Among Verdi's many beloved operas, Don Carlo stands apart by virtue of its psychology. In a genre whose theatricality is so charged with elemental, unwavering motivations, Don Carlo finds moral complexities in matters of church and state, freedom and repression, with no clear path of rightness in the intractable world of the 16th-century Spanish Inquisition.
Even the orchestra - not typically the primary focus of Verdi operas - speaks of ambivalence and paradox in orchestral preludes to important scenes and in Verdi's surprisingly precise use of silence.
"We're finding a way to make silence in the large theater. It has so much meaning," said Opera Philadelphia music director Corrado Rovaris, who conducts the company's new production of Don Carlo, opening Friday at the Academy of Music. "Verdi underlined every character in such a beautiful way."
At the center of the drama is bass-baritone Eric Owens, the Philadelphia native and frequent visitor who is singing his first King Philip II on a career path that just keeps building. Though Owens has played Alberich in Wagner's Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, Gen. Leslie Groves in John Adams' Doctor Atomic in San Francisco, and is next season's New York Philharmonic artist in residence, King Philip is, for him, the summit.
"For many people, Boris Godunov is the pinnacle of bass roles, but I find Filippo [Philip] . . . fits me like a glove. I got a little emotional during rehearsal the other day when I realized, 'Wow, I'm getting to sing this music.' "
The production, which has five performances through May 3, is expected to be something of a signature effort for the current Opera Philadelphia administration, which has distinguished itself with new operatic works but now takes on a major standard-repertoire challenge with greater confidence than in years past. The high-pedigree cast also includes mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Princess Eboli, and a production by Tim Albery, an innovative director keen to go to the core of whatever story is being told.
In a practical move, Opera Philadelphia opted for the shorter, tighter four-act Italian version (rather than the five-act French version). "We want to do an important Don Carlo. It's a big step," said Rovaris. "We know how much time we have in the Academy. Let's do the four-act version in a wonderful way. It's a good choice for us."
Whatever the edition or language, one of the scenes the creative team and singers talk most about is the brooding soliloquy by Philip (1527–1598), who realizes that his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois, will never love him, having been initially promised to Don Carlo, Philip's grown son from another marriage. Worse, he realizes that the supreme power he has over his world has resulted only in his ultimate isolation. Then comes the confrontation with the infirm but steely Grand Inquisitor, who proves that Philip's power isn't so supreme, after all.
The hot-colored Mediterranean palace Albery has designed is increasingly confined by tall gates, "like a gilded cage, a prison that represents power, but everybody in it is trapped, visually, in a series of ever smaller prisons."
Albery believes that even the grandest operas are intimate stories when the trappings are removed. "What I want to see is what you need to see, rather than things for the sake of it."
Though his opera credits include Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Met and the Ring cycle in Glasgow, his background as a straight-theater director (and his admiration for the similarly essence-minded director Jonathan Miller) is is evident in many of Albery's decisions, right down to the lack of scene changes in this production, which lets the opera move more swiftly.
"I still approach an opera as I would a play. I'm still interested in seeing real relationships between human beings," he says. "Ultimately there is no difference in the investigative process. We're out to find out what's going on here."
The distance between the opera's characters and 21st-century Philadelphia seems not so great at all - at least for Owens. An accomplished singing actor who just sang Wagner's Flying Dutchman in Washington, is going on to Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and, in future seasons, will sing the leading role of Wotan in Lyric Opera of Chicago's forthcoming Ring cycle, Owens says there's no way you can be a traveling opera singer and not know the loneliness of royalty.
"We spend so much time alone that it's ridiculous," he says. "Sometimes you're in one corner of the globe . . . and find yourself in a situation where you don't like anybody in the cast, you don't like the director or the conductor. You're very much alone in a room full of people . . . ."
"This situation" with Opera Philadelphia, he adds, "is the exact opposite."
Though African American bass baritones of generations past have said color-blind casting for their opera roles hasn't kept pace with those of sopranos and mezzos, Owens now finds himself in roles that have had an overwhelming history of white casting, including his Macbeth this summer at Glimmerglass Opera. In fact, casting him in Don Carlo was the starting point of the Opera Philadelphia production.
"If I've been denied a job because of my color . . . I've never used it as an excuse for anything," he said. "There's always room at the top. You hone your craft to the point where you cannot be denied. And if you are turned down, you go back and audition again.
"Is there injustice and prejudice in the world? Of course. Should you let that deter you from doing anything? Hell, no."
Friday through May 3 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets.
Information: 215-893-1018 or www.operaphila.orgEndText