Don Carlo


Carlo

Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2012 | Asher Fisch, Jürgen Rose, René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann, Boaz Daniel, Eric Halfvarson, Steven Humes, Anja Harteros, Anna Smirnova, Laura Tatulescu, Francesco Petrozzi, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Tim Kuypers, Goran Juric, Levente Molnár, Christian Rieger, Christoph Stephinger, Rüdiger Trebes | Live Internet Streaming - 22 January 2012

It’s become popular of late, even more so with the recent 150th anniversary of the reunification of Italy, to view Verdi’s operas less in the historical period of their setting than in the time and the politics of their composition. Dealing with power, religion, the rule of fear and the merciless suppression of revolutionary elements that threaten the prevailing authorities, Don Carlos in particular fits in very well with the complexity of the political situation during the Risorgimento, but then it was undoubtedly meant to. If this production of Verdi’s magnificent 1867 Five-Act Grand Opera for the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich doesn’t make overt reference to the Italian political situation of the time, it at least fully draws out those elements that Verdi, a prominent figure in the Risorgimento, raises in relation to the exercise of power.

At the time of the opera’s composition in 1866, the unification of Italy was still underway but unresolved with regard to the position of the Papal State in the new nation, and it wouldn’t be until 1871 that Rome finally became part of the new Italy and its capital. The writing of the opera coincides also with the Papal Syllabus of Errors 1864 that resolutely set the Catholic church in opposition to those revolutionary ideals of freedom of speech and religious tolerance, and there is consequently a strong anticlerical stance in Don Carlo that also reflects Verdi’s complex relationship with the Church. The Bayerische Staatsoper production, broadcast live on the internet on the 22nd January 2012, uses the more commonly performed Italian version of the opera that was originally written in French, and judging from the lack of prelude and extended prison scene, it would appear to be the original rather than the revised version of the opera. The production focuses less on the romantic element of the story at the centre of the opera between Don Carlos and Elisabeth – their unexpected love for each other at an arranged marriage of political convenience cruelly dashed by the decision of Carlo’s father Philip II to marry Elisabeth himself – and instead places emphasis on the unjust wielding of power by an old conservative establishment and the denial of liberty that this represents.

Carlo
The staging, if it is rather stark and dimly lit throughout, reflects Carlo’s deep despair at the turn of events which seems to be less to do with romantic inclinations here than a deeper personal crisis at being rendered powerless to control his own destiny by higher powers, one that he attempts to restore through his subsequent throwing himself into the affairs of the Flemish struggle. Stark it may be, but two elements dominate the set throughout and have an important influence over the whole tone of the production. The first is a huge crucifix that hangs over the setting of all five acts, whether it’s the Forest of Fontainbleau, the Cloister at San Yuste, the bedroom/study of the King or a prison cell, its presence dark and oppressive (like much of the score) rather than comforting, and the second is the image of the Friar/the ghost of Philip’s father, who is not only a brooding ambiguous figure in the opera, but a hooded image of him holding a skull also materialises in the background, usually at the beginning and end of acts, again with religious significance for death and the afterlife.

There is only one point in the opera where neither of these images are present, and that is during the auto-da-fé scene at the end of Act III, but the only brightness there is here is cast by the flames of burning heretics condemned by the Grand Inquisitor, and a garish procession of tableaux vivants depicting Catholic iconography in all its glorious bloody violence. It’s the one scene in the opera that strives to make a big impression and, coming as it does during Verdi’s famous March and Chorus at the Grand Finale of Act III, it’s meant to be a powerful sequence, one where Don Carlo finally rebels and is moved to political activism against the cruelty of the ruling powers. Everything about the production, though it may not be pretty to look at, consequently is completely in service to Verdi’s themes and works to put the emphasis in all the right places. Even the division of the opera with the two hours of first three acts ambitiously played without an interval (the basic setting allowing for this), allows the division between the two halves of the opera to be all the more strikingly contrasted.

Carlo

This, of course, is a vital aspect of the whole opera, the divisions not just being political, but between love and duty, between the personal and the public faces presented by each of the figures, and by the changing nature of their relationships to one another. This aspect was magnificently drawn out in last season’s production of Don Carlo at the Met, particularly in the fine acting of the principals, but while there is less nuance in the acting in this production, the singing is of a sufficiently high standard to convey everything that is implicit in the libretto and the score. Most impressive is Rene Papé, whose first words in the aria ‘Ella giammai m’amo! (“She never loved me!”), coming as they do directly after the interval, typify that divide in the opera and the characters, the merciless authority that Philip yielded in the first half, now seen in private as a man who may wear a crown and can bend others to his will, but would give it all up to be able to understand and sway the human heart. Pape’s terrific performance makes Philip’s dilemma real – that there is a higher power, albeit in the earthly guise of the Church, that even he must obey – his delivery of the aria revealing the humanity beneath the hard surface that is buckling under the demands of duty in such a way that one can’t help but sympathise with him.

The same conflicts, and the dark fatalism that underlies it, are likewise brilliantly expressed in the main arias of each of the figures, in Eboli’s Act IV ‘O don fatale’, wonderfully delivered by Anna Smirnova; in Elisabeth’s ‘Tu che le vanità conoscesti del mondo’ (“You who knew the vanities of the world, and enjoy in the tomb profound repose”), another strong performance from Anja Harteros, where she concludes that “the heart has one desire: the peace of the grave!”; and in the figures who indeed take that idealism to the grave with them – Rodrigo and Carlo, in the belief that they will find a better place for them in the afterlife. Jonas Kaufmann may seem to make less of an impression here than he usually does, but Carlo indeed is not a leading role that takes centre stage. He’s the catalyst by which we define the divisions and the conflicts within each of the characters, an idealist who himself is defined by and at the mercy of those forces that are greater than himself, whichever direction he turns.

Kaufmann doesn’t seek to make Carlo any more romantic or heroic than he is, remaining within the defined limits of the character, but within that – as written and scored by Verdi – there is a great deal of development that can be seen to reach a peak at the opera’s finale. Here Kaufmann’s powerful delivery and the considered performance of the role shows the true quality of his voice and his ability to suit the demands of a thoughtful and well-performed production of Don Carlo that strikes a perfect balance in every respect to Verdi’s arrangements and their intentions.

Don CarloGiuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Nicholas Hytner, Marina Poplavskaya, Anna Smirovna, Roberto Alagna, Simon Keenlyside, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Eric Halfvarson. | The Met: Live in HD - December 11, 2010

Verdi’s Don Carlo is a great example of how opera has the power not only to transform and heighten reality, but also to evoke and elevate the nature of human emotions and aspirations in a manner that no other artform can match. It’s not that the original historical circumstances of the real-life Don Carlos need a semi-fictionalised dramatisation, being rather interesting in their own right. Elisabeth de Valois was indeed betrothed to the Spanish prince Don Carlos but eventually married to his father King Philip II, a union between the French and Spanish royalty that would lead to the peace treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. Where real-life is stranger than fiction is the fact that Elisabeth was actually 13 years old when she married the 32 year-old King, while Don Carlos, aged 14, was a lame, epileptic hunchback with a stutter.

Some creative licence is required then upon the part of the composer and the librettists (Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle), and some suspension of belief is required on the part of the audience to the love-at-first-sight encounter between Carlo and Elisabeth in the forests of Fontainebleau at the beginning of the opera, but it is all towards a greater good and a deeper emotional truth. Of course, it’s not just opera that plays fast and loose with historical accuracy for the sake of drama and art – one need look no further than Shakespeare, or indeed Friedrich Schiller, whose original play is adapted in Verdi’s version of the story of Don Carlo. The encounter between the two young people and the love that briefly inflames them is only the starting point for the great complexity of emotions and conflict that exists between no less than six principal characters, each of them with distinct ambitions and personalities, each of them with different facets to those personalities depending on the person they are dealing with. It is here that opera goes to places that other art forms can’t reach.

It is not common for there to be so many principal characters is an opera and Don Carlo is consequently Verdi’s most complex and sometimes difficult opera – at three and a half-hours long, it is not quite as accessible in its subject, themes or its musicality for example, as the more popular Verdi operas like La Traviata or Aida. Simply listening to Don Carlo on CD isn’t enough to reveal its layers of complexity, and it’s certainly an opera I’ve struggled with in the past for those reasons. Seeing it performed live on stage, undergoing particular interpretations in performance and staging, will bring out the dramatic power of the opera better, revealing how well the dark tones of the music work with the deep brooding performances, but, personally speaking, The Metropolitan Opera’s latest production (a co-production with the ROH, Covent Garden and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet), broadcast live on December 11, as part of The Met Live in HD’s 2010-11 season to cinema theatres worldwide, was a complete revelation of the opera’s qualities.

What can seem like inconsistencies in the behaviour of the characters and in the performances of the singers, is revealed in this powerful but nuanced production to reflect the multifaceted nature of the characters, their changing moods and temperaments, and the duality of their inner conflicts between duty and their own personal desires. And, my goodness, related to the political turmoil in Europe in the 16th century, taking place between major historical figures and royalty with their duty towards their citizens, and with conflicting political, religious and personal aspirations and ambitions, those are drives on another scale entirely. The sweep that uplifts Don Carlo in his love for Elisabeth at the start of the opera (a relationship that reaches Greek mythological proportions when she becomes his “mother”), only plunges him deeper into despair and to almost dying at the loss of that love in her marriage to his father.Don Carlo

That same dynamic can be seen in each of the character’s own personal struggles, which is impressive enough on this kind of scale, and in so many principal characters, but it is infinitely more complicated when there is interaction between them. A good performance of the opera, mainly in the singing, can bring out subtle nuances of the different levels that the characters are working on, but it also requires strong acting, and that was assuredly in evidence here, particularly on the part of Marina Poplavskaya as Elisabeth, and the most historically complex character of King Philip, marvellously interpreted by Ferruccio Furlanetto. If there were any weaknesses in Poplavskaya’s singing, they were minor and to be expected for a young singer making a name for herself, in a technically difficult role. This was however more than made up for in an impassioned and superbly acted performance that relied heavily on glances and body language as much as in what was said, particularly when the two often contradict one another. Such subtlety can only be conveyed fully when the music is there to support it, and Verdi’s scoring is magnificent in this respect, contributing just as significantly to the definitions of the characters, and that was equally effectively achieved in the orchestration under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Even so, no matter how good the production and the performances, even watching this live in the theatre, you are not going to pick all these qualities up from a seat at the back of the stalls, and it’s here that Opera Live in HD comes into its own, picking up little details in the gestures and expressions of the singers in close-up, emphasising the framing and positioning of the characters in relation to one another on the stage. Nicholas Hytner’s staging is perhaps not as impressive as other Met productions this season, but it succeeds nonetheless in bringing the elements effectively together. One’s appreciation of the efforts put into the production are deepened by the interviews with the cast in the intervals, literally, just as they come off the stage, and even by the behind-the-curtains looks at the stage-hands getting the huge sets into place for the next act. From an eye-catching and ear-splitting opening with Robert Lepage’s Das Rheingold for a new Wagner Ring cycle production, the standard was set a very high level for the Met’s new season of Live in HD broadcasts, and subsequent productions have continued to impress right up to the invigorating and buoyant Don Pasquale last month, but Don Carlo may well top them all.