Verdi – Don Carlos / ROH 2008 (1)

For the record, this performance of Don Carlos is the Italian version and does not have either the first Fontainebleau scene, where the poor French peasants complain that life is hard, the scene later on in which Eboli and Elizabeth switch masks so that Elizabeth can avoid a palace party, or the ballet. It’s still five acts, but it doesn’t have all the same pieces as the five-act French version. Having thought about it, I think I’m rather partial to the five-act 1867 version in French. But I like the Italian one too.

This production is literally as well as figuratively dark. There is some brightness in Act I, via the snow in the frozen forest where Carlos (Rolando Villazón) and Elizabeth (Marina Poplavskaya) first meet. During the hunters’ chorus, Elizabeth and her attendants rush on with hunting guns (this is the sixteenth century, so ‘rifle’ is not the right word – it is most likely a snaphance musket, because a French princess would probably get a nice, up-to-date gun for hunting and I cannot believe I am even writing this sentence) and take aim at something out in the audience; we see Elizabeth carefully aiming and cocking the gun and then firing. It looks like she hits something. Of course, what she’s really bagged is Carlos, who is lurking there behind a tree.

image via musicalcriticism.comThe garden in Act II where Eboli sings the veil song and Elizabeth and Carlos have their “io vengo a domendar” conversation is also bright, but the sky is a dull orange. The impression is less ‘joy of nature’ than ‘planet circling a dying sun.’ Also, there is a stairway-like part of the back of the scenery that looks like it was borrowed from Super Mario Brothers, but for whatever reason this doesn’t disturb the mood.

The sky for the auto-da-fe scene is red. Not really a sunset or sunrise red, but a sort of dull ominous glow. There is a lot of dull ominous glow in this production, and when we don’t get that what we get is a lot of big dark shadows cut through with beams of light. This is true in the San Yuste scene, for example, when Carlos visits his grandfather’s tomb and later meets up with Posa. It happens again in the scene in Act IV where Philip is alone in his study – the light comes mainly through the rear wall, which is a big solid wall with rows of small, square windows. These little patches of light, all in rows, give a sort of grim depth to both the stage and to how alone Philip is. It really works.

A similar dark wall with rows of small square windows is used further forward for scene changes, which in this production are consistently elegant and quick; walls of the same pattern often appear to the sides, i.e. in the aforementioned garden. Spain in this opera is a place of big dark cavernous spaces into which little light filters. And when light does appear, it is not necessarily to be trusted – it’s either a grim red, or long narrow beams which might wink out in a moment if a door is closed.

Costumes are sixteenth-century, although Posa’s collar may have sneaked in from the early 1600s. The heretics in the auto-da-fe scene get not just white gowns and pointed hats, but white gowns and pointed hats with flames printed on them! It’s a nice touch, I guess, although I’m not sure whether the Inquisition in real life would have gone to all the trouble. Elizabeth gets a beige dress early on, but is in black the rest of the time, as is nearly everyone else. (Eboli by Act IV is wearing a dress with sheer striped sleeves that look like they were imported specially for her from a Texas saloon in the 1880s.) There is a nice touch with the color in Philip’s act IV scene in his study, where Philip himself is dressed in gray and the portrait of Carlos that he’s found in his wife’s jewelry box is bright red.

(Next part here.)

19 thoughts on “Verdi – Don Carlos / ROH 2008 (1)

  1. Apparently both the chorus of woodcutters and wives and the Eboli/Elizabeth duet were cut by Verdi before the original Paris performances but are now sometimes performed. I think this ROH version must be similar to the 1886 Modena version which was pretty much an Italian version of the original Paris version minus the ballet.


  2. “… and I cannot believe I am even writing this sentence)”

    Just one of the many reasons we love your blog!!

    (I really must get to know this opera, but there are so many different versions – French, Italian, 4 Act, 5 Act, etc. – that I hardly know where to start!)


    1. I think the best way to get to know it is to ignore all the various issues with versions and just find a good performance of any version. I like knowing that the opera had various forms over time, but the knowledge has never really changed my response to the music that much.


    1. I would have figured archery too, given the limited accuracy of 16th-century guns. I associate guns more with armies than with royal hunts in the 1500s, although I don’t really know much about courtly hunting practices in the early modern period. Maybe either France was different from England or the producers of the opera wanted guns rather than bows?


      1. Apart from the scenery of act 2 which was somehow odd, the rest was just fabulous.
        Kaufmann was very good with a different approach than Villazon. He was more heroic yes sensible with a voice that was very secure. Also, it was Marianne Cornetti as Eboli (good) and the rest of the cast was identical to the one from the DVD. My opinion is that the DVD is following very well the show, there are no augmentations audio or video of any kind. It preserve incredibly the atmosphere from the auditorium.
        I remember very well that one of the episodes that I enjoyed very much was the chorus from Flandre in the Auto dafe scene. Just extraordinary how much music, but also sensibility and power can bring only 6 men.
        I was very lucky to get a ticket in the last minute and for many weeks after I thought it was a dream being there, that night.


        1. That must have been terrific – I am envious!

          (Also, I’m sorry your comment took so long to appear. WordPress has been flagging perfectly normal comments as spam lately – I didn’t see it until just now.)


      2. Very nice performance. The DVD is very well done, there is much of the atmosphere of the show in there. Kaufmann was more heroic than Villazon and overall better although I like Villazon’s passion. The small chorus of the Flemish people from the auto dafe scene was absolutely fantastic.


    1. That reviewer did not love the production! But I do agree with them that the part where the snow in the opening scene slithers back and retracts at the end looks a little odd.


        1. It is – I like that little piece of staging. On the DVD Poplavskaya looks really into the process of taking aim with the musket; it’s very charming.


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