Don Carlo in Philadelphia

Don Carlo is a big and ambitious opera for Opera Philadelphia, even in the four act version. I’m happy to report that with this production the risk has paid off: the cast, led by Eric Owens and Leah Crocetto, does the best singing I’ve heard from Opera Philadelphia in years. Tim Albery’s generic period production is rather bland, but it’s well-acted and appropriately dark. In a city which has long been dismissed as “not an opera town,” this is a production any regional company would be proud to perform.

Don Carlo. Opera Philadelphia, 4/24/15. New production premiere directed by Tim Albery, sets by Andrew Lieberman, costumes by Constance Hoffman, lights by Thomas Hase. Conducted by Corrado Rovaris with Dimitri Pittas (Don Carlo), Leah Crocetto (Elisabeth de Valois), Michelle DeYoung (Princess Eboli), Eric Owens (King Philip II), Troy Cook (Rodrigo), Morris Robinson (Grand Inquisitor), Ashley Emerson (Tebaldo). Co-production with Washington National Opera and Minnesota Opera.

This is a tough opera to cast and this production does a remarkably solid job, particularly considering that most of the principals are performing their roles for the first time. The production’s center is native Philadelphian Eric Owens as Filippo, whose big, gravelly bass-baritone voice radiates authority. Yet what is more interesting is how he makes Filippo very sad and vulnerable, particularly in a remarkable account of “Ella giammai m’amò.” He never overstates his acting but puts the beats in just the right places, particularly in his subtle take on the Rodrigo duet. Similarly, his duet with Morris Robinson’s Grand Inquisitor was also very powerful, and if I didn’t suspect Filippo may be too high for Robinson’s very deep voice I’d want to hear a Filippo from him too.

Final duet

While Owens’s Filippo is already fully-formed, Leah Crocetto seems like she still has to grow into the role of Elisabetta–but it’s a journey that will be worth following. She sings with precision, grace, and little obvious effort. Her voice is quite big and spectacular at the top, the middle is clear and pretty but less substantial, and her chest voice is not very big; I’m sure those will come with time. She’s an interesting actress, like Owens she’s good with a slow burn. Without the usual Act 1 she doesn’t get to have much fun, but she did a good job of very gradually revealing her relationship with Carlo.

Carlo-Rodrigo duet

Vocally, Troy Cook took a while to warm up as Rodrigo. Musically, he has confidence and a strong sense of line, but until the Filippo-Rodrigo duet his tone seemed drab and growly, placed very far back. Eventually things brightened up a bit and his death scene was his strongest moment. In the other lower-voiced role, Michelle DeYoung was unfortunately ill as Eboli and her singing suffered, particularly in a “Don fatale” which skipped many of the high notes. But she is, as always, a fun actress, and I’m suspect that when well she will give a strong account of the role.

Oh dear, I left the title role last again. Don Carlo is, notoriously, a graveyard for lyric tenors–just ask Rolando Villazón and Giuseppe Filianoti how it worked out for them. Dimitri Pittas is also basically a lyric tenor, with a very sweet and pleasant sound. And his voice does have enough of a ringing edge to project in this role. Unfortunately his voice also basically stops above the passaggio, becoming much weaker in higher-lying passages, and this is a role that has a lot of those strategically placed at climactic moments. This led to a performance with some strong elements but was overall somewhat underwhelming. Acting-wise, he is alright, this role is a tough nut to crack and while competent he was overshadowed by the stronger work of his colleagues. (This often happens in this opera; he’s not alone.)


Ashley Emerson was a bright-sounding Tebaldo, her role unfortunately reduced due to the loss of Act 1. (I can understand why it was lost, even four-act Don Carlo is big for Opera Philly, but I still miss Act 1 a lot. I bet Ashley Emerson does too.) Speaking of large efforts, the orchestra was solid rather than brilliant, somewhat less monumental than I would like, but Corrado Rovaris’s conducting was strong, dramatic, and well-paced. The chorus also sounded very good.

As for the production, I was disappointed. It’s what I think constitutes a fairly standard American regional opera house style: elaborate, expensive-looking more or less period costumes and a somewhat abstract set. In this respect it is rather like the old John Dexter Met production, though it is quite a bit darker. It is darker, however, only in the sense that the lights seem to top out at around 40%; I wonder if this literal darkness has been employed to stand in for any kind of tougher bleakness.  Constance Hoffman’s costumes are historical in the sense that they are heavy, period-looking, and the French ones are colorful and most of the Spanish ones are not. (The women’s costumes are, interesting, far more historic-looking than the men’s.)

Set, first half

The set presents us with an abstracted, tilted box with a sideways dome in it; in the second half this is replaced with a bombed-out hole and the stage is covered in ash. The hole vaguely recalls many sets I have seen (the tilted box many more), but symbolically I’m not too sure about this. Except for the deus ex machina at the end there is no real power change in this opera. The Grand Inquisitor gets his way again and again and again, so I’m not sure why his dome does not survive the opera. (This story suggests that the blown-up dome represents the destruction of the auto-da-fé and the cracks in Filippo’s court. OK, but a) as seen in the opera the auto-da-fé ultimately reinforces the incumbent power, it doesn’t reduce it [everyone loves a good public burning!] and b) this conflates the Grand Inquisitor’s power with Filippo’s and the opera conveniently has a whole scene which shows that this is not the case. Not convincing IMO.)

Filippo and Grand Inquisitor

But while the production is conceptually bland, Albery does do a good job directing the principals and chorus. The action is clear, largely free of cliché (the Veil Song excepted), and rarely static or boring. The auto-da-fé gives us, unusually, lady heretics (as well as some male ones), and stuffs the lot of them into a trapdoor which had previously represented Carlo V’s grave in the beginning of the opera. I was convinced that Carlo would go at the end out via this same door, but instead he was dragged out via the stage left exit, a rather less thrilling conclusion. Many audience members around me were nonetheless confused by the monk’s
reappearance at the end, and I wonder if putting him upstage where he
originally appeared would have helped jog memories. (Similarly, I was sure the windows dotting the sides of the box would become functional, e.g. for Posa’s assassination, but this action was instead accomplished by the world’s least convincing gunshot effect emanating from the vicinity of the stage left proscenium box.) While the production is more functional than inspired, the cast made up for this deficit.

If this production is the way of the future for Opera Philadelphia, there’s a lot to look forward to. Next Opera Philadelphia will attempt an even more daunting task: an opera about bebop. Yardbird, a new opera by Daniel Schnyder starring Lawrence Brownlee, is coming in June. Don Carlo continues through May 3.

Previously in Don Carlo:

  • Met Opera with Lorin Maazel conducting Hvorostovsky, Frittoli, and more, really slowly
  • ROH with Lianna Haroutounian, and Jonas Kaufmann and terrific Antonio Pappano
  • Wiener Staatsoper, a fabulous cast with René Pape, Krassimira Stoyanova, and more in a mind-bogglingly boring performance (edited to add: apparently I also stated in this review that “Don Carlos is a graveyard for lyric tenors” with reference to Villazón and Filianoti, which just shows that I am economical when it comes to writing phrases I like. Also forgetful.)

Photos copyright Kelly & Massa.

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  1. I saw it last night and really enjoyed Leah Crocetto's voice. What a gorgeous voice. Morris Robinson was also very impressive. Overall the singing was good but I thought the production was undermined by the direction, set and costumes–the "concept." When there is the love duet between the tenor and soprano, they are in that set with metal gates and it is just ugly. The tenor says something about a fountain and that was just too much to imagine with that set. I have been to Spain and to Escorial (which I thought they were trying to portray) but it was just not evocative. I didn't understand what happened at the end. I suspected Carlos V was a ghost only because of the words they sung "La voce de Carlo V." I didn't understand at the beginning of the opera that something important was happening. I thought it was just chorus guys as monks walking across the stage. I was also disappointed with the Veil Song scene. Isn't there normally a dance in it? The chorus women just sat there for the most part. They utilized the chorus better in the action in the second part. A lot of the action just needed to be more specific, especially considering the very stark set.

  2. I was a bit indifferent to the production, finding it neither here nor there. I was glad they weren't super kitsch a la Zef or Schenk. Owens really surprised me. I've never been the biggest fan but this was solidly sung and splendidly acted all around. I didn't quite love Crocetto's voice they was you did, I still think she's very much a work in progress, but there is not reason why she shouldn't get there eventually because she has the technique it seems. De Young was sick the night I went as well but as someone who has never been able to stand her it didn't really make a difference to me, especially when Gubanova is singing at the met. Overall a very solid performance, especially when, as you've said, this is an exceptionally difficult opera to cast.