Review: A Pithier Don Carlo at L.A. Opera

Plácido Domingo as Rodrigo in LA Opera's 2018 production of "Don Carlo." (photo: Cory Weaver)

Based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, Verdi’s longest opera, Don Carlo, originally consisted of 5 acts and clocked in at a staggering five hours. The L.A. Opera is now presenting a truncated 1882 version as part of it’s opening season — one which triumphs in keeping audiences captivated, thanks to the cuts, sustained dramatic tension, the stunningly sanguinary sets by John Gunter, and of course, the formidable cast. The now 78-year old legend, Plácido Domingo, in top baritone form as Don Carlos’ 30 year-old comrade, Rodrigo has transformed himself into being nearly unrecognizable in his trim costume, dark hair and stage agility.

A scene from LA Opera’s 2018 production of “Don Carlo,” with (at front) Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip II and Ana Maria Martinez as Elisabeth de Valois. (Photo: Cory Weaver)

By eschewing some arguably dispensable background story, the opera thrusts us right in the middle of the romantic conflict between Don Carlo (Ramón Vargas), his beloved, Elisabeth de Valois (Ana María Martínez), and King Philip II, Carlo’s father, and now, Elisabeth’s husband (an austere Ferrucio Furlanetto). Without the original first act featuring the romantic interlude between Carlo and Elisabeth in the forest of Fontainebleau, audiences might initially think that a despairing Carlo is coveting his stepmother, but later it’s revealed that they were actually betrothed to one another. A political alliance between Spain and France replaced son with father, and in the process, set them up as both ideological and romantic rivals.

Anna Smirnova as Princess Eboli and Ana Maria Martinez as Elisabeth de Valois in LA Opera’s 2018 production of “Don Carlo.” (Photo: Cory Weaver)

The abridgement ultimately benefits the opera, injecting it with a faster pace while enhancing the dark, somber themes of betrayal, Inquisition-era fanaticism, and forbidden Oedipal-esque desires. Tenor, Ramón Vargas is formidable and holds his own beside forever-young, Domingo as the obsessed lover in conflict with his father; mezzo-soprano, Anna Smirnova steals scenes (and even elicits some inadvertent humor) as his spurned hence vengeful admirer, Princess Eboli; and despite his despotism, Furlanetto makes us feel the ache of betrayal, especially when he performs Ella giammi m’amo (She had no love for me).

Ana Maria Martinez as Elisabeth de Valois and Ramon Vargas in the title role of LA Opera’s 2018 production of “Don Carlo.” (Photo: Cory Weaver / LA Opera)

— G. Dhalla

Don Carlo is playing at the LA Opera through October 14th. Tickets HERE.