Tue 24 Jan 2012
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.
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.
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.