Don Carlos / Bayerische Staatsoper 1-22-12 (2)

[Discussion of the music and vocal performances here.]

There were some minor issues with the sound in this broadcast, e.g. during Act I we got distortion of anything above a certain pitch and volume level. Since a few important bits of the soprano part are above a certain pitch and volume level, I was really glad that this problem vanished fairly quickly.

This production is kind of period and kind of not. If you didn’t know that the story took place in the sixteenth century, you might not guess it, at least not right away.

image courtesy bayerische-staatsoper.deAct I, which is in theory of the forest of Fontainebleau, takes place inside a building that sort of looks like a church – at least, it’s got a great big crucifix to the left and some votive candles. It’s quite dark. As Carlos sings his opening section Elisabeth is already there — well, both there and not there. Like Carlos she has an armful of flowers, and she is walking slowly, as if she is asleep, around the stage. Carlos almost touches her as he speaks of how he has already fallen in love with her, but she doesn’t respond. It’s only when Tebaldo runs in (the part where Elisabeth normally enters) that she wakes up. If I had to guess, I would guess that the sleepwalking Elisabeth is imaginary — she is the Elisabeth Carlos is thinking of, who can’t yet respond to him because she isn’t really there. After this it is a fairly typical Carlos/Elisabeth scene — although I worried that someone was going to burn a finger when they were playing with the matches. Then again, I suppose that that is precisely the point.

I’m not sure what I think about the decision to have this scene in a place that is definitely indoors. Isn’t the fact that Carlos and Elisabeth meet out in the forest, i.e. out in nature, intended to suggest that their relationship is natural, as the nineteenth century understood the term – immediate and obvious and overwhelming? Then again, perhaps the fact that this scene is staged indoors suggests it isn’t, not really.

image courtesy bayerische-staatsoper.deThe costumes are dark and anonymous for Carlos and Posa and Eboli. There are some strategic splashes of color, e.g. with the veils and draperies the court ladies play with in the veil song scene and in the ceremonial costumes that Philip and Elisabeth wear – black picked out in gold, with brilliant red cloaks. The one Elisabeth gets in the scene where she accepts the marriage proposal looks like it does not have any sleeves. She’s just kind of stuck in there. The effect of these is to emphasize the formality of the relationship that Elisabeth and Philip are in. When they are in scenes together, it is either wearing these, or in their nightclothes (plain white).

Then there is Posa’s glove. Posa has one black leather glove. I think he and Dalinda might be cousins or something, because in conceptual terms that is pretty much the same glove doing pretty much the same thing. He takes it off in his last scene where he gets shot and dies, which again makes perfect sense, and gives it to Carlos. I can’t recall what Carlos does with it, but it’s not important.

This is a production that emphasizes the characters’ isolation from one another. The stiff costumes for Philip and Elisabeth, the grim-looking bed that Philip sleeps in, and in particular in the prelude to the garden scene. In the libretto this scene begins with Carlos alone, and then Eboli and later Posa join him. Here Elisabeth enters first, and drops a white rose, which Carlos picks up when he comes through; he leaves and I can’t remember the sequence, but Eboli, Philip and Posa all wander in, looking as if they want someone to be there who is not there — again, makes perfect sense — and then leave, each alone, before the scene proper begins. I think this pervasive sense of the characters being isolated is the context for the odd detachment in that first Carlos/Posa duet that I mentioned before. Even those two, best friends though they are, don’t have as deep a connection as they want.

This is not specific to this production, but the part after ‘ella giammai m’amo,’ when Elisabeth runs in to tell Philip that her jewelry case has been stolen, and then after the confrontation with Philip she faints, and then Eboli comes in, and then Posa too — dramatically this is a very tight scene, and musically that quartet is always really neat, because you’ve got four people who all suspect one another’s motives all musically entangled with one another — but part of me always thinks it’s borderline unintentionally funny that both Eboli and Posa appear to hang out right on the other side of the door to Philip’s bedroom. Perhaps they are playing pinochle in the anteroom? (Eboli has always struck me as a gambler.)

This production is also quite dark, literally and figuratively, as productions of Don Carlos tend to be. When Philip leads Elisabeth away in Act II — it’s the part where Carlos exclaims ‘she is his!’ — they go not out, but down. It is down these same stairs, now glowing red, that Carlos is led by Charles V (who in this case has kept all of his ceremonial regalia from when he was king) at the end of the opera. The only point at which there is bright light is in the part of the prison scene where the people have rushed in and then the Inquisitor shows up. Behind the inquisitor there is a huge bright white square. The effect of associating light with the Inquisitor makes light itself seem suspect.

I am of two minds about the auto-da-fe. This is one of those scenes where it pretty much has to be big, both in terms of orchestral playing and in terms of staging, in order to work. What they’ve done here is to have the heretics ready to be burnt on a pyre at the front of the stage, and right behind them a red carpet along which enter the inquisitor, his minions and various instances of religious pageantry: several Jesuses (one who has just received the lashes, one carrying the cross, one on the cross), the Virgin holding her heart, a pietà, and some other odds and ends. The coloring here is very bright, almost garish – the heart that the Virgin holds is flickering translucent plastic, and there is a lot of shiny fabric. It has the effect of making the pageantry look tawdry, which is precisely the point, so it works, even if it’s not pretty. But the way they’ve set everything up the stage, with the pyre, the fabric, the chorus/people, and then Philip and Elisabeth on a sort of stairway/dais thing in the rear make the whole scene look crowded and a little smaller than it should. I wanted a little more space to this, because it’s supposed to be sort of huge and overwhelming and depressing in its bloodthirsty grandeur.

image courtesy bayerische-staatsoper.deI said that this production emphasizes the characters’ isolation. Other productions that I have seen definitely deal with this quality of the story, but in a different way: you get the sense of the scene as hot-house-like, with everyone on top of everyone else and intensely aware of what other people are feeling, but still alone. I think the latter tends to work better than the former. For one thing, Eboli’s expressions of anger tend to feel more organic in that context (in this Bavarian production, Eboli as a person never quite gels – it might be Smirnova, it might be the production, or a combination of the two) and usually you also get a better sense in general of all the weird little relationships among the characters that make the drama of this opera compelling. Anyway. The point is, I liked this production. I can see what the designers/directors were going for, and I think that on the whole it works.