Superb Performers Give Wings To Verdi's Epic `Don Carlos'

Opera review "Don Carlos," Verdi opera in Seattle Opera production; in French, with English supratitles; Opera House, last night through Aug. 14 (389-7676).

Yes, it is long.

Seattle Opera's "Don Carlos" lasts a little more than 4 1/2 hours.

But here's the good news: That time positively speeds by, as you listen to one gorgeous voice after another, entertained by a panoply of grand-opera tableaux and a succession of singers who somehow have never been to Seattle before.

If you didn't like last summer's concept-ridden production of "Aida," here is a show that is virtually its direct opposite. Deeply traditional, dominated by naturalistic acting and singing, this show is true to its roots in Verdi's version of 16th-century Spain. The turning point of the opera's action, the Act III scene at the cathedral, virtually dwarfs the "Aida" triumphal march - it's awash in monks, priests, inquisitors, heretics, prisoners, Flemish refugees, royalty, treason, attempted patricide and a burning at the stake, all taking place more or less at once.

What's surprising is how well all this works, thanks partly to the thoughtful and occasionally inspired stage direction of Dejan Miladinovic, in an impressive company debut. Equally impressive was the Seattle conducting debut of Thomas Fulton, who drew great riches and some fine solo work from the orchestra. It was a very grand-manner reading of the score, yet Fulton also kept a light touch in the more lyrical scenes, allowing his singers plenty of scope for floating pianissimo passages.

A third debut, however, belonged to the man who virtually walked away with the show whenever he stepped on the stage: Paul Plishka, as Philip II. Here is a singing actor in full command of all his resources - vocal, dramatic, interpretive - and his performance is one to inspire awe. Power drips from his every gesture, and from the resonant bass voice that moves from strength to strength throughout its register. In his public brutal cynicism, in his private despair over his failure to win the love of his wife, Plishka's Philip is always compellingly believable. It's worth seeing the entire show just to watch him in action.

The fourth debutante, mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar, was a multifaceted marvel in her portrayal of the scheming Princess Eboli. Quivar's resplendent voice, richly nuanced and utterly secure, moved with facility through the passagework, and with ease from the deepest tones through a top that could rival most sopranos. It's a voice of real warmth and beauty, and Quivar wastes none of her dramatic opportunities in employing this superb instrument.

William Stone, a first-rate baritone who also makes his company debut in this production, proved another exciting discovery in the role of Rodrigue. His handsome voice, so well suited to conveying the emotional content of the music, is coupled with a great sense of drama; Stone's Rodrigue was eminently real. It's hard to imagine anyone better conveying the honest decency of this character, sacrificed to the uglier realities of political scheming.

Two familiar voices

No stranger to Seattle audiences, tenor Vinson Cole turned in easily his most imposing performance to date in a role that wasn't really designed for a voice such as his. Cole's light, lyrical tenor proved a surprisingly appealing vehicle for Carlos, who is in many ways an emotionally fragile character (he gains mature conviction only in his last scene).

Probably this role has never before been sung with such a dynamic range - including the most exquisitely floating tones as well as a more commanding sound.

Mari-Anne Haggander, a soprano who has appeared in previous Seattle productions, took on the difficult role of Elisabeth. She proved a sensitive actress, and gave a much more subtle, lyrical performance than you'd expect from her previous work here. Yet the voice didn't always sound perfectly under control (oddly, the control was most evident in the difficult pianissimo high notes, and least evident in the full-voiced passages).

Gabor Andrasy's Grand Inquisitor exuded dangerous power and menace, particularly in his masterly scene with Philip - a confrontation that is one of the focal points of the opera.

Others deserve praise

The smaller roles were well taken by Henry Runey (monk), Karol Hansen (Thibault), Paul Gudas (Count of Lerme), Paul Mueller (royal herald), Sarah Kern (celestial voice), Brian Box (woodsman) and Monte Jacobson (Countess of Aremberg).

Chorusmaster George Fiore deserves top marks for getting terrific performances out of a chorus that seemed about the size of the population of Cleveland. The John Stoddart sets, from a Victoria State Opera (Australia) production, were practical and functional.

There were a few erratic moments in Marcia Madeira's lighting, but the huge cathedral-square scene was lit superbly, as was the final tomb scene with its deus ex machina conclusion.

And there even were some topical references. As the Act I chorus mourned, "Will this cold, freezing winter ever be over?," audience members nodded in sympathy - clutching their raincoats and umbrellas, waiting vainly for the Seattle summer to arrive.