Verdi’s Don Carlos is kind of a thing with me. I love it for musical reasons but in addition (thanks mostly to Schiller, whose play I believe the libretto is based on) the drama is something that can be made to do quite interesting things.
There are some productions where it doesn’t really matter who is where on stage. Or, it doesn’t matter much. This is not one of them — I was rewatching it this evening and what I was struck by was the extent to which the whole thing depends on movement.
For example, there are some really striking switches back and forth between natural and symbolic action. The scene in Act II after Carlos and Posa’s little “friendship theme” duet where Elisabeth rushes in, finds all the exits barred against her by monks, collapses to her knees, and then Philip stalks in and tears her veil in half: this is not a series of actions that would ‘actually’ happen in the context of this plot but it moves seamlessly back into naturalistic action with Charles V and Posa trying to comfort the stricken Carlos. I didn’t even catch that they did this the first time I saw it because it made so much sense.
(However. If they were really going to go for symbolism, wouldn’t Philip ‘tear’ Elisabeth’s ‘veil’ AFTER all the monks have prayed over them? I mean, call me a stickler, but there is a procedure for this type of thing, no? Then again, in “o bien perdu” after Carlos talks about a taste of paradise, he ends up on the floor with his head under Elisabeth’s dress, so, well . . . keep it classy, Staatsoper Wien.)
Something similar happens in Act III after the auto-da-fe. While Philip sings “Elle ne m’aime pas” Eboli is there; she had spent the night with him after the auto-da-fe and she remains there through the scene with the Inquisitor. Normally, only Philip and the Inquisitor are in this scene. The inquisitor is blind, and there is a lot of tense dodging and movement as he slowly figures out that someone in addition to Philip is in the room. The inquisitor is normally very creepy (the ‘inquisitor theme’ is the stuff of nightmares), and this makes him even more so.
Part of the effectiveness of this is due to Nadja Michael, who sings Eboli. She doesn’t have the most beautiful voice, but she carries herself like a dancer. This works great in the scene with the veil song (have you ever noticed that the veil song summarizes a large chunk of Le Nozze di Figaro? Funny, that.) and wonderfully in the surrealist ‘ballet’ at the beginning of Act III.
Oh yes, the ballet. I am sure some people probably hate it, but I like my opera stylized and surrealist. Pink housedresses, Posa’s Pizza, and giant teddy bears? Bring it. Eboli’s obsession with Carlos is, dramatically speaking, not terrifically convincing in this production (in contrast to Elisabeth’s love for him, which works like a charm). In the scene that follows the veil song, I am left skeptical that this elegant lady would be basically stalking froggy little Carlos, but the ‘ballet’ is an effective argument for the intensity of Eboli’s lust/obsession/love? for this guy. Basically, all the tangled relationship issues of the story are resolved (to Eboli’s satisfaction at least) via a version of 1950s domesticity. A portrait of the ‘real’ Don Carlos looks down on the action from the wall.
And, of course, the music’s great.