for a stumble—or worse. But I was pleased to have been proven wrong: these were two of the best Verdi performances I’ve heard in a long while and that they were of two of my favorite Verdi operas didn’t hurt either.
The generally fine French diction throughout argued eloquently for doing these operas in their original language, and one hopes the upcoming Covent Garden Vêpres Siciliennes and a rumored Met Don Carlos will prove to be harbingers of a growing trend in that direction. I have read some prickly comments bemoaning the challenges of opera at Caramoor—yes, this year’s weather has been a trial and attending an opera ideally shouldn’t entail fear of heat stroke and dehydration, but I wouldn’t have missed either of these Verdi performances for the world.
And now Mr. Crutchfield, how about Jérusalem sometime soon?