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SF Opera hits royal flush with ‘Don Carlo’

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René Pape, left, and Michael Fabiano are excellent in San Francisco Opera’s revival of “Don Carlo.” (Courtesy Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

It’s been 13 years since San Francisco Opera has staged “Don Carlo,” one of Verdi’s most mature operas. Yet the talented cast in this summer’s sumptuous revival of director Emilio Sagi’s production — boasting the vocal heft and staying power the four-and-a-half hour work requires — makes the dry spell well worth the wait.

In Sunday’s opening at the War Memorial Opera House, tenor Michael Fabiano made a strong debut in the title role, an impetuous prince in love with Elizabeth of Valois, a princess from France who becomes betrothed to Don Carlo’s father, King Philip ll of Spain. Fabiano’s sweet, supple voice was even throughout his range, and he displayed palpable chemistry with Elizabeth, as well as with his friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa.

Soprano Ana Maria-Martinez made a fine impression as Elizabeth, a woman torn between her love for Don Carlo and her duty to the dynastic union arranged with Philip to help end a war between France and Spain. Maria-Martinez’s clear voice had willowy phrasing as well as big notes; she was particularly moving in her beautiful Act 5 aria, “Tu che le vanita conoscesti del mondo.”

Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien was outstanding as Rodrigo both vocally (his big, buttery voice filled the house with smooth phrasing and a lustrous timbre) and dramatically. Whether acting as an advocate for Flemish rights, or as a loyal servant of the king who makes Don Carlo yield his sword when the prince dares question his father’s authority, he was compelling. That gripping Act 3 scene was especially effective against the production’s stark yet majestic set of black marble, gilded iron gates and crimson drapes.

The great bass René Pape was a regally stirring Philip, showing poise ruling almighty Spain, but also fretting over his marriage to Elizabeth, knowing full well that her heart belongs to his son. Pape’s stentorian voice resonated throughout, especially in the Act 4 aria “Ella giammai m’amo,” in which he is as much a man with feelings as Europe’s most powerful monarch.

Mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva was convincing as Princess Eboli, the duplicitous courtier who loves Don Carlo, but who also became the king’s mistress while falsely accusing the queen of infidelity. She showed a range of emotion, had a lovely, dark coloratura voice, and smartly dispatched her Act 4 aria “O don fatale.”

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli as the Grand Inquisitor had foreboding, earthy tones that loomed over the stage, particularly in the church-state face-off with the king in Act 4. Tenor Pene Pati as Count Lerma, Nian Wang as Tebaldo and bass-baritone Matthew Stump as a monk all gave solid supporting performances.

Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus expertly burnished the royal proceedings, and conductor Nicola Luisotti, who announced last month that he will be stepping down as music director at the end of the 2017-18 season, led the orchestra in a glowing, well-paced performance.

Don Carlo
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. June 15, June 18, June 21, June 24 and June 29
Tickets: $26 to $395
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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