Nicholas Hytner, Production & Gary Halvorson
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Director Nicholas Hytner, who made his Met debut with this production, brings out all the passionate intensity that is at the heart of Verdi’s monumental drama. Don Carlo (Roberto Alagna), the Spanish crown prince, and Elizabeth of Valois (Marina Poplavskaya), daughter of the King of France, fall in love, only to be torn apart by international politics when Carlo’s father, King Philip II (Ferruccio Furlanetto), decides to marry Elizabeth himself. Carlo’s friend, Rodrigo (Simon Keenlyside), plays a dangerous game, balancing his political aims with the trust of his monarch. And when the beautiful Princess Eboli (Anna Smirnova) discovers her love for Don Carlo is not returned, her revenge terribly backfires. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Met orchestra and chorus.
One of Verdi’s finest “historic” operas – a bit long, but with incredibly beautiful music
The Plot Summary above gives you a sense that this is one of those confused opera stories – two would-be lovers, out of political necessity, sacrifice their own happiness for the good of their countries. Carlo’s betrothed Elisabetta, for political reasons, is required to marry his father, King Philip II, and thereby she becomes his stepmother.
There was a time when that may have sounded dated and preposterous, but as we go more global and discover more about the rest of our modern world, we discover that arranged marriages are still all too common. But, I maintain that is not what this opera is really about.
After seeing this excellent production, I feel this opera is not about Carlo and Elisabetta, as much as it is about King Philip II, himself. In reading about Philip in WikiPedia I realize this story attempts to capture his difficulties as a ruler of a vast Spanish empire, but at a time when Spain had occupied the Netherlands, and was constantly at war, with various nations, in an attempt to boost the economy and prestige of Spain. Philip wished only to be a “good king”, but had no tolerance for dissension, for “heresy”, and therefore allowed his own reason to be swayed by the Inquisition, depicted chillingly in this production by a blind and dotering Grand Inquisitor.
I believe the directors of this performance were very much aware of these characteristics and deliberately played them up to great success. For instance, there is a famous portrait of Philip at the Prado Museum; when we first see Philip in the opera he is posed and dressed exactly like the painting. Italian basso, Ferruccio Furlanetto, who plays the role of Philip with stunning credibility, even looks like the king.
Philip is clearly not the hero in this opera. Verdi uses this story to warn how religious extremists can undermine good government; how bad government relies on militarism to perpetuate its existence; and about oppressive leaders that suppress open dialogue. If these thoughts aren’t contemporary, I don’t know what is.
Finally, I consider this opera a “ghost story”. In the versions I have known the opera opens and closes at the tomb of Charles V [enlightened father of Philip], the hooded ghost of whom comes out to warn Don Carlo at the beginning of the opera, and to save him from earthly doom at the end. The creepy atmosphere and music continues to permeate the entire story.
In this production the only thing I don’t like, therefore, is the insertion of the opening “Fontainebleau” act that depicts how Carlo and Elizabetta first meet and which seems dramatically trivial and is usually omitted. But once that act is over, the lugubrious sounds of horns tells us that trouble and more trouble is brewing.
This may not be a “date opera” such as La Bohème or Carmen. But for the more seasoned listener, who appreciates Verdi at his finest, this is must viewing. Thank you Met HD and iTunes for bringing us these wonderful works.