I first encountered Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera in 1983, with a cast headed by Plácido Domingo, Mirella Freni and Grace Bumbry. It wasn’t long before it had become my favorite opera. As magnificent as Otello and La Traviata and Aida are, I still think of Don Carlo as Verdi’s towering achievement as a musical dramatist. Nothing else he created has such breadth and depth, such Shakespearean scope and complexity, and no other tragedy in the standard repertoire offers such a feast of rich characters.
I never tire of Don Carlo, so I’ve long lost count of how many productions of it I’ve seen over the years. But one thing has troubled me: the Elisabetta, Posa, Philip, Grand Inquisitor and Eboli all may be superb, but Don Carlo himself often seems to bring up the rear. In that first performance I attended in 1983, Domingo was solid and satisfying, but many of the later performers I experienced—Giuliano Ciannella, Luis Lima, Michael Sylvester and Fabio Armiliato—fell significantly short of the mark.
At the June 24 performance at SFO, the thirty-two American tenor Michael Fabiano masterfully restored Don Carlo to the title character. From his entrance, Fabiano sang with both power and great delicacy, offering one of the most exciting tenor performances heard in years. In the opening scene, he was charming in his gentle teasing of Elisabetta, and only minutes later, deeply anguished as he watches her accept her fate as Filippo’s queen. One of the triumphs of Fabiano’s performance was its mercurial nature; he caught the constant shifts of Carlo’s fiery temperament and obsessive nature; this characterization seemed closer to the historical Carlos, Prince of Asturias, said to be mentally unstable, than any other I’ve seen on the opera stage. Fabiano’s performance almost seemed designed as a long, sustained emotional breakdown, yet it never ceased to be involving for a second. The tenor’s scenes with Mariusz Kwiecien as Posa were deeply moving, plumbing the depths of the characters’ affection for each other. And the heroic sound Fabiano exhibited in the confrontation with Philip (a memorable René Pape) in the auto-da-fé scene won’t soon be forgotten.
Fabiano had a worthy Elisabetta in Ana María Martínez. Although she occasionally seemed a little more like a flustered servant than a queen, Martínez gave an exquisitely shaded vocal performance, showing her command of breath control, brilliant phrasing and sustained pianissimo. It was an interpretation that had a kind of art-song subtlety about it, just as her excellent Butterfly at the Met did earlier this season.
The performance was conducted by Nicola Luisotti with panache and a transparent sense of detail, particularly in Philip’s moving soliloquy, “Ella giammai m’amo.” HIs tempo in the great duet for Carlo and Posa, “Dio che nell’alma,” might have struck some as too slow, but Fabiano and Kwiecien carried it off beautifully, performing with a degree of unity I’ve seldom heard. Only the tempo for “O don fatale” (an acceptable but far from outstanding Nadia Krasteva, in her company debut) struck me as overly deliberate.
With such musical excellence taking center stage, it was hard to fathom why so little had been done to give artificial respiration to Emilio Sagi’s stagnant, idea-free production. The auto-da-fé scene was a sloppy disgrace—if you didn’t know the story or speak the language, I’m not sure you would have even known what was going on just by looking—and the unmasking of Eboli in the garden was just as awkward as it almost always is. (Will any enterprising director ever figure out a way to make this moment work?) But with the luster the singers and conductor brought to the evening, the shortcomings of the staging seemed to matter very little.