by Michael Caruso
Both Opera Philadelphia and the Academy of Vocal Arts Opera Theater opened productions this past weekend: the former with Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and the latter with Gounod’s “Faust.” While both operas deal with powerful people engaged in epic struggles, the two productions couldn’t have been more dissimilar in scale. AVA’s “Faust” premiered Saturday, April 25, in its own tiny Helen Corning Warden Theater at 1920 Spruce St.; I caught the Sunday, April 26, performance of Opera Philadelphia’s “Don Carlo” inside the grandeur of the majestic Academy of Music.
Among the leading members of the “Don Carlo” cast was West Mt. Airy native and bass Eric Owens as King Philip II of Spain. Owens began his musical career at the Germantown Branch of Settlement Music School and Central High School, then attended and graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music, and is now one of the world’s leading opera singers, performing in all the principal opera houses, most notably New York’s Metropolitan Opera and London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden.
Although Verdi’s 31st opera (the original French version was his 27th) is named “Don Carlo,” from the standpoint of seminal motivation three other characters in its libretto are far more important. Carlo’s friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, is the opera’s most admirable individual, the Grand Inquisitor of Spain is its most terrifying, and Spanish King Philip II is its most base.
We in the English-speaking world know Philip as the king who sent the doomed Armada against England in 1588. Its catastrophic sinking launched the decline and eventual demise of the Spanish Empire, the largest in the world at the time. Philip’s ruthless attempt to suppress the United Provinces of the Netherlands resulted in their independence.
And his collaboration with the Spanish Inquisition to extinguish any opposition to his supremacy established the model of governance that explains why democracy has never developed peacefully in any country dominated by the Catholic Church. In the opera, if not in history, Carlo is the son who attempts to thwart his father’s tyranny.
Although Owens was slightly under the weather Sunday afternoon and asked the audience’s indulgence if he didn’t always sing full voice, you wouldn’t have known that from what you saw and heard. That’s because his singing is only the final result for an operatic artist such as Eric Owens. It was his presence — regal in its menace, touching in its estrangement from all around him — that most dramatically and memorably marked his performance. And what about his singing? Well, in my book, there’s not a fuller, darker, more resonating and more expressive bass voice before the public today.
Tenor Dimitri Pittas as Don Carlo overacted as if he had only recently completed the last silent film ever made, rendering Carlo completely unconvincing as a hero, while soprano Leah Crocetto’s awkward stage presence did the same for her portrayal of Elisabeth of Valois. Although Crocetto sang well, Pittas’ voice lacked even a hint of Latinate warmth and stature.
“Don Carlo” continues through May 1. Visit www.operaphila.org.
Gounod’s “Faust” is based on the late medieval legend regarding the learned Dr. Faust’s deal struck with Satan’s lieutenant Mephistopheles to regain his lost youth and all the pleasures his academic life has denied him at the price of his eternal soul. Christopher Marlowe wrote a celebrated play on the subject, Liszt composed a dramatic symphony on it, and Thomas Mann wrote a novel in which Dr. Faustus is a composer who sells his soul.
Gounod’s version is the most frequently performed (or read) and the reasons for that are perfectly obvious at AVA’s Warden Theater. With the combined efforts of Christofer Macatsoris’ exhilarating conducting and Tito Capobianco’s bracingly focused yet profoundly motivated stage direction, the mounting projects the incredible beauty and potency of Gounod’s orchestral and vocal writing. When you combine them with Allen Doak’s lighting, Peter Harrison’s set design and Val Starr’s costumes and wigs, you get a production worthy of any opera company in the world.
AVA’s “Faust” continues through May 9. Call 215-735-1685 or visit www.avaopera.org.