Van Ryzin: Austin Lyric Opera tackles Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo’

Austin Lyric Opera boasts an all-Italian roster this season: Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” Puccini’s “Tosca” and Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love.”

This is the first time ALO has presented “Don Carlo.”

A towering opera by any definition, Verdi’s “Don Carlo” is based on a Friedrich Schiller play, which in turn was loosely based on historical events in 16th century Spain.

The opera’s complicated plot weaves together myriad personal, political and theological conflicts — tackling just about every moral and political dilemma.

In an attempt to forge peace with France, King Philip II of Spain decides to marry off his son, Don Carlo, to Elisabeth, the daughter of the King of France. But then Philip changes his mind and instead decides to marry Elisabeth himself. But Elisabeth and Don Carlo have already secretly fallen in love, and that sets off both on self-destructive trajectories fueled by disappointment, complicated by court intrigue and shadowed by the ruthless Inquisition.

Over the years, several iterations of the opera emerged. After Verdi premiered “Don Carlo” in Paris in 1867, the composer continued to tweak it. First it was translated into Italian, and then Verdi was persuaded to trim it down from five acts to four.

ALO is presenting the four-act Italian-language version known as the 1884 Milan iteration. (The ALO production runs roughly 3 1/2 hours.)

The sets and costumes come from a co-production by Opera Hong Kong, Vancouver Opera and the Florentine Opera that was first performed in 2008 by Hawaii Opera Theatre.

Tenor James Valenti, who plays the opera’s title role, says that his character is a challenge.

“It’s a very politically charged plot,” Valenti says during a break from recent rehearsal. “But (Don Carlo) is unlucky. He wants to be strong, he wants to do the right thing, but he’s a victim of political circumstance, and he’s very tormented by that. He’s not a hero in the conventional sense.”

Valenti sang the role of Don Carlo (in the French version of the opera) at the Caramoor Festival in July to critical acclaim.

If Austin is new for the 36-year-old New Jersey native, the Lone Star State is not. He’s sung several times for the Dallas Opera, including the role of Alfredo in that company’s 2012 “La Traviata.”

And he also has a few personal connections with Austin: Both Valenti and ALO general director Joseph Specter (a baritone) studied at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts.

“Joe’s wife, Kate, is a fantastic cook, and we used to all crowd into their tiny little apartment for terrific dinners,” Valenti recalls.

Now based in Palm Beach, Fla. (“I grew up in the Northeast but I really, really love warm weather,” he explains), Valenti was raised in a large, music-oriented Italian family.

Though he’s the first in the family to carve out a professional career, as a youngster his father sang in a doo-wop group in 1960s Brooklyn, and Valenti had an uncle who was quite the non-professional baritone.

“I was always surrounded by music, even though I was involved in a lot of sports in high school,” Valenti says. “I found opera through a little bit of luck, but it also feels like it was inevitable that I find it. And as soon as I discovered the world of opera, I was just hooked — it’s a combination of all the art forms put together in this fabulous way.”

An athletically trim 6-foot-5-inches tall, Valenti says sometimes strangers are surprised to learn he’s an opera singer.

“It’s part of my responsibility as this younger generation of opera singer to break down some of the preconceived notions of what opera is,” he says. “People will say, ‘Aren’t you too thin to be an opera singer?’ But we’re professional vocal athletes, and we all take care of ourselves or we don’t get to sing.”

Valenti’s résumé includes performances at the some of the best opera houses: La Scala, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Opera National de Paris and Sydney Opera House. And before coming to Austin, Valenti sang the role of Pinkerton in “Madame Butterfly” at Chicago Lyric Opera, a role he’ll perform again next spring at the Metropolitan Opera.

But work with a smaller company like ALO has its rewards, and it’s not just the terrific Torchy’s tacos Valenti mentions that he just had for lunch.

“I have more fun working in a place like Austin because it’s just more laid-back, it’s a more relaxed creative atmosphere,” he says. “And that gives you a chance to try new things.”

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