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November 23, 2005

Don Carlo

Don Carlo, the first of Verdi's great and final four operas, was, like his other grand grand opera, Les vêpres siciliennes, written for Paris. Left to his own devices, Verdi preferred concision, happily dispensing with ballets and crowd scenes. You can see this in Aida, which, while it is just as grand as Don Carlos, is much more concentrated. It is also shorter. Both operas have their big triumphal marches (sort of), but the link between Nubian freedom and Aida's betrayal is much tighter than the connection between Flemish freedom and Isabella's proscription. Grand opera, in Paris, required plenty of sub-plot, and was in no hurry to get anywhere. Don Carlo remains Verdi's most upholstered opera.

Efforts to trim it down, by omitting the entire First Act, are misguided. Whether Verdi was impatient with it or not, the ecstasy of newfound love is what draws us into this complicated tale. Like Carlo and Isabella, we spend the rest of the opera remembering this moment of exultation, so cruelly cut off when diplomats decide that the French mistress will marry, not the Spanish prince, but the Spanish king. The suddenly-banked passion illuminates the entire opera, as Carlo and Isabella remain on painfully honorable terms while giving rise to doubt in the bosom of Philip II. When they call one another "madre" and "figlio," it's heartbreaking; what they really want to say is "amor."

Don Carlo pits the individual against the institutional, with Old-World results. Affairs of state and the interests of the Church invariably prevail. Struggling against them looks noble, thanks to Verdi's treatment, but it is fundamentally quixotic, and that, too, is registered in the score's representation of oppressive grandeur. (Note that I speak of its "representation". The score itself is not oppressively grand.) Who can battle the schizophrenic counterpoint, between joyous acclamation and death march, of the huge scene that concludes Act III, at the cathedral doors? Verdi makes no bones about his anti-clerical sentiment, but it must not be forgotten that it's a monk who snatches Carlo from the jaws of destruction at the end. Everyone here is trapped, and the better you know this opera the better you understand its knack for turning what ought to be a heroic art form dominated by great actions is really a sequence of ambered beads. The heroism is all in the music.

There are no small scenes in Don Carlo, not even the Garden Scene that opens Act III, with its cast of three. Destiny looms everywhere, and, to a great extent, it is determined by birth. Verdi's kings and queens appeal to us because they express the constraints of royalty, the lack of freedom to follow their hearts' desire. Encased in luxury, they are wretched and lonely. Never has this been shown to better effect than in the king's great aria, by turns meditative and roaring with pain, "Ella giammai m'amò" ("She never loved me" - as of course she couldn't, as she had already fallen in love with his son.) As soon as he's finished, the creepy, blind Grand Inquisitor is shuffled in, and the two egos battle their way up the scale in mounting tension that bursts when the old priest reminds the king that God the Father sacrificed his son! As if that weren't enough, Isabella rushes in and demands justice - her jewels have been stolen. This little problem is worked out at the cost of a great courtesan's freedom, and the scene ends with the justly celebrated "O don fatale" ("Oh fatal gift" - Princess Eboli refers to her own beauty). All this in just one scene! And if it is historically implausible - such freedom of expression in royal precincts would not have been countenanced in sixteenth-century Spain - it is psychologically riveting. There is not a character in it who doesn't absorb our identification.

There is a fair amount of gloomy music in Don Carlo, and it comes at bad times - at the beginning of scenes. There is a long political discussion that may not hold your attention. My advice is to let your mind wander whenever the music doesn't pull you in. Don't feel guilty, or that you're not getting it. You're coming to Don Carlo from the raucous immediacies of the early twenty-first century. Submit to the territory that claims you, and wait for the rest to earn your allegiance. It's no crime if parts of it never do. Don Carlo is truly a whale of an opera.

Posted by pourover at November 23, 2005 05:17 PM

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