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A less-cut operatic 'Don Carlos' in Houston

HOUSTON — One of the grandest of grand operas, Verdi's "Don Carlos" is rarely performed with every note of music the composer wrote for its 1867 premiere or for his many revisions over the next two decades.

Verdi added and cut scenes, tinkered with the ending, and at one point even authorized omitting the whole first act — an abridgment that used to be standard practice for opera companies.

Nowadays, we generally hear all five acts of this sprawling epic. But the Houston Grand Opera is going a bit further, offering the original French-language version and restoring several scenes that still are rarely included.

Seen on Sunday afternoon in a sumptuously sung and spare, powerful production, this expanded version enriches our understanding of an array of fascinating characters whose motivations can seem obscure.

Verdi based his opera on a play by Friedrich Schiller about political and romantic turmoil in 16th century Europe. Carlos, son of Spain's King Philippe II, is engaged to marry the French princess Elisabeth of Valois to seal a peace treaty between their countries. But at the last minute, his father claims her for himself — and the young man is set on a course of self-pity and political rebellion.

The Houston production opens with a chorus of peasants in the forest of Fontainebleau. Their pleas to Elisabeth to end their wartime suffering — and her generous response — help explain why she soon feels trapped into accepting marriage to Philippe, instead of the son she loves.

In Act 4, we hear an often-omitted duet between Elisabeth and the flirtatious Princess Eboli. The princess confesses she also loves Carlos and out of jealousy has goaded the king into thinking his wife is unfaithful. Elisabeth at first forgives her — until Eboli further admits she has slept with the king herself.

And in the next scene, there's a restored duet for Carlos and his father, which cements their hatred for one another and leads Philippe to authorize the Inquisition to dispose of his son. (In some versions, Carlos' fate is left unclear, but Houston, using the music of the original 1867 ending, has him murdered on stage.)

The slightly longer-than-usual performance that results from these additions (four hours, including two intermissions) puts extra demands on the singers, but the cast was equal to the challenge.

Soprano Tamara Wilson was a luminous Elisabeth, warm and sympathetic from her opening encounter with Carlos, and still able to float soft high notes with ease in Act 5. Eboli usually is sung by a mezzo, but soprano Christine Goerke reveled in the upper reaches of the role while managing the low notes just fine. She had the rhythmic incisiveness to make the Veil Song work, and poured out a torrent of sound for "O Don Fatal."

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich sang the title role with unflagging stamina and a heroic upper register, though his phrasing at times lacked elegance.

Andrea Silvestrelli's cavernous bass has a pronounced rasp that's an acquired taste, but he shaped his aria "Elle ne m'aime pas!" ("She never loved me") into the heartfelt lament of an agonized soul. In the great scene between Philippe and the Grand Inquisitor, the veteran bass Samuel Ramey — looking frail next to the towering Silvestrelli — displayed impressive power, along with a persistent wobble.

As Carlos' comrade-in-arms Rodrigue, baritone Scott Hendricks seemed overmatched in such company. His performance was animated, but he occasionally had to bluster his way through the vocal line.

The orchestra, conducted by Patrick Summers, played Verdi's glorious score beautifully.

The grim, modern-dress production, a remounting of one originally seen at the Welsh National Opera nearly a decade ago and again directed by John Caird, is filled with crosses, as befits a work in which the Catholic Church looms so large. There are giant, angled crosses to represent the trees in the forest; smaller ones to make up the logs in the peasants' fire — and even blood-red crosses for the chorus to carry in the auto-da-fe scene.