Don Carlo – Giuseppe Verdi

Written by:
Harvey O'Brien
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Schiller: Don Carlos and Mary Stuart

Verdi With a Vengeance : An Energetic Guide to the Life and Complete Works of the King of Opera

(2000),William Berger

Verdi’s Don Carlo was inspired by Frederic Schiller’s 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 Schiller’s version Carlo is a tragic hero. He is the victim of his father’s greed and aggression. Philip, firmly under the influence of Rome and the Inquisition, first of all steals Carlo’s 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 Verdi’s tale was one of his own invention. Young Carlo’s 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 Ireland’s current production makes some use.

Under Dieter Kaegi’s direction and with the benefit of Louis Desire’s 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 congregation’s 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 production’s 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.

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