Tuesday, September 26, 2006

I like to drink lots of Fresca! Coraggio!* - Don Carlo at LA Opera

*Opera's version of "Excuse me while I kiss this guy."

If I ever got the urge to write cliché, fake-profound fanfic about Verdi’s opera Don Carlo, I’d definitely include a scene in which Rodrigo, Marquis di Posa, is banging Princess Eboli, all the while weeping fat emo-boy tears and calling out Carlo’s name. Not that I’d ever write such a thing, of course (*furtively taps delete key*), but such were the subjects I pondered during LA Opera’s performance of Don Carlo on Sunday. My mind had plenty of time to wander, since the opera was three hours and ten minutes long, only about fifteen minutes of which was even remotely entertaining. It was just such a waste, since Don Carlo is one of my favorite operas, as well as (arguably) Verdi’s greatest work.

The music of Don Carlo is fantastic, from the rousing Friendship Duet to the melancholy and reflective “Ella giammai m’amo” to the frightening face-off between two powerful basses. When performed by the right singers, the story of Don Carlo can be incredibly engrossing and dramatic; the ensemble pieces can just about ping with tension. Unfortunately, most of the singers on Sunday night seemed to be phoning in their performances, stripping their craft down to essentially a demonstration on how to be a stereotypically Italianate opera singer, which would have been fine if they were playing the Italian tenor in Der Rosenkavalier or the Italian singers in Capriccio. Sweeping overblown arm gestures and inappropriate fake sobs don’t really make for intense psychodrama.

Before I start putting the critical boot to the singers, I will say that the production didn’t make me want to retch, on the whole. Sometimes I thought it had been created by Dan Brown, what with all the scary, cloaked, murderous monks, self-flagellation, and the kind of unnecessary Renaissance religious paintings, but in general, everything moved smoothly and looked fairly decent. One good thing about the paintings was that I could pass the time trying to figure out what they were. I could only see one of them clearly, and I knew that it was a Judith beheading Holofernes by someone. All that was visible of Judith though was her arms, so I guessed it was Artemisia Gentileschi, but it turned out to be Caravaggio’s. I don’t like Caravaggio’s version, because Judith looks like she’s thinking “Ew, this is soooo icky!”, whereas Gentileschi’s Judith is clearly thinking “OK, let’s hack this bitch’s head off.” What annoyed me about this painting, however, was that whenever Eboli (or anyone, really) was singing about killing Carlo, a spotlight was shone on the painting. Aaaaand there’s an anvil with some of my brain matter stuck to it. Ouch. Anyway. I was quite pleased with myself for correctly identifying Rubens’s The Descent from the Cross, based solely on the piece of red-cloaked man that I could see from under the proscenium.

Some of the directorial choices felt a bit wrong to me as well. People who were supposed to be lovers (Carlo and Elisabetta and Carlo and Rodrigo) barely even faced or looked at each other during their duets (this could be the singers’ fault though, not the director’s). In the scene where Eboli and her friends sing the Veil Song, Carlo was still inexplicably onstage (he’s supposed to be in the monastery, while the ladies are in the garden), and the page Teobaldo started pushing him around for no good reason. Maybe he/she was trying to prove that it wasn’t just a padded sock in his/her trousers, but Carlo’s the heir to the throne, for fuck’s sake. You’re not supposed to shove him around. Also, the real Carlo was batshit crazy, so he probably would’ve driven a stake through your eye if you shoved him. Another misstep in that scene was the ill-advised, arrhythmic “Spanish” dancing that the noblewomen did during Eboli’s Veil Song. It looked like they’d been taking lessons from a very, very drunk Carmen Miranda. I would’ve greatly preferred the whole bunch of them to start doing the Safety Dance instead of clapping off the beat and playing the air castanets.

Lack of rhythm seemed to be something of a theme throughout the night, because during the auto-da-fé scene, the penitents were flagellating themselves arhythmically as well. They’ve clearly never read Candide. Now that’s how you throw an auto-da-fé. In this production, a bunch of guys wearing pillowcases and dunce-caps ran around on the stage, chased by cloaked monks with giant crosses. It looked like the Annual Running of the Dunces, not an auto-da-fe. They didn’t even burn them onstage! That particular scene was pretty lame on the whole. First, there were the townspeople, brandishing homemade crosses like they thought Rodrigo had just “sired” Don Carlo (they were just necking, really), then came the monks and the “Oh God, deliver us from our total lack of natural rhythm!” penitents, then Philip and Elisabetta came swanning out in matching unisex Mobile Oppression robes that made them look more like Sarastro-impersonators who had skinned Little Richard (I don’t know how many acres of gold lamé those costumes were made of), and finally Carlo and the men from Flanders came running out as if they were the Hot Cops.

Salvatore Licitra in the title role would've been disappointing if I had been expecting anything out of him. A few years ago, everyone was acting like he was the Second Coming of Pavarotti (and those are two words you don't like to see in close proximity to one another), but he's really just kind of an Italian tenor stereotype. His voice is large, but like so many others on the tenor scene right now, he doesn't do very much with it, and it's rather generic in tone. I wouldn't be able to pick his voice out of a line-up of tenors. Also, while he sounds like an Italian tenor, there is a distinct aftertaste of goat in his voice. Licitra didn't bother modulating or shading his voice at all and seemed much more comfortable bellowing along with Lado Ataneli's Rodrigo than singing love duets with Annalisa Raspagliosi's Elisabetta.

Acting-wise, Licitra was also the stereotype of the Italian tenor, meaning that he stood around a lot and occasionally waved his arms. During their clandestine meeting in Act I, he called Elisabetta his "lost love" and his "treasure", but he hardly even looked at her. It was hard to tell why she would be in love with him (especially since the Fontainebleau scene was cut); in reality, Elisabetta probably would've been thinking, "Can someone get me away from this loudmouth spaz?" In an odd nod to historical fact, they did make Don Carlo have fits onstage, though in Licitra's hands, they were really just a lot of "Oh, the war wound!" head-grasping and some occasional falling down. The situation wasn't helped at all by Licitra's truly spectacular mullet wig. Carlo was business up front, party in the rear...or maybe "Saving Flanders up front, banging my stepmother in the rear."

Speaking of parties in the rear, I found the relationship between Carlo and Rodrigo very disappointing in this production. In other productions, the friendship can be truly heartbreaking, especially when the theme of the Friendship Duet is reprised during Rodrigo's death scene. With Licitra and Ataneli though, it seemed like they barely even liked each other. Maybe this was because they went out of their way to avoid touching each other as much as possible. During the Friendship Duet, Licitra kept running away from Ataneli, who looked like he was sneaking up on Licitra. When Licitra went to put his hand over Ataneli's, though, Ataneli moved his away as if Licitra were the Pope of Cootietown. The only time they really touched each other was their kind of creepy hug right before the auto-da-fe, when their upper bodies were saying "Ew, hug a boy?!", while their lower bodies were crying "Proceed!". There was also some awkward hugging right before Rodrigo got shot, but it looked more like Carlo was trying to perform some kind of Sumo move on Rodrigo. It was like watching a wombat wrestle with Jean Reno in a Gilby Clarke wig. Eep. I guess I'm just used to these roles being performed by real singer/actors like Thomas Hampson (yes, even with the chronic smug) and Roberto Alagna (Hampson would lift Alagna clear off his feet and drag him around; it looked more effective than it sounds), and Sherrill Milnes and Placido Domingo (there was practically lube involved).

Lado Ataneli as Rodrigo was just disappointing on the whole, though. Ataneli is where charisma goes to die, a veritable black hole of suck, but I guess I should just feel grateful that he wasn't running around like he had a dirty diaper this time. Rodrigo is Schiller's Gary Stu; he's practically universally beloved (except by the Grand Inquisitor, but he's a bitter, blind, old bitch anyway), but Ataneli made it very hard to believe that this Rodrigo was squirting glitter out of his mangina. He wasn't charming with Eboli, compassionate and encouraging with Carlo, or morally indignant with Philip. During his Act I confrontation with King Philip about the plight of the Flemish people, Rodrigo should be passionate and enraged. That "orrenda, orrenda pace!" should be furious; Rodrigo is supposed to be willing to risk his life to help the people of Flanders. Ataneli was just kind of like, "Yeah, sucks to be Flemish. Have you seen my mousse? Gilby Clarke will be so pissed if he gets this wig back with no volume." Ataneli, like Licitra, had a capable voice, but he did absolutely nothing with it. I can't say it was even particularly pleasant to listen to--it was just there, making sure that the duets weren't solos and the quartets weren't trios. His acting was very stiff as well, and when Rodrigo had been shot, it was hard to tell if he was doing the Herky-Jerky dance of Impending Death or if his back had just gone out. Luckily for everyone, it was death.

The two lead female roles ranged from unspectacular to awful. Dolora Zajick, also like Licitra, has a very large voice (and is a renowned Eboli), but I found her lackluster. Her performance reminded me why I now prefer countertenors to mezzos (though countertenors aren't an option in Don Carlo, unfortunately)--countertenor voices are mostly homogeneous throughout their range, whereas mezzos can often be burpy in their lower ranger and shrill in their upper range. I guess the same could be about most singers, but for some reason, it annoys me much more with mezzos. Zajick sounded cloudy and had a hint of the old mucusy pigeon hoot in her low range, and she was very shrill in her high range, which gave her voice an unpleasant edge. Eboli is conniving in many ways, because she's also supposed to be a beautiful, seductive woman, and Zajick's voice wasn't projecting that. The Ronald McDonald wig they made her wear wasn't helping much either though. And seriously, can we lose the Eboli eyepatch, please? Yeah, it's historically accurate, but Schiller's play isn't, so why bother worrying about it? It makes me think she should sing "Arrrr don fatale!"

Annalisa Raspagliosi looked the part of the young, beautiful Elisabetta, but she couldn't sing the part. It seemed as though she missed quite a few notes and often had to shriek to reach some of the higher parts. I didn't feel much of anything for Elisabetta, and though I'm usually pretty unsympathetic toward the sopranos, I know it's possible for me to care about Elisabetta, because Karita Mattila made me. I also feel that Raspagliosi, like the other signers, was somewhat hampered by the direction, because she didn't seem to physically interact with the others very much, even with her supposed beloved Carlo.

Basically, the only singers who put any worthwhile effort into the performance were Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip and Eric Halfvarson as the Grand Inquisitor, so their Act III duet was the best part of the opera. Furlanetto actually acted the part, but his singing wasn't quite as good as, say, Sam Ramey's or José van Dam. At this point in their careers, Furlanetto might technically be singing better than Ramey and van Dam, but Ramey and van Dam can make me weep when they sing "Ella giammai m'amo" (or "Elle ne m'aime pas"). I was tempted to whip Furlanetto à la Bender and yell "I should be weeping!!", because that aria is a true bass showcase. Basses are so often relegated to old man or devil roles, but, although Philip is supposed to be an old man, the aria gives true insight and dimension into his character. It can make you pity a man who, at the end of the previous act, said "On with the festivities!" in reference to an auto-da-fe. Philip is kind of an ass, but he's a sad, lonely ass with the weight of half the world on his shoulders. Furlanetto racheted it up a bit in the duet with the Grand Inquisitor, and I liked how the high end of his range contrasted with the cavernous depths of Halfvarson's low range. There really should be more bass duets in opera.

The rest of the cast was kind of mediocre. The Celestial Voice sounded dry and brittle rather than heavenly. James Creswell, who is usually very good, was quiet rather than sonorous in his passages as Carlo V. This might be because he was singing offstage, while an actor in a crusty gray cloak filled the role onstage. In the first act, it looked like the Commendatore had wandered in from a production of Don Giovanni, and in the final act, when Carlo V emerges from his tomb to take Carlo, he looked like an urSkeks. Verdi was apparently unclear as to whether Carlo V was a ghost or if he had just been living in a monastery since his disappearance, so the director of this production decided to answer that question for him by giving Carlo V a very "Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come" skeletal hand. At least we know that Don Carlo will be safe with his urSkeks grandfather and won't have his essence sucked out of him (if Rodrigo left any behind, that is.)After the performance, I asked myself if I was being a snob and simply hadn't liked it because it didn't have any of the great singers I've seen and heard perform these roles before. On further reflection though, I realized that no, most of the cast just wasn't very good. I've seen other productions with no singers who I especially liked and I still enjoyed them because I felt they did justice to the drama of the story. LA Opera's production was static, tension-free, and mostly underwhelming. If only the singers (and the director) had bothered to look up at the paintings reproduced above their heads, they would have seen that a scene can be charged with dramatic tension, even in two dimensions.

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