From Chicago with Love: A Searing Don Carlos Premieres at the Lyric Opera

2022 seems to be the year of French-sung American premieres of Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic masterpiece, Don Carlos. This has been long overdue; this year marks the 155th anniversary of the original five-act French version’s opening in Paris. The Metropolitan Opera premiered an edited version of the original in February, directed by David McVicar. Lyric’s current production of the 1886 five-act revision is also signed David McVicar, but this staging originated at Oper Frankfurt in 2007. Its revival is directed by Axel Weidauer, who succeeds wonderfully in highlighting the intimate human aspects of this grand historical and political opera on Robert Jones’s sparse white-brick set.

One particular detail that connoisseurs of the opera’s sources might appreciate is the presence of a baby (prop) on stage held by one of Elisabeth’s ladies in the introduction to King Philippe’s Aria “Elle ne m’aime pas” as Philippe compares Don Carlos’s portrait to the baby’s face. This is surely a nod to Schiller’s play in which the King is plagued by doubt whether his daughter with Elisabeth has his features or Don Carlos’s. In the play he even states his dilemma out loud: doesn’t his son also have his features, so how can he really tell who the baby’s real father is? Kudos to the director for this literary detail that honors Schiller as well as history. The real Elisabeth and Philippe had two surviving daughters, born not long before the events of the drama take place.

Joshua Guerrero and Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

A musically and dramatically successful Don Carlos requires six exceptional singers, and this production has certainly assembled them. As the title character, tenor Joshua Guerrero pulls at the heartstrings with his plaintive, nuanced, passionate, dynamic-sensitive singing. He creates a role that evokes compassion: an earnest, volatile, innocent, infatuated adolescent (after all, the historical Don Carlos was only 14 when he met Elisabeth) whose trials transform him into a noble, self-sacrificing young man. Drawing on a palette of dark and brilliant colors and electrifying emotional inflections, Guerrero’s Don Carlos is one for the ages, a perfect hybrid between the mad historical figure and the ultimately heroic personage Verdi wanted.

From the tenderness, passion, despair, and sublimation in the duets with Elisabeth to the warmth of “friendship duet” with Posa to the defiant confrontation with Philippe in his defense of the Flemish cause, the entire dramatic and vocal arc of Guerrero’s Don Carlos is breathtaking and goose-bumps-inducing. He is wonderfully matched in the thrill factor by Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Elisabeth in her luxurious, flexible, enveloping voice, effortless legato, and soaring dramatic power. Sørensen offers many sublime moments in her duets with Don Carlos, especially in the last part of the 5th Act duet “Au revoir dans un monde.” Her last aria “Toi qui sus le néant” emanates sadness and forbearance as well as a dramatic force that is at once ravaging and caressing, topped with heartbreaking pianissimi. Hers is a noble and very human Elisabeth. Her restraint often breaks down in passionate gestures towards Don Carlos, making her suppressed love for him even more understandable and tragic.

Igor Golovatenko and Clementine Margaine (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

As Rodrigue, Igor Golovatenko impresses through his velvety, elegant phrasing, and wide range of emotional expression. His voice can shift naturally from consoling tenderness in his encounters with Don Carlos to fiery determination in the duet with Philip to protective fury in the trio with Eboli and Don Carlos. His death scene seems to run too short as one is left longing to hear more of his silky legato. Clémentine Margaine’s fiery singing and intense stage presence make her Eboli unforgettable. She handles the sprightly phrases and delicate melismas of the Veil Song deftly, giving hints of her indomitable vocal power which she fully unleashes in the trio with Don Carlos and Posa, and in her aria “O don fatal”—an exciting showcase for the rich clarion and earthy qualities of her voice.

In the role of Philip, Dmitry Belosselskiy conveys power and ruthlessness through his booming, dark, abundant tones. The only weakness in his otherwise masterful creation of a tyrannous and weary King are his lowest notes where he loses some of his impressive resonance. For instance, at the end of the duet with the grand Inquisitor, when he sings “L’orgueil du roi fléchit devant l’orgueil du prêtre,” he is hardly audible on those last few notes. As the Grand Inquisitor, Soloman Howard is consistently thrilling in his towering, menacing vocal prowess.

Soloman Howard and Dmitry Belosselskiy (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Lyric’s music director Enrique Mazzola skillfully leads the superb orchestra through the magnificent textures, colors, and engrossing waves of Verdi’s music, creating suspension, intensifying the drama, and beautifully illuminating the moments of sublime tenderness and vulnerability as a supportive, responsive partner to the singers.

This Don Carlos is certainly an artistic landmark for the Lyric, one that should be filmed or at least recorded for future reference and for the delight of audiences who may have missed it. There are still two performances left—on November 20th and 25th—so if you happen to be in Chicago, don’t miss the artistic and emotional roller coaster ride that this exceptional cast will offer you. 

About Lyric Opera of Chicago:

Known simply as Lyric, Chicago’s Lyric Opera has a venerable and turbulent history. The city’s first opera house opened in 1865 but was destroyed in 1871 in the Great Fire of Chicago. The second opera house was inaugurated in 1889 at the Chicago Auditorium and moved to the Civic Opera House in 1929 but collapsed during the Great Depression. After some roller coaster years of closings and restructuring, the current company opened in 1954 under the enterprising 28-year-old Carol Fox as general manager, and its founding season included a historic event: Maria Callas’s American debut in Bellini’s Norma. Lyric is currently led by general director Anthony Freud and music director Maestro Enrique Mazzola. Housed in the sumptuous Art Deco Civic Opera House building, Lyric Opera of Chicago has continuously demonstrated why it remains among the top opera companies in the United States and in the world. This season is no exception.

Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos is playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Nov. 20 at 2 p.m. and Nov. 25 at 7 p.m. Information / Tickets

Top photo: The Company of Don Carlos – photo Todd Rosenberg

About Maria-Cristina Necula (143 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and a new collection of poems, "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Opera America," "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina is the recipient of a 2022 New York Press Club Award in the Critical Arts Review category for her review of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice" at the Metropolitan Opera, published on Woman Around Town. Discover more at www.mariacristinanecula.com.