The subject of Verdi's "Don Carlo," which received a gripping new production by Los Angeles Opera on Sunday afternoon in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, is the abuse of power. Terrorism is enforced by religious extremists controlling government. A popular uprising is the result of an unpopular war in which a superpower is ensconced in a distant land where it isn't wanted.
These are not our times, nor the composer's. The setting is Philip II's Spain, circa 1560. But the politics meant a lot to Verdi. He was a commanding voice for Italian independence in the 19th century. He served in the senate, and he proved quite clever at infusing his operas with political symbolism that the censors couldn't catch. "Don Carlo," loosely based upon Schiller's "Don Carlos" and even more loosely on history, occupied Verdi for 17 years.
Originally written in French and in five lavish acts, the opera was intended for Paris in 1867, and the political message had to be massaged by extraneous loveliness of garden scenes and ballet. The final version, a tighter though still expansive four-acter translated into Italian for La Scala, removed the French froufrou, brutally concentrating on difficult issues and flawed leaders. There exists a complex tangle of intermediate solutions. L.A. Opera ignored them and went for stark brutality.
Ian Judge did not update, an irresistible temptation to most directors of this opera in Europe. But he did not back away from the strong political statement, either. He staged the action in a warren of stylized arches, John Gunther's gloomy and claustrophobic set topped by classical paintings of bloody religious subject matter.
The arches, moved in various jigsaw configurations, represented a Spanish court obsessed with itself. Oblivious to the wider world, Philip II and the Grand Inquisitor, the leader of the Catholic Church and the power behind the power, make one wrong, self-serving and oppressive move after another.
The opera begins with Philip's decision to marry Elizabeth for political reasons. The French princess was betrothed to the king's son, Don Carlo. Son turns against father and supports the Flemish insurgency, which wants the Spanish out of Flanders. The Grand Inquisitor keeps dissidents in line through torture and the fiery stake.
The arches kept the attention focused on the characters, and Tim Goodchild's beautifully styled costumes made a striking effect. The arches had one further benefit, whether intended or not: They proved very effective in reflecting sound. In that area, the Dorothy Chandler needs all the help it can get.
Five convincing singers are essential to "Don Carlo," and so is a conductor who can keep up the intensity. Even in the four-act version, it is a long opera (L.A. Opera presents it in two 1 1/2 -hour parts).
James Conlon, the company's new music director, made the score feel impressively unrelenting. The previous night he opened the season with a gala performance of Verdi's "La Traviata," his tight conducting feeling as though it were a necessary anchor for a loose production.
For "Don Carlo," Conlon built the foundation of orchestral sound from the bottom up. He may not match his predecessor, Kent Nagano, in magical luminous elegance, particularly in the orchestra's upper registers, but he grounds the orchestra magnificently. The lower strings revealed such power that the singers must have at times felt the earth shake on stage.
The greatest power on stage was also in the lower ranges. Opera lovers shouldn't need much more than Ferruccio Furlanetto's Philip to make this production a must-see and must-hear. Furlanetto is a ruler torn between his lust and responsibility, between the church and state. He is magisterial and imperfect. But it takes a great deep voice, the kind that gets under a listener's skin, to generate sympathy and horror simultaneously.
The other conspicuous low voice was that of Dolora Zajick. As a ferocious Princess Eboli -- who loves but is spurned by Carlo and takes her revenge on Elizabeth by falsely accusing the queen of infidelity and by seducing Philip herself -- the mezzo-soprano was a showstopper and would have been even without her Bride of Frankenstein fright wig (the production wasn't without visual missteps).
Salvatore Licitra was not a nuanced Carlo. The least convincing moments in the production were his scenes with Elizabeth, carefully -- and often beautifully -- sung by Annalisa Raspagliosi. The tenor more often than not circled his lover like a shark assessing its prey. Once hailed as the next Pavarotti, Licitra sounded most impressive when he could get into a testosterone match with Rodrigo, Carlo's friend and leader of the Flanders revolt.
Lado Ataneli's Rodrigo was no more lyrical than Licitra's Carlo, but the two made an effective duo when their attentions turned to politics. Eric Halfvarson proved an appropriately creepy Grand Inquisitor, black of tone.
Judge can be an inconsistent director, and his "Don Carlo" was not missing the yuck factor altogether. The opera's central scene is a disturbingly glorious auto-da-fe, and this one included bloody self-flagellants. It is also a scene in which the chorus must shine. It sang really loud, but not always accurately. I hope Conlon will have time to spend with it.
Still, after the troubling "Traviata" the night before, the new "Don Carlo" proves that L.A. Opera is ever a company full of surprises and that it has a capable new music director.
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday and Sept. 20, 2 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sept. 24, 7 p.m. Sept. 28, 12:30 p.m. Oct. 1
Ends: Oct. 1
Price: $30 to $220
Contact: (213) 972-8001