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.
The 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.)