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Zurich, Opernhaus Zürich, August 31 - February
Los Angeles Opera, September 10 -
Don Carlo CDs:
Solti, Bergonzi, Tebaldi
Muti, Freni, Carreras, Cappuccilli
Giulini, Domingo, Caballe, Verrett
Stein, Corelli, Janowitz, Verrett
Schiller: Don Carlos and Mary Stuart
Verdi With a Vengeance : An Energetic Guide to the Life and
Complete Works of the King of Opera
Don Carlo was inspired by Frederic
Schillers play speculating on the relationship between Philip II of Spain and
his wayward son Carlo. Carlo was relatively unimportant, historically speaking. Despite
being part of what was then the most powerful regency in Europe at a crucial point in its
reign, Don Carlo never succeeded to the throne. He was arrested by his father in 1568 and
died shortly afterwards. Though the King would later be accused of his murder by enemies
of the crown and the boy definitely seemed to have sympathies with Flemish rebels, the
entire saga of his life is little more than a footnote to actual history.
Schiller found Carlo
a useful character around which to build a
Shakespearean-style historical drama with faint echoes of Hamlet. It was an early
Schiller work, now usually thought of as being uneven in style and top heavy in plot.
First performed in 1787, it was already revisionist and historically problematic. In
Schillers version Carlo is a tragic hero. He is the victim of his fathers
greed and aggression. Philip, firmly under the influence of Rome and the Inquisition,
first of all steals Carlos young bride-to-be, Elizabeth de Valois, daughter of Henry
II of France. He then decides to ignore the pleas for mercy coming from the Flemish
people, who are fearful of the counter-reformation and the spread of Spanish power in
Europe. Carlo rebels against all of this, with predictably tragic consequences.
Verdi wrote his version of the same basic story in 1867 under the title
Don Carlos. It was a fully-blown five act grand opera commissioned by the Paris
Opera. In its original form it was an elaborate spectacle, featuring a ballet, huge crowd
scenes, and twice as much music as La Traviata.
Abridgement began almost immediately. Don Carlo was a particular variant
organized by Verdi himself. First performed in 1884 at La Scala in Milan, this was a
stripped-down four-act Italian language version which trimmed away some of the excess.
Possibly the most important character in Verdis tale was one of
his own invention. Young Carlos resolve to fight against his father is strengthened
not only by his unrequited love for his stepmother and garden-variety angst and ambition,
but by his friend Rodrigo, champion of the Flemish cause. Rodrigo is firmly nineteenth
century in conception, an advocate of democracy and social change with a strong
anti-authoritarian aspect. Pitting this character against the forces of church and state
in the midst of a family melodrama was, as George Jellinek remarks in History
Through the Opera Glass, a master-stroke which "keeps the opera so
unfailingly relevant in modern times."
There is something fairly contemporary about Don Carlo, not
least of all in its concerns about the morality and ultimate effectiveness of military
conflict and the nature of large-scale social revolution. Its skepticism with vested
interests and lionizing of the cause of oppressed people makes it as easy to stage with
twentieth century dress as sixteenth, a conceit of which Opera Irelands
current production makes some use.
Under Dieter Kaegis direction and with the benefit of Louis
Desires designs, this Don Carlo has a striking minimalist contemporaneity.
The costumes are modern in design, down to the sunglasses sported by the representatives
of the Inquisition which represent their blindness to the realities of their
congregations lives. The production emphasizes bold reds and blacks, beginning with
the striking funeral march which takes place mostly in darkness illuminated only by the
pale faces of the chorus and a blanket of falling snow. Red is seen in various contexts,
from the political revolutionary one evident in the colored pamphlets advocating Flemish
independence distributed by Rodrigo to the suggestion of flames created by the costumes of
the cardinals and other representatives of the Inquisition as they brand and torture
enemies of the church.
The sets are sparsely decorated, using opaque backdrops to break the
stage into public and private spaces and constantly drawing
attention to the relationship between the seen and unseen. Most of
the action is blocked with some kind of illustrative counter-action or background drama in
progress behind the primary action, thus using the stage space to create additional drama.
Though there is a massive tonal shift between acts two and three, both halves of the
production share a concern with the expressiveness of stagecraft which is modernist in
inspiration. It foregrounds the story and its meaning over the expectation of
entertainment. The productions emphasis on visual and thematic issues also draws
attention to the links between the personal and the political, which was what drew Verdi
to the story in the first place.
Despite some strong performances (most notably from Mezzo-soprano Maria
Riadtchikova as the one-eyed Princess Eboli and Bass Maxim Mikailov as Philip II), there
is little that is memorable musically here. The score itself, while it conveys a sense of
oppression, here lacks significant highlights. Though there is some subtlety to it (it was
composed after all by the most important opera writer of his generation), this production
does not always convey a sense of its complexity. In fact the orchestral accompaniment is
frequently so bombastic that it drowns out the singers, particularly Tenor Alexander Fedin
as Don Carlo and Baritone William Killmeier as Rodrigo. The Opera Ireland Chorus under the
direction of Cathal Garvey is superb.
Dublin, November 17, 2001
- Harvey O'Brien