With its first ‘Don Carlos’ production, Lyric Opera soars to heights seldom seen

Six terrific leads complement each other superbly in utterly gripping, thoroughly rewarding take on Verdi’s drama.

SHARE With its first ‘Don Carlos’ production, Lyric Opera soars to heights seldom seen
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The title character of “Don Carlos” (tenor Joshua Guerrero) is denied the chance to marry his intended bride, Elisabeth (soprano Rachel Willis-Sørenson).

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Opera is a fusion of music and theater, and when that alchemical combination happens in an ideal way, as it did Wednesday night at the Lyric Opera House, the results are utterly gripping and thoroughly rewarding.

Lyric Opera of Chicago debuted its first-ever production of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1886 five-act revision of “Don Carlos,” with performances continuing through Nov. 25. The company has previously presented multiple takes on the better-known four-act version in Italian known as “Don Carlo.”

It’s confusing because Verdi made multiple revisions to this opera, but this nearly four-hour version allows this amazing work to be heard in its original French and offers a fuller, more in-depth telling of this story based on the tumultuous, real-life history of 16th-century Spain.

‘Don Carlos,’ Lyric Opera of Chicago

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When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12, 2 p.m. Nov. 17 and 20, and 7 p.m. Nov. 25

Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $50-$300

Info: (312) 827-5600; lyricopera.org/doncarlos

Even more than the commonly heard “Don Carlo,” this permutation reveals Verdi at the absolute peak of his dramatic powers, with an irresistibly beautiful, multifaceted score that is tender at moments, with sometimes the voice of just a lone solo instrument, and fulsome, driving and muscular at others.

It was exquisitely brought to life by Lyric’s first-rate pit orchestra, with Music Director Enrique Mazzola, in one of the best outings of his tenure so far, supporting, propelling and enhancing everything happening on stage and never letting the energy or the audience’s attention flag.

The opera’s tumultuous drama unspools from the forced marriage of Elisabeth, the daughter of the French king (soprano Rachel Willis-Sørenson), to Philippe II, the Spanish king (bass Dmitri Belosselskiy), as way to bring peace between the two countries. The problem is that Elisabeth was the intended bride of Philippe’s son, Don Carlos (tenor Joshua Guerrero), and the two fall in love at the beginning of the opera right before this unfortunate arrangement is revealed.

Against the backdrop of the Inquisition and a bloody revolt in the Netherlands that would eventually lead to its independence from Spain, the main characters are forced to make choices between fealty and honor and love and passion. 

Although “Don Carlos” is very much grand opera with a historical sweep and it contains some large-scale crowd scenes, with fine performances by Lyric’s chorus, this opera is surprisingly intimate. Its most memorable “wow” moments revolve around the interactions between just two characters and, in a few cases, three or four. 

Certainly, some of the credit for the success of this production, originally presented by Oper Frankfurt in Germany, lies with David McVicar, a much in-demand director. He smartly didn’t try to update this opera or impose some high-concept staging onto it. (Axel Weidauer served as the revival director here.)

Instead, McVicar tells the story in a clear, honest, sometimes bluntly honest way, as when a group of bedraggled, obviously tortured religious heretics are paraded pitifully across the stage. And more important, he ensures that the main characters come across as flesh-and-blood humans with all their virtues and flaws.

But the biggest reason that this production soars to the heights it does are the international artists in the six main roles, who are not only all terrific singer-actors but they also fit together and complement each other superbly. 

All six deserve considerable praise, starting with Guerrero, who has an obvious sensibility for Verdi’s style and poignantly conveys the title character’s bitter emotional breakdown. He is nicely matched by Igor Golovatenko, who, as Don Carlos’ friend, Rodrigue, impresses with his dexterous, expressive baritone voice and impeccable phrasing and diction. 

Belosselskiy potently conveys the strength of the Spanish king but also his vulnerability, which comes through in a moving performance of the character’s desolate Act 4 meditation on his age and loveless marriage. Offsetting him is bass Solomon Howard, who ably realizes the menacing religious zealotry of the Grand Inquisitor.

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Clémentine Margaine is a crowd-pleaser as Elisabeth’s betrayer, Eboli.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The production’s biggest audience-pleaser is arguably mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine as Eboli, a member of court who betrays Elisabeth. With fiery intensity and commanding stage presence, she deftly handles both the showy, coloratura demands of Eboli’s Act 2 aria and the emotional depths of her contrite, confessional Act 5 solo.

None of the six, though, stands out more than Willis-Sørenson, who combines suitable power with an impressive range of nuanced timbral shadings that compellingly communicate her character’s emotional duress. Elisabeth is asked in Act 1 if she will accept the imposed marriage to Philippe II. The soprano communicates volumes with the character’s one-word response — a choked-out, half-hearted “yes” that is tinged with disappointment and despair. 

Put simply, “Don Carlos” is a milestone production for Lyric — one that should not be missed.

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