Now Streaming - Don Carlo...

Here is our latest Streaming Opera intro, this time from guest blogger, Philippa Boyle, who explores Don Carlo, currently available for your lock down delectation, fresh from the Dutch National Opera...

My name is Philippa Boyle and I am a soprano. I had the great pleasure of singing the role of Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria earlier this year for The Opera Makers R&D showcasing of their new translation and orchestration of 'Cav and Pag", or The Clowns.    

In a time when we are unable to perform live, the Opera Makers team are running a blog about notable performances that are being streamed online.  The team have invited me to write about Verdi's Don Carlo, as Dutch National Opera are streaming their 2004 production (directed by Willy Decker, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, and with Rolando Villazon in the title role) until the end of tomorrow.

The first time I saw Don Carlo was an unusual performance at the Royal Opera House in 2018.  The soprano due to sing Elisabetta had fallen ill shortly before the performance was due to start, and the understudy was not available.  ROH took the unusual decision to present 80 minutes of highlights from the opera, but without the soprano!  It was nonetheless a gripping and powerful account of the piece, and I was hooked.

I sang the role of Elisabetta di Valois in Fulham Opera's production of Don Carlo in 2018, directed by Lewis Reynolds and conducted by Michael Thrift and Ben Woodward.  We had a small chorus, an 11-piece orchestra, and we performed in St John's Church in Fulham.  You can see me performing Elisabetta's aria, Tu che le vanità, here:

I am immensely proud to have been part of the project and have many fond memories of the show.  Since Don Carlo, I have continued to work with Fulham Opera;  I sang Eva in Wagner's die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the title role in Janáček's Kát'a Kabanova last year, and I will sing Jenůfa for them next year.

The first question that anyone asks about Don Carlo is "which version?"  

Version 1, "Don Carlos", was a French grand opera, commissioned by the Théâtre Impérial de l'Opéra in Paris and premiered in 1867.  In accordance with French tastes of the time, it had five acts, a ballet, and a historical subject - the tormented Carlos, Prince of the Asturias, taken from Schiller's drama.   

The rehearsal period proved to be tumultuous.  A rivalry between the first Eboli (Pauline Gueymard) and Elisabeth (Marie Sasse) was so unbearable that Verdi stopped attending rehearsals.  Verdi's wife Giuseppina wrote "What a punishment for a composer's sins is the staging of an opera in that theatre, with its machinery of marble and lead! The tortoises of the Opéra take twenty-four hours to decide whether Mme Sasse or M. Faure should raise one finger or the whole hand".   Verdi's father died two months before the premiere, a blow only compounded by the death of his father-in-law and patron, Antonio Barezzi, later the same year.  The very real threat of war with Austria made Verdi uncertain whether he should return to Paris at all. "I am so close to the army's camps that it wouldn't surprise me to see a cannonball roll into my room!", he wrote. He considered remaining in Italy and even tried to withdraw from his contract with Paris Opera, but to no avail.  Little wonder that Verdi later described Don Carlos as being "born in fire and flames".

Even before the premiere, Don Carlos was too long.  At the dress rehearsal, eight days before the premiere, it was judged that fifteen minutes of music needed to be cut so that it would finish before midnight and the audience would be able to catch the last train. "Nor can the time of the curtain-rise be moved forward because they do not wish to hasten the dinner of the people who go to the Opéra!"  The French version enjoyed moderate success, but was dropped from the Opéra's repertoire after just two years.  

The first performance of Don Carlo in Italian translation, heavily cut, was given at Covent Garden, in June 1867. The Italian premiere was in Bologna in October 1867 in a more complete form and to great success. In 1884, a revised version was presented at La Scala in Milan that cut the first act and the ballet.  Verdi subsequently allowed a performance in Modena in 1886 that reinstated the first "Fontainebleau" act, in which Carlo and Elisabetta meet and fall in love, together with the revised four acts that had been presented in Milan.  The four-act 1884 "Milan version" and the five-act 1886 "Modena version" are the two most often performed versions today.  In my production with Fulham, we performed the five-act Modena version, while Dutch National Opera has chosen the four-act Milan version.

What makes Don Carlo a masterpiece?  I think it's the way Verdi manages to create intensely human, three-dimensional characters.  This isn't simply an opera about good vs evil.  There's church vs state, love vs duty, power, revenge, betrayal. The political and religious oppression of the monarchy and inquisition are mirrored by the individual internal conflicts of Carlo, Filippo, Elisabetta, Eboli, and Rodrigo.  The other-wordly quality of the "ghost" of Carlo V is matched by that of the Inquisitor - both are shadowy reminders of the weight of the church and the responsibility that comes with power.  

The music of Don Carlo includes everything from grand soliloquies like Elisabetta's famous aria "Tu che le vanità" at the start of Act 4, to great ensemble scenes that seem like precursors to Aida.  There are moments of joyous levity, such as Eboli's Veil Song, and heartbreaking tragedy and pathos, such as Filippo's aria "Ella giammai m'amò" or Rodrigo's death.  But it's the duets that really cement the relationships between the characters and the emotional progression of the opera: from Don Carlo and Posa's triumphant avowal of their friendship in Act 1, to the King and the Inquisitor in act 3, and Don Carlo and Elisabeth's final duet: even at the last, Elisabeth addresses Carlo not as her lover but as her son, "mio figlio" and waits until they can truly be together, in heaven.  The word for heaven, "ciel", is the very last word sung in the opera, on a high B by Elisabetta.  In the score, it lasts just four beats, but it's something of a traditional challenge among sopranos to hold it in for as long as possible.  I've yet to hear anyone beat Montserrat Caballe, who manages to hold it for eighteen seconds!

Willy Decker's production is exquisitely claustrophobic.  The setting is the royal mausoleum of the Escorial, decorated with the names of Carlo's royal ancestors. The singers are as pale as statues, in period costume.  The colour palette is largely monochrome with the occasional splash of colour - the red of the Inquisitor's robe.  The tomb remains throughout, though it changes from scene to scene, with additions including a projection of a starry night and an enormous descending crucifix, of which we only see the feet.  Filippo and the Inquisitore debate in front of Philip's own coffin, which is ready and waiting, and the great auto-da-fe scene concludes with Carlo confronted with the image of himself being crucified.   Rolando Villazon is an intense, virile Carlo, and Violeta Urmana is a delightfully sassy Eboli, but it's the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly that is the real star of the show.


Act 1

Prince Carlo of Spain is in love with his young stepmother, Elisabetta of Valois. He had previously been betrothed to her, but as part of the peace treaty that ended the Italian war of 1551-1559 between the houses of Habsburg and Valois, she instead married Carlos's father, King Philip II of Spain.  Encouraged by his friend Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, Carlo distracts himself from this impossible love by throwing himself into politics, championing the people of Flanders, who are oppressed by Spanish rule. He begs Elisabetta to speak to the king on their behalf, and confesses his love.  Elisabetta reproaches him, even though she loves him too. Carlo flees. The King arrives and is furious to find Elisabetta alone. Rodrigo pleads for the people of the Netherlands, while the king speaks of his suspicions of Carlo and Elisabetta.

Act 2

Carlo has received an anonymous letter and is expecting to meet the queen in the garden at night.  The real author of the note is Princess Eboli, who is also in love with Carlo.  Carlo rejects her advances and reveals his love for Elisabetta; Eboli swears revenge. Rodrigo asks Carlo to give him any incriminating documents regarding the Netherlands. Before an auto-da-fe, a public burning of heretics, a group of deputies beg the King for mercy.  He sends them away. Carlo draws his sword and demands to be sent to the Low Countries.  Rodrigo disarms him.  The King makes Rodrigo a Duke and has Carlo arrested.

Act 3

Filippo enlists the help of the Grand Inquisitor to arrange Carlo's trial. Princess Eboli has passed Elisabeth's jewellery box to the King, which contains a portrait of Carlo. Filippo confronts her and she faints.  Eboli confesses everything to the Queen, including that she has been Filippo's mistress.  Elisabetta banishes her from the court.

The incriminating documents have been found in Rodrigo's possession.  He goes to see Carlo in prison, knowing he will soon die.  He is shot and dies in Carlo's arms.  The King wishes to return Carlo's sword, but Carlo rejects him, realising that Rodrigo died to save him. The people storm the prison and Carlo escapes.

Act 4

Elisabeth is alone in the gardens of the monastery at Yuste.  

She and Carlo bid each other farewell, but are surprised by the King and the Grand Inquisitor.  A mysterious monk appears (possibly the ghost of Carlo V, Philip's father) before the guards can take Carlo prisoner and drags him away into the monastery. 

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