Vancouver Opera’s Don Carlo

My grandmother and I get along royally. She’s 94 years old (soon to be 95), is still as sharp as a tack, lives on her own in her house (although this worries me considerably in terms of stairs and the fact that she still thinks she is 70), does her own cooking, has someone help with the housekeeping, takes the bus all over the place, and is generally a good sport. She’s been kind enough to treat me to season tickets to the ballet, but we’ve decided it has become too repetitive and dull so we’ve kicked things up by starting going to the opera.

Growing up, my folks and my grandparents alike were season ticket holders to Vancouver Opera, and I remember going to the opera all through high school. The City decided to do an overhaul of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, where the opera is held, some years ago, and Vancouver Opera season ticket holders were asked to book new seats. So my mother was one of the first to request specific seats, but she didn’t get them, and was very angry to find out that the very seats she’d requested went to some people who were distant acquaintances who’d requested the same seats several weeks later. We all boycotted Vancouver Opera on account of this.

Nevertheless, my gran and I saw a performance of Albert Herring back in December and decided that the opera was a hell of a lot better than Ballet BC. We’ve since seen Don Giovanni, and just this past Sunday, Don Carlo.

The premise of Don Carlo, an opera by Verdi, is that young Carlo, the Spanish king’s son, is in love with the king’s new wife, Elisabetta de Valois of France, to whom Carlo was betrothed for many years until his father decided to take his son’s betrothed as his queen. Carlo’s loyal friend, Rodrigo, tries to help ease Carlo’s heartbreak by suggesting that Carlo ask the king, his father, Phillip, for the kingship of Flanders, a country utterly ruined by Spain and in desperate need of good leadership.

The long and the short of it is that Elisabetta, although she loves Carlo, stays true to the king. Rodrigo becomes the kings favourite. Carlo tries to ask for Flanders but does a cocked up job of it and ends up in prison under a death sentence. Rodrigo, ever loyal to Carlo, Escorialpurposely frames himself with incriminating evidence and is executed in Carlo’s stead. As Carlo is about to escape to Flanders, he is caught out by the king but miraculously saved by the ghost of Phillip’s father, the old emperor. The whole story, by the way, takes place in Renaissance Spain (the photo to the left is of the San Lorenzo de El Escorial Monastery in Spain, where all the kings and queens of Spain are buried).

Vancouver Opera did Verdi’s grand opera justice, both through a very impressive collaboration with Honolulu and Hong Kong Operas for the sets and costumes, which were opulent to say the least. Full Renaissance dresses for the ladies: corsets, farthingales, bum rolls, kirtles, ruffled partlets, gowns, and sleeves. Elisabetta, as Queen, was fabulously dressed, what looked like rich brocades appropriate to the time and to her status. The men were in their Shakespearean best, with hose, breeches, ruffled collars, and doublets (no, no codpieces), and of course, pointy shiny swords and daggers.

The set was excellent, and converted easily from an eerie monastery, to a whimsical Spanish garden, to the somberness of a king’s chamber, to a festive town square ready for a good old-fashioned Inquisatorial heretic burning, and to a hope-lost prison. There were four Acts and many scene changes; the staging was perfectly seamless.

Verdi’s music was fantastic; the orchestra, as always, sublime. I realized, upon listening to the music, how similar it was to modern film scores and thus very user-friendly to the classically-uninitiated. As for the voices, they were great. I especially loved Rodrigo’s baritone, sung and played by Brett Polegato; I actually preferred it to the lead, Andrea Care’s tenor. Perhaps it was Polegato’s acting, as he did a superb and very believable job as the loyal Rodrigo, visionary, freedom fighter, favourite, and victim of the times.

The acting from all the cast was quite intense, and made it very easy to become caught up in the action of the stage and forget that you were watching an opera. The king, sung and played by Peter Volpe, was sympathetically played, and you felt for the old codger, ever suspicious of his young pretty wife and young and handsome son, and stuck between the politics of the church and state and times.

At the beginning of the opera, my grandmother whispered in my ear, “This opera was written more for the male roles.” And true enough, there is not as much for the two female leads, although what is there was wonderfully sung, although I did find Joni Henson’s Elisabetta a bit tinny on the high notes, but she had a great depth at the lower tones. Again, her acting was just lovely, and suited the tragic situation of this young woman married to her lover’s father, and pious to the core so she never gave in to the temptation to love Carlo in any other capacity save as his new ‘mother.’

All in all, a performance worthy of the standing ovation it received, and a memorable finale to what I found to be a great reintroduction to opera after an almost ten year hiatus.

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