There is much to praise in Tim Albery's production of Verdi's Don Carlo for Opera Philadelphia. It was in many ways stunning, and in other ways very human. The set by Andrew Lieberman, said to suggest the image of a cupola fallen on its side, with all four sides intact as floor, side walls, and ceiling, was both stunning and confusing. In the first half (Acts I and II), the cupola seems intact. In the second half, we see the charred remains of the cupola after the flames of the auto da fé that closes Act II have destroyed it. A substantial amount of ash, earth and leaves have blown into the cupola itself, creating an air of decay and a bit of a slope on stage right. Potentially quite poetic, suggesting a loss of the church's power or decay of the existing political and social system, but we don't see that loss of power happening quite yet in history or in the opera.

Eric Owens (Philip II) © Opera Philadelphia | Kelly & Massa
Eric Owens (Philip II)
© Opera Philadelphia | Kelly & Massa

In a similar vein, the costumes by Constance Hoffman seemed timeless and yet of a time – grays and blacks, with boots, pants and tunics or Nehru-like jackets for the men and early 19th century costumes for the women. None of the principals were set apart from the chorus or even the gray hues of the set sufficiently. Elisabetta's costume, in particular, didn't seem to flatter her figure, with ruffles from waist to throat that must surely have been a nuisance. 

Eric Owens (Philip II) and Morris Robinson (The Grand Inquisitor) © Opera Philadelphia | Kelly & Massa
Eric Owens (Philip II) and Morris Robinson (The Grand Inquisitor)
© Opera Philadelphia | Kelly & Massa
Bass Eric Owens, known to many for his menacing Alberich in the Met's Das Rheingold a few years ago, was a success with his first King Philip II. Always rock solid vocally, exhibiting both power and subtlety, his commitment to Philip's character and his changing emotions was palpable. The Philip of Mr Owens showed great vulnerability at times, yet he knew when to be the powerful head of state. Morris Robinson was The Grand Inquisitor, the only man with courage and privilege to challenge the King. He sang and acted the role in a manner both subtle and chilling. It was clear Mr Robinson had the secure technique from top to bottom to sing a great Philip, which made his Grand Inquisitor even more powerful.

The Rodrigo of Troy Cook was vocally beautiful and visually powerful and dignified. He started the evening with a very fine duet with Don Carlo, and his singing grew ever better as the evening progressed. His Act III aria (this was the four-act version of the opera, minus the original Fontainebleu act) was like spun gold. The tone, the legato, the high notes – all were thrilling. One never doubted Rodrigo's love and friendship for Don Carlo, his sense of duty to both the King and to Don Carlo, and his commitment to sacrifice his life so that Don Carlo might live to rule Spain in honor and glory.

Rising soprano Leah Crocetto sang Elisabetta de Valois, the French princess first promised to Don Carlo but at the last minute given by treaty to Philip (princesses were valuable property in those days). Miss Crocetto is a very fine singer, and performed both the challenging vocal lines and the conflicting emotions of Elisabetta with beauty and subtlety. I would pay good money to hear Miss Crocetto sing the role again in five or ten years, when added vocal and physical maturity will bring greater warmth and glow to her tone throughout. For now the feeling that she is a little young to sing the role is my only criticism, although admittedly a small one.

Leah Crocetto (Elisabetta) and Dimitri Pittas (Don Carlo) © Opera Philadelphia | Kelly & Massa
Leah Crocetto (Elisabetta) and Dimitri Pittas (Don Carlo)
© Opera Philadelphia | Kelly & Massa

Dimitri Pittas was somewhat frustrating as Don Carlo. Judging by his past accomplishments and his sound on Friday night, Don Carlo is simply not an appropriate role for Mr Pittas at this stage in his career. His is a lyric sound of the sort that will likely grow into a fuller, warmer sound with age. I hear Tamino or Rodolfo in his voice now. Although Mr Pittas had some perfectly glorious moments vocally, one had the feeling this role is simply too heavy for him right now, and it showed at times in vocal stress.

Michelle DeYoung, who sang Princess Eboli, was suffering from bronchitis, so I can not give a fair evaluation of her singing performance. I can say, however, that she was completely committed to the role of the vengeful and then repentant princess, and acted with great assurance.

The ending of Don Carlo always seems rather abrupt. A friar, who might or might not be Don Carlo's grandfather Carlos V, emerges from the tomb of Carlos to pronounce to one and all that the only peace is in heaven, and to take Don Carlo back into the tomb with him. In this production Don Carlo gladly accepts the Friar's embrace, giving himself completely to church, state, history, and perhaps fate. No “Happy ending!” chorus, no triumphal scene to process what has just happened? It's almost as if Don Carlo has been snapped up by a predator and removed from the situation completely, and everyone returns to their daily business of political Sturm und Drang without noticing.

I call this a successful production. I would encourage opera lovers in the Philadelphia area and lovers of Verdi and Don Carlo everywhere to see it.