Review: ‘Don Carlo’ at San Francisco Opera (*****)

by James Lorenzato, Guest Reviewer


Caricature of Verdi at work on "Don Carlo." Credit: Argyle C. Klopnick.
Caricature of Verdi at work on “Don Carlo.” Credit: Argyle C. Klopnick.

Five stars for an operatic masterpiece performed by consummate singers.

The SF Opera’s “Don Carlo” gives one a sense of accomplishment.  This is real opera, long, entangled,  and everybody ends up wretched or dead.  One feels one has run the opera version of  Bay to Breakers.  They should have passed out souvenir t-shirts at the end. And it is Verdi, so — like having eaten a large cannelloni — there is a weighty satisfaction afterwards that anchors one in a fleeting world.

“Don Carlo,” it should be noted, is considered by music critics to be Verdi’s greatest accomplishment, although it is less accessible than some of his most popular operas. It does not have the exciting marches and tuneful, memorable arias that are featured in the likes of “Rigoletto” or “La Traviata.” It is more tightly composed and integrated, and instead of memorable arias it features magnificently complex duets, trios, and quartets that dazzle, move, and inspire without encouraging sing alongs.

Plotwise, it is vintage Verdi, an opera about order versus freedom, love versus duty, loyalty versus betrayal, power versus insecurity, and pretty much everybody versus the Spanish Inquisition. One suspects Verdi collected post-its about possible themes and when the sticky little pile became annoying he decided to use it all up at once. Not surprisingly, the result is four and a half hours and gives the viewer plenty of time to sort things out.

Carlo and Elizabetta are one percenters who fall in love in thirty three seconds, beating even the record for internet dating, but are promptly unraveled when his dad, Philip II, who happens to be the king of Spain, decides to marry Elizabetta instead.  (Dad had, historically, finally  unloaded his last wife, Bloody Mary. Some guys never learn.) Fortunately for Carlo, he falls back from this disappointment on his bro, Rodrigo, and both decide to liberate Flanders from Daddy’s rule, although Dad and the Inquisition have other ideas.

There is nothing like the inquisition to spice up a dysfunctional family.

Naturally things go wrong.  Philip thinks Elizabetta is cheating on him with Carlo but she isn’t but Princess Eboli loves Carlo and tells Philip that she is, although Rodrigo tries to kill Eboli before she can tell Philip but Carlo stops him, maybe. (Actually Eboli has a pretty good sword hand and looks like she could have taken care of herself.)  Of course, in a situation like this no good deed goes unpunished and everybody ends up paying somehow.

René Pape excels both dramatically and musically in the psychologically complex role of Philip II.
René Pape excels both dramatically and musically in the psychologically complex role of Philip II.

And the singing? Magnificent! The featured performers simply dazzle: as Philip II, bass René Pape is power personified. Ana María Martína is nothing short of amazing as Elizabetti and her duet with Nadia Krasteva as the Princess Eboli is nothing less than transcendental. Speaking of duets, the famous one between Don Carlo (Michael Fabiano) and his beloved friend Rodrigo (Mariusz Kwieceń) is unforgettably performed.

Michael Fabiano (Don Carlo) and Mariusz Kwiecień earn well-deserved bravos for a magnificent duet.
Michael Fabiano (Don Carlo) and Mariusz Kwiecień earn well-deserved bravos for a magnificent duet.

This production is one highlight after another, like a hike in the Himalayan foothills — there is a lot of trudging to get to the heights, but the view from each peak is magnificent. This is a demanding evening of theatre, but the rewards are prodigious.

If there is any flaw, it is in the casting of Andrea Silvestrelli as the Grand Inquisitor. He is musically fine, but somehow sympathetic, which doesn’t quite work. Philip II was one tough cookie and when he is threatened by the Inquisition one wants one’s Grand Inquisitor to be the kind of guy who could scare Darth Vader. Silvestrelli is more like Henry Kissinger.

Go see this.  Earn your stripes. Five stars for an operatic masterpiece, beautifully performed by consummate singers.


Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.



“Don Carlo” by Giuseppe Verdi. Original French text by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, after the dramatic poem by Friedrich von Schiller. Italian translation by Achille de Lauzières and Angelo Zanardini. Additional tedxt translated by Piero Faggioni. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Produced by the San Francisco Opera. Director: Emilio Sagi. Production Designer: Zack Brown. Lighting Designer: Gary Marder. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Fight Director: Dave Maier. 


Don Carlo: Michael Fabiano. Elizabeth (Elisabetta) of Valois: Ana María Martínez. Tebaldo: Nian Wang. Count Lerma: Pene Pati. Countess of Aremberg: Valentina Simi. A monk: Matthew Stump. Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa: Mariusz Kwiecień. Philip II: René Pape. Princess Eboli: Nadia Krasteva. A heavenly voice: Toni Marie Palmertree. The Grand Inquisitor: Andrea Silvestrelli.

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