Monday, July 25, 2011

Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo (opera)

Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo. Dramma lirico. FR 1867 / IT 1884. Libretto Joseph Méry and Camille Du Locle - based on the play Don Karlos, Infant von Spanien (1787) by Friedrich Schiller - the French libretto translated into Italian by Achille de Lauzières and Angelo Zanardini.

In the Olavinlinna Castle at the Savonlinna Opera Festival, 25 July 2011. In Italian with e-surtitles in Finnish (by Leena Vallisaari) and English. There are 12 versions of Don Carlo / Don Carlos. Presented was the standard Italian version (number 11) in four acts.

Hungarian State Opera Budapest. Conductor: Kocsár Balázs. Stage direction, stage design and lighting design adapted by: Zoltán Horváth. Costume designer: Márk Tivadar.

Filip II, King of Spain, bass: Kolos Kováts
Don Carlo, Infante of Spain, heir to the Spanish throne, tenor: Atilla Kiss
Elisabeth de Valois, soprano: Ildikó Cserna
Princess Eboli, mezzo-soprano: Éva Pánczél
Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, baritone: Tamás Busa
Grand Inquisitor, bass: László Szvétek
Tebaldo, Page to Elisabeth, soprano: Krisztina Simon
Count of Lerma, tenor: Lászlo Beöthy-Kiss
A Monk, baritone: Ferenc Valter
A Voice from Heaven, soprano: Ingrid Kertesi.

Hungarian State Opera Orchestra.
Hungarian State Opera Chorus.

A historical tragedy that takes place in Spain around 1560, performed in the Olavinlinna castle built in 1475-1483. The dark and devastating story takes a poetic license with details but is firmly grounded on reality. Spain was the most powerful state of Europe. It was the age of Renaissance and Reformation, but Spain was firmly Catholic, and the Spanish Inquisition was a powerful tool of the Counter-Reformation. Central backgrounds are the Revolt of the Netherlands and the Holy League against the Ottoman threat.

This was my first encounter with the story of Don Carlos in any form, opera or play. The musical performance of the Hungarian State Opera was powerful especially from the middle of the second act on. There is like an awakening, and the chorus during the burning at the stake rises to a tremendous force. Filip II and Elisabeth take special seats to watch the "heretics" being burned at the stake. As a newcomer to this opera I would not have understood what is going on if I had not been read about it in the libretto. I read from the libretto that the voice from heaven is directed to the persecuted martyrs. The actual presentation is so indirect and simultaneous that it is impossible to understand what is going on. Yet I refused to applaud at the end of the act because I felt like it would have meant applauding the massacre and the persecution. (The Oslo massacre had taken place three days ago.) The high spirit of the presentation then lasted to the end of the opera with highlights such as the lament of Filip in the beginning of the third act (the vanity of absolute power) and the duet of the king and the grand inquisitor immediately afterwards. It's not good to be the king in this story. Since I don't know Schiller's play I don't know it the fine literary quality of the text derives from the librettists or from Schiller, himself.

The most striking feature of the art direction / costume design departments was the Grand Inquisitor, inspired by El Greco, and resonating with gothic fantasy films such as Christopher Lee's incarnations of Dracula. A tall, gaunt bass in white, a blind old living dead, yet with a demonic intelligence worthy of Dostoyevsky's legend of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov.

The psychological fire of the drama comes from the fact that Don Carlos intends to murder his father, Filip II, who has married his beloved Elisabeth.

There are several film and television adaptations of the Schiller / Verdi story, but as far as I know none of them is definitive. Among the high profile versions is Carlos und Elisabeth (DE 1924) directed by Richard Oswald with Conrad Veidt as Don Carlos: I suspect it is interesting but not really great, probably focusing on salacious detail.

Don Carlos is a grand opera in French style. It had its premiere in 1867 in the Opéra le Peletier, known as Opéra de Paris until it burned in 1873. My associations fly to The Phantom of the Opera, inspired by that very disaster.

The age of Filip II was that of Cervantes and Shakespeare. Events of that violent age include the Counter-Reformation atrocities of St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, covered in films like L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise, the film adaptations of Reine Margot, and Griffith's Intolerance. Finland belonged to Sweden, which had to endure the bloody exploits of the sons of Gustav Vasa during the Reformation, plundering the fortunes of the Catholic Church, dramatized in Selma Lagerlöf's Sir Arne's Treasure, adapted for a film by Mauritz Stiller. Russia was under the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

The grandeur of Verdi's music and the tragedy of history resonated magnificently inside the walls of the Olavinlinna castle. The spiritual emptiness of the pursuit of power and glory is a major theme.

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