Because I operate through an inspired combination of obsessiveness and free association, I have not stopped thinking about Don Carlos. Something was telling me that there was a connection between Elisabeth’s aria Non pianger, mia companga and, of all things, the 1971 movie of Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I spent more time than I should probably admit trying to figure out why on earth I was thinking this, but it turns out there is a reason. If you listen to the introduction to the aria, the little pattern right before the vocal part comes in is very similar to the music in this scene beginning at about 0.23. The tones are in a different order, but they totally stole that from Verdi.
[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.
I wanted to see this because I will hear Verdi’s Don Carlos (Don Carlo when it’s in French) any chance I can get but also because the Elisabeth in this production is Anja Harteros. When I saw the DVD of Harteros as Alcina one of the aspects of that performance that struck me was those lovely high floated pianissimos. And Elisabeth is a role that contains a lot of high ethereal pianissimos.
I am going to attempt to watch Don Carlos here tomorrow. I say attempt because one, sometimes there are weird technical/permissions things with watching live streaming from abroad (this happened to me only once, but I was sorely disappointed) and two, it requires me to get up at an ungodly hour for a weekend. (‘Central Time Zone’ my ass. Central Time is a gigantic lie. Central Time is not Central. It is Peripheral Time. At best.)
And I will write notes ONLY during intermissions. I will sit on my hands if I have to, but I will not scribble during the singing. Because we are civilized around here. Most of the time, anyway.
Thinking about Verdi, and specifically about Don Carlos made me remember this, which is an item of a fairly specific type: the recital CD that is a pleasure to listen to but which you can make yourself sick of fairly quickly. This is nothing against Magdalena Kožená. She sings these arias about as lyrically and stylishly as it is possible to sing them. But it’s the kind of material that has limits as far as repetition goes. And I say this as a person who has a fairly high tolerance for repetition. (That Salzburg DVD of Clemenza? I can tell you right before Röschmann glances behind her in Act I to make sure that a pillar she thinks is there is actually where she expects it to be that that is what she is going to do. Because I’ve watched it that many times.)
Don Carlos is my favorite Verdi opera. It is difficult to put my finger on why – certainly Falstaff and Othello are also up there in terms of operas by Verdi that I enjoy. Also Traviata, sometimes. Then there is Macbeth, certain parts of which always make me either smile or cringe. There is something not quite right about Macbeth, but that is perhaps another subject for another day.
On the face of it, it is hard to explain why I find Don Carlos so compelling. But I think I can work out the reason, most of which is in the music, but part of which is the work of Friedrich Schiller, on whose play the story is based.
I was thinking about that snippet of Don Carlos that was lodged in my brain for some reason the other day and eventually I went back and listened again to the recording it’s from, which is this.
I had not listened to this in a while, and two things jumped out at me. One, Shirley Verrett’s voice (she is Eboli) is even better than I remembered. The part of her voice that always made the greatest impression on me was the lower register, which can make your hair stand on end (in a good way). I forget how nice the top of it was too. I never really understood why she decided to be come a soprano later in her career — she was a hell of a mezzo.
I have no idea why. It’s Montserrat Caballé, from a recording of Don Carlos that is older than I am.
So, the other day I came across (never mind how) a comment that was appended to a review of that Zurich production of Cosi fan tutte where Fiordiligi bites it in the last two minutes. The review was on this website that had to do with Cleveland, Ohio, because — as it turns out — the orchestra for that particular Zurich performance was the Cleveland Orchestra. I have never been to Ohio, but the evidence suggests that they are no slouches in Cleveland, as far as orchestras go.
The commenter was furious with the concept of the production. The ‘zinger’ at the end (at least, I suspect it was intended to be a ‘zinger’) was that this type of production was the equivalent of “painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”
Mozart’s opera is not so fragile that one dead Fiordiligi is going to spoil it for everyone, forever. And, given that a significant amount of the plot of that opera involves false moustaches — well, let us just say that the conceptual problems wrapped up in that comment operate on several levels at once.
It put me in mind of a comment someone made on a video I put up (because I liked it) of the “Eboli’s Dream” ballet from that one production of Don Carlos. An individual named Edward saw it and disliked it immensely – he called it “vulgarity.”
There seems to be a certain flavor of opera fan who really hates this kind of thing. I am not sure why. It reads to me as if killing poor Fiordiligi (what do you call someone named Fiordiligi for short? Fiori? Didi?) offends some people on a sort of . . .basic decorum level. They find it both annoying and a little bit embarrassing. It’s as though if certain boundaries are not set, no one is going to take music seriously.
It is probably unfair of me, however, to mock Edward and the author of the Cleveland Zinger. I imagine there are things that you could do to Mozart’s operas that I would have that very same reaction to, although I can’t right now think of what those things would be.
Verdi’s Don Carlos is kind of a thing with me. I love it for musical reasons but in addition (thanks mostly to Schiller, whose play I believe the libretto is based on) the drama is something that can be made to do quite interesting things.
There are some productions where it doesn’t really matter who is where on stage. Or, it doesn’t matter much. This is not one of them — I was rewatching it this evening and what I was struck by was the extent to which the whole thing depends on movement.
For example, there are some really striking switches back and forth between natural and symbolic action. The scene in Act II after Carlos and Posa’s little “friendship theme” duet where Elisabeth rushes in, finds all the exits barred against her by monks, collapses to her knees, and then Philip stalks in and tears her veil in half: this is not a series of actions that would ‘actually’ happen in the context of this plot but it moves seamlessly back into naturalistic action with Charles V and Posa trying to comfort the stricken Carlos. I didn’t even catch that they did this the first time I saw it because it made so much sense.
(However. If they were really going to go for symbolism, wouldn’t Philip ‘tear’ Elisabeth’s ‘veil’ AFTER all the monks have prayed over them? I mean, call me a stickler, but there is a procedure for this type of thing, no? Then again, in “o bien perdu” after Carlos talks about a taste of paradise, he ends up on the floor with his head under Elisabeth’s dress, so, well . . . keep it classy, Staatsoper Wien.)
Something similar happens in Act III after the auto-da-fe. While Philip sings “Elle ne m’aime pas” Eboli is there; she had spent the night with him after the auto-da-fe and she remains there through the scene with the Inquisitor. Normally, only Philip and the Inquisitor are in this scene. The inquisitor is blind, and there is a lot of tense dodging and movement as he slowly figures out that someone in addition to Philip is in the room. The inquisitor is normally very creepy (the ‘inquisitor theme’ is the stuff of nightmares), and this makes him even more so.
Part of the effectiveness of this is due to Nadja Michael, who sings Eboli. She doesn’t have the most beautiful voice, but she carries herself like a dancer. This works great in the scene with the veil song (have you ever noticed that the veil song summarizes a large chunk of Le Nozze di Figaro? Funny, that.) and wonderfully in the surrealist ‘ballet’ at the beginning of Act III.
Oh yes, the ballet. I am sure some people probably hate it, but I like my opera stylized and surrealist. Pink housedresses, Posa’s Pizza, and giant teddy bears? Bring it. Eboli’s obsession with Carlos is, dramatically speaking, not terrifically convincing in this production (in contrast to Elisabeth’s love for him, which works like a charm). In the scene that follows the veil song, I am left skeptical that this elegant lady would be basically stalking froggy little Carlos, but the ‘ballet’ is an effective argument for the intensity of Eboli’s lust/obsession/love? for this guy. Basically, all the tangled relationship issues of the story are resolved (to Eboli’s satisfaction at least) via a version of 1950s domesticity. A portrait of the ‘real’ Don Carlos looks down on the action from the wall.
And, of course, the music’s great.