Within a few days of each other, Lyric Opera of Chicago has introduced two new opera productions — a historical tragedy and a comic romp — which have one important thing in common: both are marvelously cast with the principal singers offering sensational performances. Verdi’s “Don Carlos” and Rossini’s “Le Comte Ory” both sizzle with glorious music coming from both stage and pit.
“Don Carlos” is the story of Carlos, Prince of Asturias (1545–1568), who was the son of Philip II of Spain. History and imagination combine in this opera based on works by Friedrich Schiller and Eugène Cormon. The young, doomed Carlos was to marry the French Princess Elisabeth of Valois, but instead the final treaty is changed so that she marries Carlos’ father. This begins a string of events that unravel in disastrous ways for Carlos, ultimately leading to his death.
This opera exists in various forms, and Lyric Opera is presenting for the first time on its stage the 1886 five-act version in French. And they have done so with a fantastic cast of singers. Tenor Joshua Guerrero is a worthy Don Carlos, taking us on a journey that exposes political intrigue, highlights the terror of the Spanish Inquisition and draws a picture of an obsessed prince. Guerrero has a luminous tenor and a strong stage presence, easily holding your attention throughout, even if his vocal power waned in the latter half of the opera.
He is matched in intensity and allure by soprano Rachel Willis-Sørenson as Elizabeth, the woman Carlos wanted to marry who instead wed his father. Her lower register is dark, smokey and mysterious, with the top of her voice strong, sturdy and shining.
Igor Golovatenko brings emotion to Rodrigue, the friend of Carlos. He projects his beautifully controlled baritone with grace. The treacherous Eboli is sung by mezzo-soprano Clèmentine Margaine, who can move from venomous calculation to believable contrition in an entirely believable way.
Dmitri Belosselskiy is a towering King Philippe with a fantastically commanding and cavernous bass voice. This is a man in control and you are drawn to the very power of his voice. There are other great basses in the cast too. Solomon Howard is authoritative as the Grand Inquisitor, and appropriately frightening as well. Peixin Chen sings the bass role of the Monk with deep sound and conviction.
Members of Lyric’s Ryan Center fill many of the minor roles, and these young singers do a fine job supporting the principals.
That said, the set and staging did little to assist the drama. In this David McVicar production which premiered in Frankfurt we are given a Robert Jones unit set of some expanse, all done up in white brick or tile. It looks like a 2,000-year-old Roman bath that has had bad maintenance, appearing dirty, dingy and dank. Most importantly, it doesn’t look remotely Spanish. Nor does it look like any of the multiple settings this long opera has in abundance.
Much of the stage action has similar problems. Early on, Carlos and Elizabeth meet and this little love scene is strangely blocked so that Carlos sings with his back to the woman he loves, and worse than that, with the tip of his sheathed sword pointed toward her. It is hard to convey emotional connection with this kind of approach to the emotional thrust of the story.
“Don Carlos” opened Thursday night, Nov. 10, and on Sunday afternoon, Lyric opened their run of “Le Comte Ory” by Rossini. This was the first time Lyric has ever produced “Ory” and the theater called upon one of the great bel canto singers to lead the cast. American tenor Lawrence Brownlee sings the title role with gusto, offering us frothy fun all wrapped up in singing that is creamy smooth and beautifully warm.
Set during the crusades of the 2nd through 4th century, this is the story of a wayward aristocrat who hopes to seduce Countess Adéle —hijinks ensue. This is where Brownlee excels, and his ability to throw himself into ridiculous situations and bring you laughter is clearly expressed here. He makes the best of his funny disguises, most notably when he is dressed as a nun, and you can’t help but giggle.
Soprano Kathryn Lewek is a jewel as Adèle. Her coloratura is glorious: warm, sweet and with bell-like ping, and she delivers her musical punches with knowing stage wit. She is a joy to see and hear.
There are strong performances by Kayleigh Decker as Isolier and Zoie Reams as Ragonde. Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins was cast as Raimbaud, but was ill on Sunday so Ian Rucker, a first-year member of Lyric’s Ryan Center, sang this role. He offered a solid performance and was rewarded by the audience with applause that acknowledged the stress this young man must have felt.
Kathleen Smith Belcher was the revival director in this production originally directed by Bartlett Sher. The only real failures in the staging were that there were several gags that fell flat and once or twice you wondered if the physical joke wasn’t actually carried off correctly.
Lyric’s music director Enrique Mazzola conducted both “Carlos” and “Ory”. In the Verdi, he drew out the drama and fire and in the Rossini he brought lightness and attractive tempos. In both cases, the sound from the pit was attractive and stylish and always supported the singers.
The Lyric Opera Chorus was also important in both productions and the chorus was up to the challenges. There was a big, pounding sound in “Don Carlos” where the chorus also appeared in ways to highlight the political drama. In “Le Comte Ory” the chorus appeared effectively as a part of the fun and games.
These two “first time” operas for Lyric are both well worth your time. For both openings, there were many empty seats on the main floor. You may be able to score tickets even at the last minute.