If you are looking for the opposite of Regietheater, as I was doing this weekend, a Met production from the early 1980s is a pretty safe bet. You go into it expecting a certain style of soothing literal-mindedness, and that’s pretty much what you get in this case.
So. This DVD of Don Carlos is well worth anyone’s time. I ended up liking it for what I think are the right reasons and disliking for what I am sure are the wrong ones.
A friend of mine saw the Met’s new Don Giovanni recently, and mentioned to me afterward that there is a scene in which the Don does a motorboat in Donna Elvira’s cleavage. This elicited (her words) “a gasp and some giggles.” From the audience, not from Elvira, although the latter would certainly make sense. Which tells you quite a bit about both audience expectations and what the Met knows about them.
I’m not sure much has changed since 1980. Not because there is any motorboating in Don Carlos (can you even imagine such a thing? Besides, with these costumes the motorboater could easily lose an eye on the way in) but because like Don Giovanni this production is pitched at an audience that expects opera to be high quality but fairly staid. Staid in 2012 is of course more advanced than staid in 1980. In the case of Don Giovanni ‘staid’ means that the audience is not expecting much raunchiness and is tickled by what would in any other context be a fairly tame gag. In the case of Don Carlos it means that no one quite dares to do much in the way of acting for fear of frightening people.
But I am being unfair and also getting ahead of myself. This Don Carlos is a creature of its time and should not be evaluated anachronistically.
This is one of those productions that looks very much like a production of the thing it is a production of. There is a forest, with trees, for the Fontainebleau scene, a monastery for the San Yuste bits, a garden for the parts that are set in a garden, and so on. If you’d shown me something like this that had been designed and performed in the last ten years, my impulse would be to guess that the production designer was taking the piss, but in this case it would be crazy to think they are anything but serious. And to the production’s credit, it never gets in the way. It indicates where the action is taking place and then it shuts up. Which is a perfectly respectable stance for scenery to take. Besides, this was filmed in 1980 which means that what with the blurriness of the picture you can’t see much of it anyway.
So. Before all else I should also say that this performance sounds terrific. The singing is rock solid all the way through, and the orchestral playing (under James Levine) is big and expressive and wonderful.
However. Brace yourselves, because here comes the anachronism.
I have plenty of opinions about this opera, independent of any particular production, and one of them is that Carlos as a character is most convincing and interesting if we see his vulnerability. He’s can’t be the ‘heroic tenor’ type or else it’s not always clear why he does what he does. This character is a young naive guy in a bizarre situation and we need to know that. Similarly, my sense of Elizabeth from the music is of a person who feels her obligations very strongly — she’s young, and unhappy, but she’s got that steely inner core of conviction. Even when she makes choices that make her feel awful, she is certain that she is doing the right thing and that gets her through. And Princess Eboli . . . let’s not start on her, because that is even trickier.
My point is not that these are the only ways to read these characters. But I will state that however you want to understand what the words mean and what the music says, these are fairly complicated people and require some subtlety in terms of acting.
And do we ever not get that. At times I didn’t care because the singing is that good, but on the whole it bothered me. I guess the place to start is with Carlos himself.
(Next part here.)