Swan Song in San Francisco
It is a tribute to David Gockley’s good taste and courage that he chose to end his 10 years as general director of the San Francisco Opera with a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo. Verdi’s vast and inspired masterpiece imposes great demands on an opera company’s resources. The work needs five top singers and a great deal of production money to work. It is grand opera—which unfortunately means expensive opera. Mr. Gockley gave it an honorable shot.
It helps to know a little of European history to make sense of Don Carlo. The action takes place in Spain at the time of the Inquisition. The Catholic Church is the real power in Spain and it is using the State in the personage of King Philip to forcefully impose Catholicism on the Protestants in what today is the Netherlands and northern Belgium in an 80-years war finally won by the Dutch.
The genius of Verdi is to show the personal conflicts behind the political conflicts. The rebels in Flanders (as Holland is called in the opera) have friends and sympathizers in Philip’s inner circle, including the King’s closest confidant Rodrigo and his son Carlo from whom he is estranged.
Philip is a brutal king but in private he is a lonely unhappy sensitive man. He loves his wife Elisabetta who is much younger than him but she loves his son Carlo.
The King also loves Rodrigo but under orders from the Grand Inquisitor whom Philip privately loathes and fears reluctantly has Rodrigo killed for his rebellious activities in Flanders. The dramatic confrontation between the King and the Grand Inquisitor over Rodrigo’s fate is for many the highlight of the opera.
No doubt Philip is a bad man capable of horrible deeds but Verdi teaches us compassion by showing us the private side of this public figure.
The first time I saw and heard Don Carlo almost 50 years ago at the Met I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the music, one moving aria after another for four plus hours. The haunting music is infused with sadness, longing, melancholy, nobility and honor. In it we have many of the human and political conflicts Verdi obsessed about during his long career writing opera especially in the later years.
It is no small achievement that Mr. Gockley was able to hit a home run with two of the evening’s five soloists, enough to win him a batting title in baseball. With Rene Pape as King Philip, San Francisco had a great singing actor who brought years of experience and a still formidable voice to create a vivid portrayal of the anguished monarch.
The revelation of the evening though was the Rodrigo of Mariusz Kwiecien. Finally here is a baritone who has a great sense of Verdi style and a Verdi voice to boot. His duet with Mr. Pape in the third scene when the King opens up to him about his concern that his wife and son are in love was absolutely first rate.
I also liked the Elisabetta of Ana Maria Martinez though her voice is a bit too small for the part. She has lovely pianissimi and there’s a fine lyrical quality to her singing. She is not a great star but she is an honest musical singer. The Eboli of Nadia Krasteva was decent if not exceptional.
The evening’s only real disappointment was Michael Fabiano who sang the title role for the first time.
The young Italian-American singer from Philadelphia is being heavily promoted and getting lots of work. I was offended by his consistently loud singing and lack of musicality. Verdi gives the tortured Carlo such sensitive inspired music and this man was ruining it for me, not only in the solos but the duets and trios where he often covered his colleagues with loud, imprecise singing.
The conducting of Nicola Luisotti had an uneven quality to it but the maestro had to get the singers through the performance, and with some singers that was a tougher task than with others.
As for the production, let’s just say that it made a strong case for concert opera. Mr. Gockley clearly spent most of the company’s limited resources on the singers.
Good luck and thanks, David Gockley, for a splendid ten years.