Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo
The Metropolitan Opera, New York
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Nicholas Hytner, Marina Poplavskaya, Anna Smirovna, Roberto Alagna, Simon Keenlyside, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Eric Halfvarson
The Met: Live in HD - December 11, 2010
Verdi’s Don Carlo is a great example of how opera has the power not only to transform and heighten reality, but also to evoke and elevate the nature of human emotions and aspirations in a manner that no other artform can match. It’s not that the original historical circumstances of the real-life Don Carlos need a semi-fictionalised dramatisation, being rather interesting in their own right. Elisabeth de Valois was indeed betrothed to the Spanish prince Don Carlos but eventually married to his father King Philip II, a union between the French and Spanish royalty that would lead to the peace treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. Where real-life is stranger than fiction is the fact that Elisabeth was actually 13 years old when she married the 32 year-old King, while Don Carlos, aged 14, was a lame, epileptic hunchback with a stutter.
Some creative licence is required then upon the part of the composer and the librettists (Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle), and some suspension of belief is required on the part of the audience to the love-at-first-sight encounter between Carlo and Elisabeth in the forests of Fontainebleau at the beginning of the opera, but it is all towards a greater good and a deeper emotional truth. Of course, it’s not just opera that plays fast and loose with historical accuracy for the sake of drama and art – one need look no further than Shakespeare, or indeed Friedrich Schiller, whose original play is adapted in Verdi’s version of the story of Don Carlo. The encounter between the two young people and the love that briefly inflames them is only the starting point for the great complexity of emotions and conflict that exists between no less than six principal characters, each of them with distinct ambitions and personalities, each of them with different facets to those personalities depending on the person they are dealing with. It is here that opera goes to places that other art forms can’t reach.
It is not common for there to be so many principal characters is an opera and Don Carlo is consequently Verdi’s most complex and sometimes difficult opera – at three and a half-hours long, it is not quite as accessible in its subject, themes or its musicality for example, as the more popular Verdi operas like La Traviata or Aida. Simply listening to Don Carlo on CD isn’t enough to reveal its layers of complexity, and it’s certainly an opera I’ve struggled with in the past for those reasons. Seeing it performed live on stage, undergoing particular interpretations in performance and staging, will bring out the dramatic power of the opera better, revealing how well the dark tones of the music work with the deep brooding performances, but, personally speaking, The Metropolitan Opera’s latest production (a co-production with the ROH, Covent Garden and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet), broadcast live on December 11, as part of The Met Live in HD’s 2010-11 season to cinema theatres worldwide, was a complete revelation of the opera’s qualities.
What can seem like inconsistencies in the behaviour of the characters and in the performances of the singers, is revealed in this powerful but nuanced production to reflect the multifaceted nature of the characters, their changing moods and temperaments, and the duality of their inner conflicts between duty and their own personal desires. And, my goodness, related to the political turmoil in Europe in the 16th century, taking place between major historical figures and royalty with their duty towards their citizens, and with conflicting political, religious and personal aspirations and ambitions, those are drives on another scale entirely. The sweep that uplifts Don Carlo in his love for Elisabeth at the start of the opera (a relationship that reaches Greek mythological proportions when she becomes his "mother"), only plunges him deeper into despair and to almost dying at the loss of that love in her marriage to his father.
That same dynamic can be seen in each of the character’s own personal struggles, which is impressive enough on this kind of scale, and in so many principal characters, but it is infinitely more complicated when there is interaction between them. A good performance of the opera, mainly in the singing, can bring out subtle nuances of the different levels that the characters are working on, but it also requires strong acting, and that was assuredly in evidence here, particularly on the part of Marina Poplavskaya as Elisabeth, and the most historically complex character of King Philip, marvellously interpreted by Ferruccio Furlanetto. If there were any weaknesses in Poplavskaya’s singing, they were minor and to be expected for a young singer making a name for herself, in a technically difficult role. This was however more than made up for in an impassioned and superbly acted performance that relied heavily on glances and body language as much as in what was said, particularly when the two often contradict one another. Such subtlety can only be conveyed fully when the music is there to support it, and Verdi’s scoring is magnificent in this respect, contributing just as significantly to the definitions of the characters, and that was equally effectively achieved in the orchestration under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Even so, no matter how good the production and the performances, even watching this live in the theatre, you are not going to pick all these qualities up from a seat at the back of the stalls, and it’s here that Opera Live in HD comes into its own, picking up little details in the gestures and expressions of the singers in close-up, emphasising the framing and positioning of the characters in relation to one another on the stage. Nicholas Hytner’s staging is perhaps not as impressive as other Met productions this season, but it succeeds nonetheless in bringing the elements effectively together. One’s appreciation of the efforts put into the production are deepened by the interviews with the cast in the intervals, literally, just as they come off the stage, and even by the behind-the-curtains looks at the stage-hands getting the huge sets into place for the next act. From an eye-catching and ear-splitting opening with Robert Lepage’s Das Rheingold for a new Wagner Ring cycle production, the standard was set a very high level for the Met’s new season of Live in HD broadcasts, and subsequent productions have continued to impress right up to the invigorating and buoyant Don Pasquale last month, but Don Carlo may well top them all.