Talking Power to Truth
Don Carlo, 1886 version, music composed by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, conducted by Bertrand de Billy, Director Nicholas Hytner, Royal Opera, Friday 12th May 2017, reviewed by Leslie Jones
This, the third revival of Nicholas Hytner’s production, is a curious mixture of the old and the new. The sets, somewhat reminiscent of David Hockney’s latest phase, are minimalist, as in the opening scene, in the forest of Fontainebleu. At the beginning of Act II, located in the cloister of San Yuste Monastery, massive Romanesque pillars ingeniously descend from above. Use of colour, especially red, is most effective, as with the fans of the ladies of the court during the Song of the Veil, sung by Princess Eboli (Ekaterina Semenchuk). The costumes, however, are ultra traditionalist, albeit striking, as with the serried ranks of furs of the ladies of the French court. All of the main parts are performed with accomplishment although there were no standout performances on this occasion.
Several key elements of Don Carlo recur in Verdi’s oeuvre. We have a coup de foudre (Don Carlos and Elizabeth); love versus duty, when the latter is obliged, for reasons of state, to marry Philip II, the King of Spain; jealousy (Philip of his son); and the indictment of a Catholicism which underwrites an oppressive ruling order, with its Grand Inquisitor (blind, appropriately) and auto-da-fé.
Illicit, almost incestuous passions, predominate. In Act II, part II, Elizabeth challenges Don Carlos (Bryan Hymel) to “…see it through, kill your father”. The Infante of Spain is passionately in love with his strikingly beautiful stepmother who is much younger than her husband, his father. We were reminded of Michel Onfray’s perceptive comments about another complex, triangular relationship, that of Sigmund, Amalia and Jacob Freud (see my review of Le crepuscule d’une idole: l’affubulation freudienne, QR, Autumn 2010). Political action on behalf of the oppressed Flemish people arguably enables Don Carlos to sublimate his sexual tensions.
At times Grand Opera is risible. In Act II, part II, Don Carlos tells Elizabeth that he is dying of love. This fatuous and unconvincing assertion drew unanticipated laughter from the more world weary and disbelieving members of the audience. The anguished lover is a tiresome and passé figure in this day and age. My cynical companion wondered whether those in the most expensive seats were also laughing.
“Only by shedding blood can the world have peace”, Philip gloomily advises Posa. Verdi’s vision, like Puccini’s, evidently became darker with the passage of time.
Leslie Jones is the Editor of QR