(Previous section here.)
So. What ‘acting’ means in an operatic context has clearly changed over the past thirty-two years. We expect more subtlety and perhaps a little less stiff grandeur than audiences a few decades ago. As a result the emotional tone of this production seems strange, even stilted: Carlos, for example, is pitched so much as the ‘manly romantic hero’ that he comes off as a bit of a stuffed shirt.
And then there is Elizabeth. Renata Scotto’s Elizabeth was a bit of a puzzle to me in dramatic terms. When she enters in the Fontainebleau scene she descends from her horse (yes, it’s a real horse – I wonder how many animal wranglers the Met has? Are they friends with the bear growl consultants? I smell a potentially awful novel in this somewhere) and swishes through the assembled peasants with the kind of self-satisfied dignity that you might expect from a monarch thirty years older than young Liz is supposed to be at this point. When she gives the gold chain to the peasant woman she doesn’t even look at her. This isn’t Elizabeth as a popular young princess who feels a connection with her people despite the obvious and unquestioned difference between her and them. This is a much more knowing, less vulnerable version of the character. Indeed, when Elizabeth and Carlos first meet I kept thinking – she knows who he is. She is so on to this already. I doubted this at times, but I suspected it again when she opens the locket and matches him to his image – she doesn’t seem very surprised. (Meanwhile, there is a truly enjoyable weight and assurance to Scotto’s singing that echoes what I have just said in terms of characterization although whether this is deliberate or not I couldn’t say. There is something to be said for the ‘grand’ style of opera performance, I think.)
The effect of this is that when Elizabeth does agree to the marriage with Philip, we don’t see anything new of her. There’s no strong sense of something important happening to Elizabeth when she makes that decision and says yes.
And this scene, oddly enough, has a great deal to do with what happens in Act IV (or III or whatever it is – I can’t keep track of all the various version and version-dependent divisions of this opera, I’ve reached a point where I’ve stopped trying, and besides that I think there are some mistakes in the Met’s little title screens) when Eboli makes her confession that she’s gotten it on with Philip. Elizabeth has already forgiven her for stealing the jewel casket, because it was done out of love that was rebuffed – but this, clearly, is one step too far.
On one level, it seems obvious what has happened here. Eboli is now a fallen woman, and Elizabeth will have nothing further to do with such a creature. Elizabeth is a person of her time – the double standard is so much a part of her mental world that there is nothing further to think about. If you leave it at that, though, she comes off as kind of a jerk, particularly to a modern audience.
Schiller’s play articulates what is afoot here more clearly than the libretto of the opera. In the play, Philip has been exerting predatory pressure on Eboli for some time. In addition to this, it’s much clearer that Eboli begins as a very idealistic person, and — since, in this version of the story she has known Elizabeth for several years already — holds the queen as a model of virtue that Eboli nearly worships. Certainly the presence of this ideal keeps her (Eboli) on the right path. But then in that scene with the mistaken identities/romantic intentions that occurs in both the opera and the play, Eboli realizes, or thinks she realizes, that Elizabeth is in love with Carlos and thus a hypocrite. The Eboli in the play thus has a kind of moral crisis and decides virtue is meaningless and out of a kind of existential despair and a desire to revenge herself on Elizabeth for in a sense deceiving her, she decides ‘fuck you, world’ and submits to Philip. In the libretto of the opera, it is not at all clear when this event takes place. Certainly there’s no scripted interaction between Philip and Eboli that might clue a person in that all this had even been going on. Although the lightheartedness in the veil song suggests that Eboli does not begin the opera in as dodgy a moral position as you might assume – but at the same time both the music and the words indicate her ease with flirtation, disguises and perhaps even deceit. She hasn’t fallen yet, but she’s the type who might.
But back to Elizabeth. If the scene earlier in the opera where Elizabeth consents to the marriage is done right, you get a strong sense of Elizabeth’s awareness of what this decision means and what she is both getting and giving up. Elizabeth has given up love and pleasure in order to do the right thing, and it is her moral satisfaction in having done this that makes her treat Eboli later with both anger and contempt. Eboli is a whore in Elizabeth’s eyes – but what is worse from Elizabeth’s point of view is that Eboli has attempted to get away with not playing by the rules, a thing Elizabeth herself has resolutely refused to even consider.