Tracing an arc 40,000 feet overhead: Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
"All the others in this opera have their moment to shine, to show their souls," Fabiano says. "People ask, 'But what about Carlo? When does he get to show his soul?' I say, 'All night.' It's in the arc he traces, 40,000 feet above the ground. Stay committed to that." A licensed pilot, Fabiano has earned the right to his metaphor, which speaks glowingly to his conscience as an artist. The crux, of course, is execution.
A title role in a Verdi opera is always a feather in a singer's cap, but at a guess, most tenors regard this one more as a chore than as a prize. For more than a half-century, they could for the most part ignore it. Since 1950, as Don Carlo has edged into the stable of warhorses, a who's who of greats have taken up the gauntlet, from Jussi Björling to Jonas Kaufmann by way of Jon Vickers, Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, Roberto Alagna, and (uniquely persuasive in the part) Rolando Villazón—and let's not forget, in separate seasons, The Three Tenors.
A previous Verdi assignment that ranks with Fabiano's favorites is Rodolfo, in Luisa Miller. "He's jealous, as Don Carlo is not, but like Don Carlo, he elicits great pathos." No doubt it also helps that Rodolfo has a magnificent scena—"Oh! Fede negar potessi... Quando le sere al placido"—that fixes his sensibility in an audience's mind. Plus: "Rodolfo isn't a cold person, as is the Duke in Rigoletto, for instance," Fabiano adds. "Characters that are corrupt and have no soul are less interesting to me."
But is the Duke only a cold, soulless character? Doesn't his aria "Parmi veder le lagrime" express stirrings of the heart that transcend his selfish sex addiction? "That aria can be moving," Fabiano concedes, "if it's set up right, if when I see Gilda in the previous act, I feel something real for her. Jonathan Miller sees the action that way. Not too many directors do."
There's more for Fabiano to mine in Des Grieux, in Massenet's Manon. "I know the need to turn to God," he says, "the need to reflect on love. And I know what it is to break when the person you love leaves you and then comes back. I can relate to that." But the role that touches him most deeply is Donizetti's Edgardo, in Lucia di Lammermoor.
"Edgardo is me. He's passionately, absolutely in love. He's subject to jealousy and rage. I guess that's the Taurus in me. When the one he loves has betrayed or been taken from him, he melts with grief. I know what it is to feel loss, solitude, the weight of those things. I'm willing to fight for my country and for a cause. I'm confident I'll return. The difference between us is that I'd never yield to suicide, which is costly not just for the person who dies but also for everyone around that person. I love singing Edgardo, because I'm able to wear my heart on my sleeve for all to see and sing music that gets me in my bones."
Looking ahead, Fabiano has his sights on Otello, but not on Radamès. "Radamès doesn't interest me," he says. "His development is weak. The part is a series of moments. In a concert, it's fine to deliver tunes just for the sake of delivering tunes. But in a theatrical context, no."
The melancholy Spaniard
As only the more ambitious companies do, San Francisco gave Don Carlo in five acts, complete with the original first act, set in the forest of Fontainebleau. To seal a peace between their countries, the French princess Elisabeth de Valois has been promised to Don Carlo, heir to the forbidding Philip II of Spain. Incognito and at risk of his father's displeasure, Carlo goes to France, falls under her spell, wins her heart, and to her joy reveals who he is. Just then a cannon sounds to herald the news that Philip has decided to take her hand himself.
In any form, Don Carlo (originally Don Carlos, and sung in French, but let's not open that can of worms) is a long opera. In narrative terms, Fontainebleau is dispensable. Bowing to necessity, Verdi approved the standard four-act recension, which picks up after the royal wedding and unfolds entirely in Spain.
"Verdi was mixed about the four-act version," Fabiano says. "His comment was, 'I miss seeing Carlo in bliss.'" Right. Once Carlo loses Elisabeth, his surrender to grievance and self-pity is unconditional, punctuated by spikes of manic rapture. The bipolar spectrum—operatic in the fullest sense—suits Fabiano's imperious temperament, supercharged phrasing, and thrilling timbre to a T. Still, if we have witnessed Carlo's capacity for joy with our own eyes and ears, the blade of his sorrows cuts more sharply.
Designed by Zack Brown and directed by Emilio Sagi, the reactionary San Francisco production opened with a poetic masterstroke that eclipsed all that followed. Before a dollhouse Château de Fontainebleau that hovered in mid air; Carlo floated, too, gazing up into the night sky.
"I lie there thinking of Rodrigo, thinking we'll die together, in the tomb or on the battlefield," Fabiano said, recalling the scene.
Thinking of Rodrigo? Really? When the first words from Carlo's lips evoke the wintry forest, transformed by Elisabeth's smile into something lovelier than a torch-lit garden in full bloom? When Rodrigo will neither be seen nor even spoken of until the next act?
True love: Rodrigo (Mariusz Kwiecien) dies in the arms of Don Carlo (Michael Fabiano). ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
That's a power of subtext. Surely what's crucial here is the sense of serenity, of heart's ease. According to my old friend and colleague Brian Kellow, reporting on a later performance, Fabiano sang "with both power and great delicacy" from the very top of the show. What came across the footlights in the introductory romanza when I was there was the utilitarian mezzo forte of a technician managing his instrument.
"There's a trap there for the singer," Fabiano admits. "Starting out this way, you're like a multiengine plane taking off on a short runway meant for a single-engine Cessna. It's doable but takes finesse at the controls. You know how piano concertos often begin with quick, big chords? That's to warm up the pianist's fingers and to do it fast. Voices take more time. Right out of the box, dolcezza in a high-lying tessitura is tough to pull off. It's challenging to be ready, mentally and vocally, knowing what is to come later in the score."
So might he find the four-act Don Carlo a more natural fit, with its scalding opening recitative and appreciably less sensitive rewrite of the aria?
"I equivocate over the version I like," he says. "For four years, I've kept the score on my night table. I've vacillated in my view of the character. Is Carlo a hero who is cut down, like Manrico, in Il Trovatore? Or is he an anti-hero, always on the brink of self-destruction? Right now, I think he's something between a hero and an antihero. After all, he doesn't kill himself. He doesn't throw himself off a bridge. In our version, he's dragged away to execution. But that's just as he's coming to the point that he can finally thrive abroad on his own. Other directors may show me something else. This production of the opera is my first. For now, there are no others in my calendar. And when I do it again, it will be interesting to take a stab at it in four acts as an exercise in contrasts."
In San Francisco the night I heard him, once the romanza was out of the way, Fabiano leaned in to make Carlo his own. To the manifest amusement of his Elisabeth, Ana María Martínez, he approached her not merely with deference but also with a sly whimsy that verged on the bizarre (an effect reinforced by his mobile eyebrows, Clark Kent jaw, and monastic clean-shaven skull). And in the Spanish acts, he seemed unmoored, beyond the pull of gravity, as if, in an existential sense, he might float into some other dimension at any time.
"Unmoored," Fabiano reflected. "Yes. That's how I feel."
As well a person might, tiptoeing through the minefield of Philip's court, bearing, like a suicide vest, the secret of his forbidden love. Rodrigo, in whom he confides, urges him to bury his heartache in the perilous cause of Flemish independence. It is here, in what many before now have characterized as a love duet, that the soul mates sing of dying together as they will have lived together. Without overtly eroticizing the moment, Fabiano and his Rodrigo, Mariusz Kwiecien, invested their pledge with the solemnity of a marriage vow.
From here on, Carlo bounces from fiasco to fiasco. An unchaperoned audience with Elisabeth escalates into full-fledged Greek tragedy. Worse, Philip appoints Rodrigo his favorite, expressly charged with spying on his wife and son. Worse and worse, the anonymous beauty who has instigated a rendezvous in the palace garden (shades of Fontainebleau!) is not, as he madly imagines, the queen but that snake in the grass, Princess Eboli, Philip's mistress, who divines his secret and vows to destroy him. Worst of all, against the sinister pomp and circumstance of death by fire for the Inquisition's latest crop of heretics, Carlo confronts Philip, makes crazy demands, draws his sword, is disarmed—oh, God!—by Rodrigo, and is marched off to prison.
At the peak of his misfortunes, Fabiano shone brightest, not least because the moment plays to his technical strengths. "I don't like having to sing high, high, high and then knock out a B-flat," he says. "In the auto-da-fé, I get to sing in the midrange and then launch to a B. I love that." Theatrically, too, Fabiano was palpably in the moment. "The first times I did the auto-da-fé scene, challenging Philip, I whipped myself into hysteria. Yesterday, instead of collapsing against the wall, I actually started to cry. I'm not that Method, but somehow, Mariusz and I just connected. We were in the same moment, feeling very connected." The meek, plaintive note Fabiano's Carlo struck as he surrendered his weapon broke the heart.
On the far side of this, the opera's Continental Divide, two epic acts remain, for all but the last ten minutes of which, though by no means out of mind, Carlo languishes in prison, out of sight or effectively so. In his absence, the others make significant advances along the great arcs they, too, have been tracing 40,000 feet overhead. More than that, each zooms in for the defining close-up that Carlo is denied. Philip broods over his loveless marriage, then barters lives and deaths with the Grand Inquisitor, mouthpiece for the wrath of God. Eboli explodes in fireworks of self-recrimination. Stopped by a bullet, Rodrigo breathes his melodious last. Elisabeth contemplates the futility of human action and longs for death... these set pieces constitute the most penetrating gallery of Old Master portraits Verdi ever assembled.
Fabiano takes Madrid as Christian in Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac at the Teatro Real.
Sealed in their burial chamber, the lovers of Aida, which was Verdi's next opera, waft themselves skyward on wings of a lullaby. Evidently, Verdi meant to lend Carlo and Elisabeth's farewell duet a like frisson of the transcendental. Unlike the African pair, whose text is ethereal but terse in the extreme, the European royals draw up an elaborate code of conduct with effect beyond the grave. On earth, they will channel the memory of their romance into moral heroics in honor of Rodrigo. In heaven, their reward will be the chaste love everlasting they pledged in Fontainebleau. The great axe falls, but not before Carlo has quietly taken leave of Elisabeth as his mother and she of him as her son—roles the very mention of which once sent him into a tailspin.
The glory moment of the duet is almost invariably Elisabeth's brief celebration of the sacred, heroic flame newly ablaze in Carlo's soul. As one who from the first has consistently served and sacrificed, she knows whereof she speaks. But how often does a Carlo persuade us that he deserves her tribute? As put forth by most tenors, his declarations, both before and after Elisabeth's anthem, seem cut from the same forlorn cloth of talk but no action of which we have seen so much since Fontainebleau. Like Hamlet, whose spirit infects the Schiller play that was Verdi's source, Carlo makes a habit of disappointing the hopes the world lavishes on him, and sooner or later, we lose faith. At the edge of the cliff, Fabiano touched a chord of grave expectancy and acceptance no longer to be written off. Would Carlo carry out his plan? No. The world would crush him—but not because he did not have the heart to act. Here was the stuff of tragedy: the reward, I have to think, for tracing the arc all the way through.
"Don Carlo is deeply idealistic," Fabiano says. "He's not me, the way Edgardo is, but he means a lot to me. He's enraged, and wildly passionate for multiple people. I can relate to that. I know what it's like for love to be impossible because of conflicting constraints. Carlo is a character, in the final analysis, resolved to live and die by the sword, in defense of state and honor. That rings very true to me."
 Nor do I make any apology for preferring what seem to my ear the most convenient Italian, French, and English forms of names that are French and Spanish.
 "I love... with a forbidden love... Elisabeth!" The expressive punctuation is Fabiano's.