Again, Idiots at the Opera – Don Carlo or We Weren’t Expecting the Spanish Inquisition

In January when we showed up at the Met to see La Rondine, we were greeted with the news that our tickets were no good. After some confusion, it was determined the mistake was theirs, but it took more time than it should have, and we barely made it in. Being a certain kind of New Yorker, I sent a long detailed e-mail to customer service. I was rewarded with complimentary tickets to Don Carlo. Yay Met! Way to resolve!

Don Carlo, for my fellow ignoramuses, is a very, very long (five acts) opera by Verdi. Under no circumstances should this be the first opera you ever attend! Per the Wikipedia, there were various cuts made during the composer’s lifetime and many versions exist. There are librettos in both French (the original) and Italian. Both are still performed. The current production is in Italian. The opera is an epic set during the Spanish inquisition in the court of King Philip II. There’s thwarted love, father son mishigosh, true bromance – including a bromantic triangle, a ghost (maybe), and of course — the Spanish Inquisition.

The production by Nicholas Hynter, has been around for a few years. Several scenes were set in front of simple backdrops which were then raised to reveal elaborate and haunting sets. Lorin Maazel conducted, and all of the roles were filled by singers who gave performances ranging from really good to pretty great. The music is simply beautiful, dark and deep, and to my untrained ears it seemed, at times, strangely modern, but most of the arias are more like long soliliquies than songs. You aren’t likely to walk out humming. While many pieces of the production worked, as a whole it was a sprawling mess, although it managed to be interesting for most of its four and half hours. No small feat.

Act I opens with a meeting in the woods of Fountainbleu between Prince Carlos of Spain and Elizabeth of Valois, daughter of the French king, his betrothed. It’s the first time the two see each other and they fall immediately in love. The tone is deeply romantic, at times even playful and comedic. Ramon Vargos singing Don Carlo and Barbara Frittoli as Elizabeth pulled this off well. For the rest to make any sense, the audience has to fall in love a bit too in this scene. We have to feel the same joy Elizabeth does when Don Carlo, pretending to be only a messenger, shows her a portrait of the prince, and she realizes her intended is standing before her. The act ends with the announcement of peace between France and Spain, and the news that as part of the treaty, Elizabeth will now marry King Philip II, not his son. It’s her choice to accept the King or not. The crowd begs her to marry him in order to assure lasting peace. She agrees. Don Carlo is devastated.

Act II is where things begin to get messy. We’re at a monastery. There’s a tomb of Emperor Charles V (Carlos) the grandfather of Don Carlo, father of Philip. Charles spent his final years there in retreat. There’s a monk, who Don Carlo seeking solace in the monastery seems to think is the ghost of his grandfather. The way it was staged, the monk didn’t look like a ghost. In the credits, the role is listed as “A Friar.” Given the staging, I’m not sure what the audience is supposed to think.

Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa (sung by Dmitri Hvorostovsky) comes along, and Don Carlo confides his love for Elizabeth. Rodrigo tells Carlo he should go liberate Flanders. The otherwise excellent Hvorostovsky appeared physically stiff and didn’t move his right arm from his side, which made me wonder if he was worried about either tripping over his sword or its falling off. Better-half thought he was just trying to indicate the character’s pride and bearing. Whatever he was doing, I found it unnatural and distracting.

Then it turns out the whole court seems to be hanging out at the monastery. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it’s Charles funeral, or not. It seems kind of festive, but the ladies are all in black. Who knows? A picnic? In any case, the Princess of Eboli sings a Moorish love song. The ladies have red fans, and at one point the Princess uses a bit of black crepe to simulate a toreador’s cape as she teases a page. Of course, the staging seems like parody of Carmen. The whole tone change from dark to comedic is off. On the one hand, in a heavy-handed drama, you need some light stuff, but what are we supposed to be getting here? The page, was played by Jennifer Holloway. It’s a trouser role. I’m convinced the only reason trouser roles were written was to show women making out with each other. Apparently, this has always been a thing.

After that light stuff, Carlos tries to talk to the Queen alone to ask her about intervening with Philip to send him to Flanders. He also winds up declaring his love for her. She rejects him. He runs off. The King enters and basically fires the Queen’s main lady-in-waiting for leaving her unattended, and the Princess of Eboli then seems to have the job.

Next, the King and Rodrigo have a tete-a tete in which the King tells Rodrigo his suspicions about his wife and his son. Rodrigo makes the case for sending Carlo to Flanders and offers to keep an eye on him. Rodrigo speaks boldly to the King about the troubles with the Flemish, and the King warns him to “Beware of the Grand Inquisitor.”

At this point the better-half turned to me and whispered, “I wasn’t expecting that”

Act III features the Princess Eboli getting all pissy because she loves Carlo, but realizes he loves Elizabeth. Rodrigo offers to kill her when she threatens to tell the king, but Carlo doesn’t want him to do that, so Rodrigo warns him to get out of Dodge and head to Flanders. Carlo gives Rodrigo some papers, and again I’m losing the track of the politics/history stuff. But the papers will be important later, because plot point.

And then the backdrop lifts and we’re in front of a basilica, and a bunch of heretics are about to be burned because SPANISH INQUISITION! This seems to be months later (maybe) and Carlo is returning (maybe) or maybe he hasn’t left yet. (Given all the scenes and act that eventually got deleted, once again the jury is out.) He has some Flemish people with him, and he asks the King to let him rule Flanders. The king calls the Flemish guys traitors to their king, and yells at Carlo, ordering his arrest. Carlo draws a sword. His buddy, Rodrigo disarms him. And the act ends with a group of heretics being led offstage, and we see a big burst of flames behind a screen. While pyrotechnics on stage is usually pretty exciting, here it just felt more like a relief as it signaled the second intermission. I realized the whole thing reminded me of Sunset Boulevard, not the actual plot of the film, but of Norma Desmond’s description of the screenplay she’s writing about Salome, which was equally all over the place.

Act IV features a couple of the operas best known arias. The old tyrant king in his study, reflects on the his loveless marriage, and his screwed up relationship with the son he’s probably going to execute. Ferruccio Ferlanetto, as Philip, was pretty awesome here. It’s difficult to feel compassion for a despot, but he makes the King, if not sympathetic, at least not consciously evil, just trying to act on his wrongheaded beliefs. Then in comes the Grand Inquisitor, sung by Eric Halfvarson, who thanks to the make-up people looked both decrepit and frightening. This was one of many scenes that showed the parts were much greater than their sum. The duet between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, two basses, singing about the King’s need to “sacrifice” his son was excellent. The Inquisitor also wants Rodrigo.

Then there’s something about Elizabeth and the King, her jewelry box, Carlo’s portrait, accusations, Eboli confessing to setting Elizabeth up, AND being Philip’s mistress. Eboli then sings about her love for Don Carlo, and vows to save him on her last day before going into exile. Spoiler: This is just an excuse for her to sing and show up in the final scene. She doesn’t actually save him unless it happened in some long deleted act.

Rodrigo visits Carlo in prison to tell him he’s going to use those papers to take the blame for Flanders, because he was just playing the king and really, really, lurves Don Carlo, who he urges must escape to save the Flemish. Because who doesn’t love the Flemish cause? He gets shot (big boom) by agents of the Inquisition. We weren’t expecting THAT!

Hvorostovsky just kills with his death scene. I’d seen him as Germont in La Traviata, where his strong dramatic baritone made it seem like the story wasn’t about Violetta and Afredo, but about him, and all the guilt and regret he has about splitting those kids up. Damn, if he didn’t pull off the same trick here. Suddenly it was all about the tragedy of Rodrigo whom Philip loved more than his own son, and Don Carlo loved maybe even more than he loved Elizabeth.

As far as the singers, Rodrigo, the Inquisitor and the King were all very strong performances. Frittoli managed to convey the queen’s relentless piety and sense of duty. Her voice was good, but not particularly showy. While that makes sense dramatically, I wouldn’t have minded a little vocal scenery chewing. Ramon Vargas sang well, but lacked charisma. As for Anna Smirnova as Eboli, her singing was fine, especially, O don Fatale, but I have no idea what to make of her character, and she wasn’t helped by the staging. The historical Princess of Eboli sounds like a much more interesting character.

In Act V we’re back at the monastery, where Elizabeth has come to meet with Carlo and tell him he must go to save Flanders. Eboli shows up because she said she would, and then Philip and the Grand Inquisitor arrive with a bunch of other people. Carlo gets into a sword fight with the guards, and goes down, dying without an aria, maybe because he doesn’t die in other stagings of this opera. The friar, who I think may really be Charles’ ghost, or maybe not, sings about the suffering of the world, The end. And then all the fancy-dressed opera goers wander over to the one train because it’s faster than a cab and cheaper, and despite what you see on television, real New Yorkers don’t like to pay for taxis.

The Met, by the way, didn’t just supply us with free tickets, they upgraded us to the orchestra. While it was very nice to get a closer view of the stage, we missed being able to see the musicians, and the sound is actually better in the balcony because of acoustics. Yay science!

The next day we saw Dustin Hoffman’s film directorial debut, Quartet. Despite our own approaching decrepitude, we may have been the youngest people (other than caretakers) in attendance. That’s a shame because it’s a good film, but maybe only other geezers want to pay to see a film about geezers.

You certainly don’t need to know anything about opera to enjoy the movie, but it’ll probably deepen your enjoyment if you know a little. If you’re an ignoramus, you might want to listen to the quartet from Rigoletto because they talk about it a lot.

I should warn potential viewers that there is a scene where an old man is playing an old song on a muted trumpet while sitting in a comfy chair. If your deceased father was an old man who used to play old songs on a muted trumpet, sometimes while seated in a comfy chair, this will turn you into a bowl of mush.

Speaking of comfy chairs….

2 thoughts on “Again, Idiots at the Opera – Don Carlo or We Weren’t Expecting the Spanish Inquisition

  1. HI, Marion’s worse half here. As a regular guy from Queens what loves opera, let me tell you that my wife was spot on in this.
    I imagine Verdi wanted to “think big” and make a statement for the ages. But in doing so it is so sprawling, so all over the place, that apart from the beautiful singing which one can take w/o context on youtube, it is, well, boring!
    At some point it feels like he was acting like a cook in a kitchen that was not well-stocked but the cook had to whip up a meal. A little of this, a little of that, throw it in the pot and let’s see what happens.

    1. I’m not going to judge it by the version we saw. I’m reading reviews by people who know a lot more about opera than I do, and I can see the possibility that if the conductor hadn’t chosen to keep the music quite so slow and ominous, if the tenor and Frittoli had been a bit more than adequate, and if the staging (especially at the ending) had been better, and maybe if there had been more cuts to speed up the pace. However, I would not see it again even if Zefferelli were producing (well, maybe if Zefferelli were producing).

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