What does all this have to do with opera? I’ll tell you. A week ago I saw Cosi Fan Tutte on HD from the Royal Opera House in London. I had no complaint with the singing, the acting, the lighting, the costumes, the orchestra, the . . . I enjoyed the performance mildly, but with all the ingredients done so well I was disappointed in the final result.
Don Carlo was quite the opposite. The music and singing were excellent throughout, but there were parts of the staging that were less than perfect and the weakness of a couple of the major characters at conveying their emotions through facial expression was mercilessly exposed by the frequent close-ups. Despite these reservations, the overall effect of the opera was so powerful that even as I left the theater I was hard-pressed to remember any of those petty details, and I’m not going to even try now. If you want to find minor flaws in a masterpiece, you’ll have to attend the Encore performance on January 5. I just want to talk about how good it was.
First of all, the opera is complex. There are six featured roles, and five of the six characters must deal with major conflicts in their personalities. Before the opera begins, Don Carlo (Roberto Alagna), son of Philip II (Ferruccio Furlanetto) King of Spain was betrothed sight unseen to Elisabeth de Valois (Marina Poplavskaya), daughter of the King of France. They meet in Act I and it’s mutual love-at-first-sight – and they are already betrothed! What could be better?
However, they barely have time for one beautiful duet before news arrives that a peace treaty has been signed between France and Spain and one of its provisions called for the King of France to give his daughter Elisabeth to Philip. Remember, this is all back in 1560 when an unmarried woman had no legal existence of her own but was the property of her father; as part of the marriage contract ownership of this particular piece of property was transferred to the husband. Via his herald, Philip says, “I only want her if she comes willingly.” – As if she could dare to say NO. Anyhow, the people are all sick of this interminable war and urge her to accept, so she looks miserable and weakly murmurs, “Si.”
In Act II we meet Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa (Simon Keenlyside) whose conflicts are of a different sort. He is extremely sympathetic to the plight of the people of Flanders who are suffering under the tyrannical rule of King Philip, and he is intensely loyal to his friend, Carlo. No conflict there, but Rodrigo is also a true patriot of Spain and is loyal to King Philip. He doesn’t see these goals as conflicting, since he believes that Spain would be better served by a happy Flanders than by one ruled solely by terror. Philip, of course, does not agree. Anyhow, Rodrigo meets Carlo to enlist his support in trying to change Philip’s mind, but the conversation soon turns to Carlo’s love for his about-to-be step-mother. Scene 1 ends with one of my favorite pieces in all opera – the duet Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor in which they swear eternal friendship.
Scene 2 begins with Princess Eboli (Anna Smirnova) singing Nel giardin del bello, the story of a veiled lady who captivates a king; when he removes her veil he finds his own queen. Nothing to do with the main plot, but it’s a nice break in the emotional tension – sort of like the porter’s speech in Macbeth.
The tension soon returns when Carlo meets with Elisabeth to ask her to persuade Philip to send him to Flanders. E agrees, but instead of leaving, C reaffirms his love, E is obviously conflicted but remains true to her principles and sends C packing. As he rushes off, my thoughts were: “You cad. Can’t you see that the lady loves you but has made the only honorable choice and forsworn her own happiness for the welfare of her people. If you truly loved her, you would honor her for that choice and stay away instead of adding to her misery. You don’t love her; you love yourself and want to possess her regardless of the cost. Bah!” But then, he’s a tenor, so what can one expect?
Philip enters, finds Elisabeth alone, and flies into a rage. “The queen should never be left alone. Who should have been with her?” (Translation: “She belongs to me and I don’t trust her an inch. Which one of you ladies was her jailer today?”) “Me,” says the Countess of Aremberg (Anne Dyas). “Out!” says Philip. “You’re exiled for life. Now all of you, git. I’ve got business with Posa” (i.e. Rodrigo) Another nice guy, huh?
Philip wants to reward Rodrigo for his faithful service. “Nothing for me, thanks,” says Rodrigo, “But please lighten up on the people of Flanders.” “You dare to criticize the King’s policies? Anyone else and I’d have his head for that. I’ll forgive you, but Beware The Grand Inquisitor. (This last to suitably ominous music by Verdi). Anyhow, I don’t trust my wife or my son and I want you to keep an eye on them.” “Okay,” says Rodrigo, figuring maybe this can give him another chance to plead for Flanders.
Welcome Intermission. Act III. Queen’s garden. Veiled woman. Carlo appears in response to an unsigned note. He no sooner glimpses the woman than he starts singing variations on, “I love you,” assuming in self-centered stupidity that the queen is author of note and veiled woman. Wrong on both counts. It’s Princess Eboli who has fallen hook, line, and sinker for Carlo and interprets his words as reciprocation. They rush towards each other. She tears off her veil. “Whoa, Nellie. You ‘re not. . . Oops.” Carlo does an abrupt about face. Eboli is humiliated by her self-deception but blames it all on Carlo. “Think you’re so high and mighty do you? I’m not good enough for you, eh? And her, the pious hussy. I’ve got some power. I’ll show you both. Just wait and see.”
Ready for a break in the tension? We have a doozy. A nice little auto da fé, a public celebration with a few heretics in a bonfire instead of fireworks. All sorts of fun things happen. Carlo brings a few Flemish delegates to plead mercy for their country. Philip says, “You’re all traitors and infidels. Guards, arrest them.” Carlo says, “No way,” and draws his sword. Philip: “Guards, arrest this madman.” No response. “Posa, disarm him.” Rodrigo says to Carlo, “You stupid jerk. Give me your sword.” Carlo realizes he’s in way over his head and does – and gets arrested. Time to light the bonfire. Curtain.
Of all the characters with conflicts, Philip is the most complex. He’s also the only introvert among the bunch. He worries about his conflicts. Here he is, King of the most powerful country in Europe with a young wife who doesn’t love him and a son he doesn’t begin to understand. He’s got a tiger by the tail in Flanders and the only technique he knows – repression and more repression – doesn’t seem to be working. And he’s growing old. “Only in the grave will I find peace.”
Totally different in character is the Grand Inquisitor (Eric Halfvarson). He may be ninety years old and blind, but no ambiguity about him. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong. God is right. If you’re not for God, you’re a traitor and an infidel and should be burned at the stake. And I speak for God.
In Act IV these two characters have a cozy interview. Philip: “Carlo is a traitor. If I have him killed, will God forgive me for murdering my own son?” Grand Inquisitor: “No problem. After all, that’s how God treated Jesus. By the way, I have my doubts about your friend Posa. Better let me have him up before the Tribunal.” P: “We’ll see.” GI (exiting): “Don’t wait too long. I’ve denounced kings in my day.” P (to empty air): “Why must the throne always yield to the altar?”
Enter Elisabeth: “Justice! I demand justice! Someone has stolen my jewel case where I keep my most precious possessions.” Philip (producing jewel case): “Could this be it? And why is this picture of my son among your ‘most precious possessions’? You’re having an affaire with him.” E: “Am not. True, I was betrothed to him before you claimed me, but I’ve been a virtuous and faithful wife.” P: “Whore! Adulteress!” E: “No!” (faints). P (shouting): “Help. Ladies; Posa; anyone. The Queen has collapsed. Help!”
Rodrigo and Eboli come a-running, see the open jewel case and picture with Elizabeth collapsed in Philip’s arms, and immediately grasp the situation. Rodrigo: “Amazing. A king who rules half the world can’t rule his own emotions.” Eboli: “Oh migawd! What have I done? I stole the queen’s case and gave it to the king. I love my queen, and look what I’ve done to her. I’m a bad girl.” Elisabeth comes to and agrees with Eboli’s self-assessment: “I never want to see you again. Take your choice: convent or exile.”
Scene change to Carlo in prison. Rodrigo shows up: “Listen. I don’t have much time. I’ve convinced them that I’m guilty of treason and you’re innocent. They’ll get me any minute now, but you‘ll be set free. So it’s up to you to save Flanders and hence Spain.” Sure enough, they get him. Philip shows up, says “Posa was the traitor, not you. You ‘re free. Here’s your sword back. Sorry about all that.” Carlo will have none of it: “Go to Hell. You killed my best friend.” He draws his sword. The guards draw theirs. It’s four against one, and Carlo is not Cyrano. They get him. The ghost of Emperor Charles V appears and says, “It is our lot to suffer on earth. Only in Heaven will it cease.” Final curtain.
That’s the story. And telling it doesn’t begin to do justice to the opera. You have to see it, hear it, lose yourself in it. Truly, in this production of Don Carlo, the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. I know where I’ll be at 6:30 pm local time on Wednesday, January 5, 2011. I invite you to check out your local theater and do the same. By the way, if you’d like to see and hear a couple of previews, go to http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/broadcast/template.aspx?id=13690 and check out the 2-minute videos.
The Opera Nut
Photos: Except where otherwise specified photos are by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera