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rehearsal for the premiere performance of Verdi's Don Carlos (the original French
version for Paris Opera in 1867; the later 1884 Italian version is Don Carlo) ran
over five hours. Verdi had already made cuts and had to make more before opening night.
Today, productions of either version tend to cut still more. Between orchestra union rules
and budgetary restrictions, not to speak of contemporary listeners' more abbreviated
attention spans, even four hour productions are a stretch of resources.
Any piece of musical theatre of such length (with, perhaps, the
exception of Wagner) might be assumed to be overambitious in scope or to have what is
known on Broadway as book problems. Both apply to Don Carlo. It deals in depth
with five major characters who have complex interrelationships and places them in the
context of the sweep of history, the power of rulers and the demanding responsibilities of
high position, not to speak of the constricting authority of an authoritarian church--here
the Church of Rome at its most oppressive during the Inquisition. Verdi, never lacking in
ambition, was pulling out all the stops for the Paris Opera, the most prestigious opera
house of the time. The result, almost always severely cut, stretches credulity with its
turns of plot and deus ex machina resolution. (Historical accuracy was neither
Verdi's goal, nor that of Schiller, upon whose play the opera is based.)
But who can resist a work that offers a continuous stream of rapturous
Verdi melodies, rooted in profound emotions and sweeping larger-than-life
characterizations? The listener quickly and gladly suspends disbelief and has a fine
wallow in the musically artistic expression of the miseries of these star-crossed
aristocrats. There's little joy here; even the lovers are doomed never to fulfill their
The current production at Buenos Aires' legendary and elegant Teatro
Colon is the Italian version and runs about four hours. It does not include the opening
Fountainbleu scene, often restored in contemporary productions, which shows the meeting
and falling in love of the Spanish Prince Carlos and the French Princess Isabel. Without
that scene, listeners first learn of their love in Carlos' aria expressing his anguish
over Isabel's betrothal to his father, King Philip II. The role of Carlos was sung here by
Darío Volonte, a young Argentine, a local favorite whose career is blossoming
internationally. Volonte has a strong lyric tenor voice (though it sounded strained in
the upper register) and confident stage presence.
The Oedipal conflict thus established (his play written well
before Freud, Schiller still had Sophocles, Shakespeare and insight into human nature to
draw upon), it will be expressed as well in political rebellion when Carlos' sympathies
follow those of his good friend Rodrigo (long time Teatro Colon baritone Luis Gaeta) in
support of the Flemish rebellion against Philip's persecution--church-driven, of course,
since the Flemish were Protestants. The men's friendship, too, is the basis for "Dio,
che nell'alma infondere amor," one of the great male duets in the entire repertory.
Then there is the great mezzo-soprano role, the Princess Eboli (Maria
Lujan Mirabelli), the ambitious one-time mistress of the king who now wants to win the
heart of Carlos. Philip (unloved in his marriage, cowed by the Inquisitor) was sung by
Askar Abdrazakov, a basso who has sung in major opera houses around the world.
The production at Teatro Colon utilized a unit set against a black
backdrop. Several stepped platforms, with varied accessories, managed to effectively
convey the large number of different locations required, enhanced by the sensitive
lighting, all designed by Roberto Oswald. The auto da fe-coronation scene was
noticeably understated--no lurid suffering or flames here, but a tastefully and
artistically drawn tableau, much appreciated by the approving audience. Costuming was in
traditional period elegance, using generally subdued colors, with an occasional
splash of red or gold (for the church dignitaries, of course). The entire production
demonstrated the optimal use of what are presumed to be limited budgetary resources (the
bane of opera houses everywhere these days). Poor Eboli did not get a single change of
costume through the long evening!
Sensitively conducted by Bulgarian Milen Nachev, this Don Carlo is,
musically speaking, on a par with international standards. But real operatic magic--that
moment when the music and the drama and the singer come together to reach in and grab your
heart--only emerged late in the evening with soprano Maria Pia Piscitelli's brilliant
delivery of Isabel's last act aria, "Tu che le vanità conoscesti del mondo,"
the thoughts of a mature woman, no longer a naive princess, whose love was thwarted, but
now makes peace with God over her fate in the world.
Buenos Aires, May 16, 2004
- Arthur Lazere