Monday 8 May 2017

Verdi - Don Carlo (Strasbourg, 2016)

Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo

L’Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg - 2016

Daniele Callegari, Robert Carsen, Stephen Milling, Andrea Carè, Tassis Christoyannis, Ante Jerkunica, Elza van den Heever, Elena Zhidkova, Patrick Bolleire, Rocío Perez, Camille Tresmontant

Culturebox - November 2016

There are some dark operas in the Verdi catalogue - Macbeth and I due Forscari are certainly there and Simon Boccanegra is no bundle of laughs - but none of them are as bleak and pitiless as Don Carlo. What makes it so is that each of the characters is offered the opportunity of love and friendship, but either happiness is snatched from them or they consciously spurn it and make other choices that they feel are for a greater good. None of those choices work out well, but the fact that it could have been so different is what gives the opera a darker edge that Verdi fills with music of overwhelming melancholy and regret.

OK, we get that Don Carlo is dark, so perhaps we don't need Robert Carsen to emphasise it so heavily in his production of the 4-Act Italian version at L’Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg. Carsen's idea is to establish the uneasy alliance between the oppressive political regime of Philip II and the merciless persecution of heretics by the Inquisition of the Catholic Church as a kind of death cult alliance. Everyone is dressed in black, wearing dark suits or soutanes, and the set is a black box. Rather more than just visually darkening the work down however, Carsen has a few other ideas and changes that take this a little further.

It's risky to tamper with individual motivations, inner conflicts and the complex inter-relationships in Don Carlo. They already sit on a delicate balance, so you really don't want to be adding additional levels onto them. Verdi's Don Carlo is based on a work by Friedrich Schiller, but Robert Carsen in his Strasbourg production finds a parallel in the work with another of Verdi's favourite writers: Shakespeare, and specifically in Hamlet. In the version without the Fontainebleau scene, Don Carlo opens with the funeral of a king - Carlo's grandfather Charles V - and we see a brooding young man dressed in black with only a skull for company on the stage, reflecting on mortality, as a ghostly voice seemingly from the dead king, calls out a warning to him.

Using Hamlet as a reference, Carsen in this way establishes the tone and the nature of the work as directly and quickly as possible. Without having recourse to the Fontainebleau scene, Carsen's evocation of Hamlet establishes that the primary reason for Carlo's despair is not the death of Charles V, but a more personal conflict and quasi-incestuous sentiments about his father marrying his new 'mother' Elisabeth, the same woman who had previously been promised to him as a bride in the excised Fontainebleau scene. It's an act of a ruler exercising power in the interest of consolidating that power rather than for the sake of the people, and Carlo's response is the only sane one in such a situation; madness. It leads to Philip having to banish Hamlet-Carlo to a foreign land after he takes up arms against him, and even consider whether he might not be justified in killing his own son.

So, all in all, whether you think all the blackness on the stage is necessary, you have to respect that it is justified by the tone of the work itself. And if Hamlet is used as a reference, it is not a framework that can be imposed on top of Don Carlo. The very idea is absurd and surely unsustainable. Rather, Carsen uses Shakespeare's imagery to draw attention to similar themes in Verdi's Don Carlo, taking it away from the historical and even the personal - the Italian version without the Fontainebleau scene facilitates this - and putting the focus instead on the social and political, on questions of state oppression, on religious fanaticism, and the not insignificant application that this has for today.

Verdi, it's true, wasn't a big fan of religious authoritarianism, so the emphasis in the Opéra National du Rhin production of the state being a theocracy that facilitates the will and the violent means of the church is a relevant one, and it's one that Verdi's dark drama is able to sustain. "Death in my hands can reap a harvest", the Grand Inquisitor tells soutane-robed Philip, and together they represent a formidable force of oppression. The crime of the Flemish delegates when they are brought to the court is not insurrection but heresy for not holding to the faith of their Holy Ruler. The auto-da-fe scene, often so difficult to stage convincingly, is effectively handled by Carson. It's the books of the heretics that are burnt in a conflagration, while the black-robed priests execute the hooded kneeling heretics with pistols.

Carsen consequently brings a strong and meaningful focus to the work. It's not only about state oppression but it's also about crushing personal sentiments for the sake of belief in something greater. It's not just Carlo and Philip who have to struggle with the dilemma of killing someone in their own close family. Elisabeth and Carlo's happiness counts for nothing in the greater scheme of things: even Elisabeth believes that her marriage to Philip as the king is more important. Eboli too belatedly recognises the mistakes she makes. There is perhaps only one beacon of light in Don Carlo where integrity remains unsullied by adversity and ambition, and that's Carlo's friendship with Rodrigo. You think so? Think again.

It's one thing to use Shakespeare's Hamlet as a working template to bring out other elements from Don Carlo, but Robert Carsen's biggest intervention is in his manipulation of the ending and its subversion of the friendship between Carlo and Posa. Posa controversially doesn't die here at the end of Act III while visiting Carlo in prison, but his assassination is faked as part of a plot of the church to overthrow Philip and assume total power with Posa as its figurehead. We're not dealing with history here in Carsen's production, and there's precious little historical accuracy in Schiller or Verdi's version anyway, so that matters little. What matters more is finding a way to making the huge flaw of the ending of Verdi's opera work in a more convincing manner, without undermining the essence of the work and the themes it considers.

At the very least Carsen delivers a shock that is greater than the disembodied voice of Charles V bringing about a deus ex machina. Here Carlo looks on aghast as the uprising falters not at the voice of a ghostly monk, but the voice of the Grand Inquisitor - the people bowing before the far more earthly might of the military arm of the church. But what of the inviolable friendship between Carlo and Posa? Well, it wouldn't be the first time that the sincerity of that friendship has been questioned, and indeed the rousing theme of the two men can sound rather hollow and false in the midst of all the through-composed darkness, so all Carsen is doing is taking this further and pushing the tone of the work towards its natural (as opposed to supernatural) conclusion. At the very least, it can't be faulted for shock impact.

Nor can it be really faulted for musical performance. Daniele Callegari strikes a suitable sombre tone that matches the tinta of the score and the minimal bleakness/blackness of the production, but it never pushes it into heavy overstatement. There's a great deal of light and shade in Verdi's score that belies the melodrama of the situations, and Callegari finds that balance well with the orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg. As is often the case with such a challenging work, the principal roles pose a few problems to Stephen Milling's Filippo II, for Andrea Carè's Don Carlo and for Elza van den Heever's Elisabetta di Valois, but they still without question get across the essence of the predicament in those confrontational moments that Verdi brilliantly creates. Tassis Christoyannis is an impressive duplicitous Posa, and Ante Jerkunica an imposing Grand Inquisitor. I was most impressed by Elena Zhidkova's Princess Eboli, who delivers a stunning "O don fatale" and manages to gather more sympathy for her predicament and actions than is more often the case.

Links: L’Opéra National du Rhin, Culturebox