Desperate Characters: Examining Verdi's Don Carlo

Classic Arts Features   Desperate Characters: Examining Verdi's Don Carlo
 
The complex protagonists of Verdi's Don Carlo are doomed from the start. But director Nicholas Hytner, whose new production opened Nov. 22 at the Met, says that doesn't mean they won't fight against fate to the last.


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For Nicholas Hytner, Verdi's Don Carlo is no mere operatic tragedy. A sprawling epic of powerful individuals clashing with each other and with destiny in 16th-century Spain, this "ferociously pessimistic drama" is about as dark and somber as Romantic opera gets. "But what makes it so attractive," says Hytner, who makes his Met debut directing the new production, "is that almost every individual in it fights, with every fiber of their being, against the opposition. Nobody gives in." Tyrannical kings, despairing princes, and innocent young women are not in short supply in the world of opera, but few works of musical theater boast a dramatis personae of such depth, complexity, and passion as Don Carlo. "Not one of these characters is prepared to accept his or her own tragic destiny," Hytner continues. "They fight. They scream. They holler. They deny what their inevitable end will be."

Inevitability aside, the musical journey to get there is one of the most powerful in all of opera. In the century and a half since its creation, Don Carlo has traveled through the extremes of operatic fortune. It premiered in Paris in 1867 and was reworked in several versions throughout Italy and elsewhere in the following years. Today it is firmly entrenched in the standard repertory, a high-water mark of 19th-century opera (though it is not performed as often as it should be since it's difficult to cast six great singers in the leading roles). "In many respects," Hytner says, "it is now Verdi's most admired opera."

Based on a semi-historical drama by the great German Romantic Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlo centers on the Spanish King Philip II (1527 _1598), his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois, and his son from his first marriage, Carlos, Prince of Asturias. The opera not only provides ample opportunity for scenic splendor, it also contains magnificent roles for singing actors, some of the greatest arias in the Italian repertory, orchestral writing that achieves symphonic heights, and a strong choral presence. Tenor Roberto Alagna leads the Met's remarkable new cast in the title role. Ferruccio Furlanetto, who was last heard in the role at the Met in 2005, reprises his portrayal of King Philip, Marina Poplavskaya sings Elisabeth, and Simon Keenlyside is Rodrigo. Anna Smirnova makes her company debut as Princess Eboli and Eric Halfvarson takes on the brief but crucial role of the Grand Inquisitor. Canadian maestro Yannick N_zet- S_guin, who made a triumphant Met debut last season conducting Carmen, will be on the podium.

Hytner's staging, a co-production of the Met, Covent Garden, and the Norwegian National Opera, was first seen in 2008 at London's Royal Opera House: with Furlanetto, Keenlyside, and Poplavskaya all in the same roles they'll sing at the Met: where it was a stunning success. In bringing it to the Met, the British director is again collaborating with five-time Tony Award winner Bob Crowley, who designs the sets and costumes, and lighting designer Mark Henderson. The look of the production was directly inspired by the era in which the opera is set. "I think everybody who approaches Don Carlo starts by going to the Escorial," says Hytner, the Artistic Director of London's National Theatre, referring to the royal palace near Madrid built by King Philip. "From the outside it looks like a jail, but it's very beautiful in its austere way. Once you get inside, its interiors are surprisingly human in scale, but the sense that you take with you is that this king was a self-jailer. He built a palace on top of a mausoleum for himself, his descendants, and all future kings of Spain.

"That's a pretty extreme statement to make," the director continues. "It's as if Philip thought, 'At the center of my palace will be a mass tomb.' The feel and look of this production is an abstraction of that."

One of the major challenges in presenting Don Carlo: aside from finding singers who can do justice to Verdi's intense, multilayered character portraits: is the opera's sheer size and the complicated history of its many versions. The Met's new production will present Don Carlo in its original five acts, sung in Italian. Even in its four-act incarnation, it's the composer's longest opera. "The very special color of the music, the incredible unity of this large-scale work, the unusual historical and political background: all of this contributes to make Don Carlo a unique opera," says Maestro N_zet-S_guin. "But above all, it is the incredible emotional beauty of the music that makes it so special."

Indeed, unlike two of Verdi's most popular operas: La Traviata, which is an early exercise in modern realism, or the epic Aida: Don Carlo defies easy categorization. In fact, it contains aspects of both of these genres. As in the tragic story of the Parisian courtesan, for example, the characters in Don Carlo all have plausible reasons for their actions. But because they are: like the protagonists in Aida: symbolic representatives of entire nations, the ramifications of these actions are much more profound. While the characters in La Traviata might say, "If I allow myself to love you, my life will change forever," in Don Carlo they would say, "If I allow myself to love you, the world will change forever."

All the lead characters in Don Carlo are wracked with doubts and human frailties: but nowhere does Verdi express this more stunningly than in his portrayal of Philip II, a colossus of history and legend, who becomes profoundly multidimensional in the composer's hands. For director Hytner, this factor is central to Don Carlo's power. "Until the advent of the great monster tyrants of the 20th century," he says, "Philip II was the prototypical repressive tyrant." Yet at the beginning of Act IV, we see and hear the king in his great solo scene ("Ella giammai m'am‹") as a vulnerable man starved for love while staggering under the burden of his crown. "An amazing theatrical coup," Hytner calls it. "The curtain goes up and it's like 'Garbo laughs.' The tyrant sings. The tyrant's heart is broken." The scene is a revelatory surprise for the audience. Schiller's play contains only a miniscule suggestion of Philip's humanity, and the idea of exploring it at the emotional core of the drama was Verdi's. No wonder the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio later eulogized the composer as the one who "sang and wept for all."

If this scene leaves no doubt that Don Carlo's protagonists are human beings, they are also, at the same time, larger than life. In fact, the world they encompass is even wider than the realm of Aida's Egyptian pharaohs: the tyrant who bares his soul in the solitude of his study has a group of islands on the opposite side of the recently circumnavigated globe named after him (the Philippines). A herald specifically calls him out as the King of Spain and the Indies (i.e., the entire Western Hemisphere), emphasizing the historic gigantism at stake. Similarly, his wife, Queen Elisabeth, reminds us that she was born a royal princess, a "daughter of France": a young woman representing an entire nation.

This enormous scope weighs heavily on the characters in Don Carlo. The opera is infused with a relentlessly grim tone: the Inquisition hovers everywhere, most of the protagonists expound on their desire for death, they speak directly to tombs: and those tombs occasionally answer back. Yet this bleakness is only part of the story, a background for an ultimately life-affirming human drama. "Right through this opera there is, on the one hand, an implacable expression of impending doom," Hytner says, "and on the other hand a succession of the most gloriously open-throated arias, the most fantastically determined music." This conflict between fate and the human spirit is the key to the whole epic that is Verdi's most complex opera. "And that," Hytner declares, "is why people love this piece."

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