Sometimes political theatre is about politics and sometimes it’s about how those in power are brought down by very ordinary concerns, in this case being in love with people you either can’t have (Don Carlos and Elisabeth) or who don’t want you (Phillipe and Eboli). So it is with Don Carlos, the five-act opera by Giuseppi Verdi appearing now for the first time at the Lyric in the original French for five performances November 9-25, 2022.
It is Verdi’s longest and least-performed opera. If you go, you will see why. I’m saying upfront that this opera is really only for Verdi stans and people like me who want to see every opera ever written at least once. Once is plenty for this one. It is four hours of my life I won’t be getting back.
You can really only describe Don Carlos with superlatives. I can’t decide if it’s merely the worst opera I have ever yet seen, or the worst opera ever yet written. Or, if I was going to copy the style of the libretto the supreme, ultimate, Lord God of badly-written opera, because the librettists never describe a thing just once. Oh no! They must find at least a half-dozen adjectives for every….single….object, person or emotion.
This thing is, even by the standards of grand opera, over the top to the point of ridiculousness. Not a single relationship is supported in any way by the text. Elisabeth and Carlos meet for like three seconds and are madly, passionately, would-die-for-one-another in love. It was supposed to be an arranged marriage. They’d never met. But in three seconds, undying devotion.
They both spend the REST OF THE OPERA pining and wishing for death because they can’t be together because the arrangement is switched from son to father and Elisabeth has to marry Philip the King of Spain.
This is every single relationship in an opera entirely driven by relationships. There is no establishing of anything. There’s no interaction between characters before someone sings a big aria about undying love for somebody else. Or magically reveals themselves to be a traitor or the King’s Mistress. It’s awful. And the lyrics are awful, too. They are excessively flowery, they are beyond ridiculous and so emo that it is like a couple of lovelorn teenage goth kids were trying to ape 19th Century poets and failing spectacularly. It’s like parody but played utterly straight. (In fact, I’d love to see this opera done as parody. It would work splendidly that way.) Librettists Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle, have a lot to answer for and none of it is good.
And then Verdi doesn’t help us by writing excessively flowery music with a zillion diminished chords, strangely upbeat and calliopesque motifs and super exaggerated and kinda racist approximations of Spanish musical styles. There are often four or more people on stage singing, not to complement each other, but in opposition and none of it really goes together well. You occasionally get a chord that works or a terrific duet, but mostly the lines are dull and not coming together in a coherent way. But, because he’s Verdi, he occasionally pulls out something really nice. And those moments are dotted throughout an otherwise musically dull show both within the ensemble singing and the orchestral score. So you see it could have been something, maybe, with a better book.
This horrible abortion of a book was taken from two plays, one by Fredrich Schiller, who gave us the execrable Mary Stuart. Schiller does his same thing here by slapping real people’s names and some historical incidents on a story he’s made up almost whole cloth. Schiller’s original play was criticized for unbelievable characterizations and lack of unity and it’s made even worse here by the librettists and later company’s edits leaving the poor singers with nothing to work with. (In the Lyric’s version the scene where Elisabeth and Eboli switch veils is omitted, so there’s no explanation for why Carlos thinks he’s supposed to be meeting Elisabeth and gets Eboli instead.)
It’s clear that Schiller’s play was an anti-authoritarian screed and some of that gets through, along with the idea that the Inquistion is generally bad and Flanders (and Protestantism) is good. But then all the pomp and preaching about the sacred role of monarchy the librettists layer on undercuts the sympathetic democratic viewpoint. The second play that provided a source for this was Eugene Cormon’s 1846 Philippe II, Roi d’Espagne and it lends two scenes that don’t work with the Schiller, including the auto de fe.
Lyric does an excellent job explaining why the political stance gets so muddled because of the political situation in Italy at the time Verdi was writing it in the program. I won’t rehash it here. Kudos.
Don Carlos is just a super weird choice as an operatic hero. In reality, Don Carlos was sickly, mentally unstable and somewhat crippled as a result of extreme inbreeding (portraits show him with the Hapsburg chin and his parents were related to the point where they were like half-siblings). Real-life Carlos liked to sadistically torture animals and people and suffered a severe head injury which required surgery after falling down stairs while chasing a servant girl in 1562 (when he was 17). After that, he became even more mentally unstable and violent, tried to murder a nobleman, attempted to murder his father, and was imprisoned by his father in his rooms at the palace in 1568 (when he was 23). Philip hoped he’d eventually recover his senses. Instead, Carlos died there, probably from his continual ill health per the views of most historians and several hunger strikes he’d engaged in. There is no record of his having been executed, though his father’s political opponents claimed Philip had had Carlos killed. So there’s your hero.
I felt so sorry for the singers who had to memorize this trash. Joshua Guerrero as Don Carlos ably made his way through his part with lovely tone and sang a ton of it sitting or groveling on the floor in emo sadness. Rachel Willis-Sorenson as Elisabeth, was the model of piety and lack of agency, singing beautifully as well while she was given absolutely nothing to do. Their roles are thankless and they performed them ably.
Dimitri Belosselskiy as King Phillipe was grand and bossy and even genuinely touching as he tried to out emo Carlos for no apparent reason. (Again, this is his third arranged wife. He’s 32 and she’s 14 at the time.) His big aria in act IV, totally unsupported by anything in the text, because ask yourself, why would an aging king with gray hair expect his teenaged bride to be madly in love with him, was wonderful. (I wonder why they chose to age him up so much, but artistic license, I guess.) Solomon Howard was nicely menacing as the Grand Inquisitor and his scene with Phillipe in Act V was a highlight because it was the only part of the opera that made any sense.
The two bright spots, because they actually are playing parts that have agency and drive plot, but also because they were splendid in them, were Clementine Margaine as Princess Eboli (the villainess, if there is one) and Igor Golovatenko as Rodrigue, the revolutionary trying to aid Flanders. Everything they did was among the best things in the opera despite the hideous ridiculousness of Eboli’s faux-Spanish aria in Act II. Their voices are both exceptional and it’s so nice to hear a mezzo coloratura and baritone get really meaty featured parts like this. Rodrigue’s duet with Carlos, also in act II was also a major highlight.
However, everything wonderful about Rodrigue was utterly destroyed by the absolute insane ridiculousness of his final aria as he is shot by the Inquisitor’s assassins and lies dying. It went on so long with him flopping down and popping back up to sing another line that I could think of nothing more than Paul Reubens’ death in the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, but lasted which at least 5 times as long.
I had to cover my mouth to suppress my laughter at how bad this was as I didn’t want to disturb the other people around me. I don’t think unintentionally hilarious is what they were going for.
View this video for full effect.
Another standout in the cast was Denis Velez in her trouser role as Thibault. Absolutely delightful every moment.
As usual, the Orchestra ably conducted by Enrique Mazzola was fantastic. The Lyric’s chorus provided wonderful support to all the main players and had amazing choral moments with impressive dynamics.
I don’t have much nice to say for Sir David McVicar (original director) and Axel Weidauer (revival director) who left those poor singers out on stage with zero to do except drape themselves on stairs. There was no stage business. They kept shouting at each other across the stage. It’s an opera entirely driven by emotion and the blocking did NOTHING to establish emotional connections of any kind. There are also super weird dead spaces where there are people slowly getting on and off the stage in full view of the audience while no music is playing. Then music starts and maybe one character is wandering around the empty stage doing nothing interesting. This opera could have been much shorter if the time was used better. It felt like insult on top of injury.
And the production also didn’t help them by using a minimalistic stage set. It was park and bark to the extreme and so completely uninteresting. Nobody did anything but stand and sing for 4 hours except for the interminable creeping processions of monks and people headed to the stake, because this funsies opera features an auto de fe! Which totally lacks drama and is disconnected from the rest of the plot. It’s just background to establish that Spain is bad and the Inquisitor is powerful, I guess.
So as often is the case for the Lyric, the performers were amazing and were undercut by the production, and in this case, the horrible mess of a book. It’s Verdi’s least-performed opera for a reason.
Lovely photos by Todd Rosenberg and public domain portraits of the real people.