“He loved me and we were brothers …~Don Carlos, Act IV
Our hearts were bound by eternal oaths…”
[SPOILER ALERT: I’ll discuss the plot/ending and some of the directorial choices in this post.]
My mom and I recently canceled cross-country travel plans which I had hoped would be something of a renewal in opera sharing and attendance, since this long abyss of Covid began. We had splurged on really wonderful orchestra seats at the Met for my favorite opera, the 5-act, French language Don Carlos (Verdi’s original version), being performed for the first time ever at the Metropolitan Opera. I’d hoped to connect with two dear friends there, and possibly others. But with the unpredictable Omicron, a couple of us were in the same situation: we are almost daily in close proximity to those vulnerable to illness, and we felt we couldn’t take the risk.
Thankfully, there was the glorious Live in HD! I went on my own to the Wednesday encore, and it did feel like a renewal.
“Par quelle douce voix, mon âme est ranimée?” / “What sweet voice recalls my soul to life?”~Don Carlos, Act II
I was already a fan of Matthew Polenzani (there’s a facebook group for him thanks to opera friend Judith Green), exquisite Canadian bass John Relyea (more on him below!), and the other leads. Matthew’s sweet melancholy and goodness won me over; Sonya Yoncheva’s Élisabeth had a melancholy that was of a bitterer kind, glamorous, understated, dignified; very much as she was in the role in Paris in 2017 which I wrote about here. Both she and Polenzani were captivating. Eric Owens was formidable as Philippe, and Jamie Barton was a knockout Eboli.
This new production by David McVicar was oppressive, confining, dark—even during the charming Fontainebleau opening—and appropriately so. It was somewhat reminiscent of the gallery-style background of Michael Grandage’s Don Giovanni, except that the “gallery” was a wall of tombs—a catacomb.
Here are a few of McVicar’s thoughts, from an article about the production on Playbill.com:
“‘Philip, hand in hand with the Church, has created a dictatorship of thought and an empire of fear—an empire ruled by death,’ says director David McVicar, explaining the concept at the core of the opera and of his production. ‘Set designer Charles Edwards and I researched a great deal about catacombs and ossuaries because we wanted to entrap all the characters in a world almost without sunlight, and make death an ever-present theme in every visual picture.’ This vision carries over into the predominance of black tones in the production’s costumes, designed by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, signifying “the approach of death—that there are maggots gnawing away at the heart of this empire.’”
And it makes sense; it would be interesting to note how many time the libretto references death and the tomb. Just a few from the latter portion of the opera:
“Who will restore this dead man to me? O dreadful abyss!…This proud man … this heart of flame,
I have thrown him into the horror of the tomb!”
“Fill my heart with the divine flame,
or make room for me next to you in the tomb.”
“Ah! We live on, but in vain.
He has taken from us the King’s heart, which is consumed with regret!
Spaniards! We are descending into the night of the tomb!”
But in spite of the repressive set and its imagery, both in beauty and horror, of death ~ an enormous corpus of Christ hangs from the rafters over the fourth act ~ there is a mysterious hope for resurrection, or as Rodrigue speaks of, a “new world” ~ but more on that.
For the first three acts, though I was awed by the glorious orchestra and chorus—and the flawless voices—I wasn’t as emotionally carried away as I’ve often been with Don Carlos, even in the opening. (I’ve sometimes been moved to weep as early as, “Je suis Carlos! Je t’aime!” ~ or earlier.) This might have been for a couple of reasons ~ I’ve been more sporadic about opera listening over the past two years, a little heart-weary. Also, this opera is so close to my heart, particularly the central brotherly relationship and my opera-hero Rodrigue/Rodrigo, that I often approach an unknown production and new-to-me Rodrigue with a slight guardedness. (I had gotten a bit burned by a particular regie production of the Italian version that reworked the ending in such a way that it made Rodrigo a villain!)
By the first intermission, I was getting very excited about Étienne Dupuis, vocally and in his convincing acting ~ the emotional connection to Carlos. Will it continue? I wondered. Will justice be done to the relationship, to the character? I posted a few quick thoughts at the first intermission, on Facebook:
“’Why have you snatched me from the tomb, o cruel God?‘
“Quick impressions about Don Carlos from the first intermission (at the cinema encore)…I haven’t been looking at impressions of it, so it is pretty fresh. Phenomenal voices, beautifully sung all-round. Owens, Yoncheva, Dupuis, Polenzani, Barton. Really warming up to the heroic Rodrigue so far, and beautiful friendship duet! Most delighted/surprised by Matthew Rose’s Monk…wow!!! Gorgeous voice, penetrating…!!!
“The set like a tomb, like catacombs…
“And they are really upping the Hamlet parallels, with a kind of doubling of Gertrude/Ophelia in the scene where Carlos has an audience with the queen, and it’s reminiscent of the slightly mad Hamlet that Ophelia describes, ‘his doublet all unbraced…‘
I didn’t post from the second intermission ~ except to say how much I was looking forward to seeing John Relyea’s Grand Inquisitor ~ but was enjoying the interviews and the reflective time, during what was proving to be an all-around pitch-perfect performance. I was utterly charmed by the brief interview with Étienne Dupuis during this intermission, and by the song he made to honor the friendship between Carlos and Rodrigue, commissioned by the Met. (Perhaps the realization that the focus was on their friendship made me take my guard down a notch, too…they weren’t going to pull a Robert Carsen on me! And I say that in spite of loving most Carsen productions I’ve seen ~ but that one Don Carlo horrified me.)
So, all was going smoothly; I figured this would be an all-around riveting Carlos ~ but I could remain a happy but slightly detached observer. That was nice, too.
Then came Act IV.
If I had to pick a single favorite act in any opera, it would be Act IV in the 5-act French Don Carlos.
Of course, Act IV opens with “Elle ne m’aime pas,” and Eric Owens did a beautiful job of making Philippe relatable, tragic; his voice was powerful and melancholy. (Out came the discreet tissues from my purse…) Even more surprising, I found that I had tears running down my face during the whole of the Grand Inquisitor scene—definitely a first—just because of the sheer beauty of John Relyea’s powerful and rich voice. The kind of voice, as I mentioned in his fan group that Gaby and I started, that you feel resonating somewhere in your chest. And he was terrifying, to the point of madness. The way he exited with that resounding “Peace” right before his final “Perhaps,” filled the theater. (I had had my heart set on trying to meet him after, if we’d been able to make it in person!)
Of course, the power continues in the next scene’s quartet, and with Eboli’s show-stopping “O don fatale.”
But then comes the real heart-breaker, and the heart of the opera, in Rodrigue’s death arias. I’ll just say it: Étienne Dupuis absolutely destroyed me. Every moment swept me away, his voice full of a sweet melancholy and convincing love ~ love for freedom, for Flanders, and for Carlos ~ as he died in the arms of his friend. And what a gift his voice is! Rich, elegant, full of heart and warmth. (I wish I’d known this Canadian baritone before, and now am extremely tempted to go see him and Luca Pisaroni in the new production of Don Giovanni in San Francisco, if it can be managed.)
The whole scene, so absolutely crucial to get right, was sung and acted beautifully by both Polenzani and Dupuis. I’ve felt so often, one cannot ~ or should not ~ portray even a slightly detached friendship here; I’ve seen it understated before and it just doesn’t work as well. Carlos, after all, is an emotional hero, and Rodrigue has had to be guarded all throughout. Here is their opportunity to finally break free of whatever doubt had separated them, and whatever illicit love for Élisabeth had distracted Carlos. After all, it is through this passage that Carlos comes out changed by his friend, and it had better be a doozy of a scene.
I think this might possibly be the most tender rendition of his death that I’ve seen ~ which is why it works so beautifully.
The heartbreak continues in some of the most glorious music ever, as a repentant Philippe enters, trying to make peace with the son he has imprisoned, only to be doubly regretful when he learns that Rodrigue was not the traitor that he was believed to be. What follows is Rodrigue’s requiem/lacrymosa, heard only in the French version of Carlos, which, when he had cut it in the Italian, Verdi repurposed to use as the Lacrymosa in his Requiem Mass.
In some ways, the beauty of sorrow expressed in the Lacrymosa is a fitting theme for the whole opera, particularly the slightly more melancholy tone of the French language version. It is a theme which is, if you think of it, problematic ~ Carlos never does have the opportunity to be the great hero in the “new world” described by Rodrigue; but finds his peace, as the ghostly Monk had foretold, only in the tomb ~ in another world from this.
It had been McVicar’s intent “to entrap all the characters in a world almost without sunlight.” Yes, almost, but for the unexpected vision of Rodrigue at Carlos’ own death in the final moments. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in a Carlo/Carlos production before. The wall of tombs breaks open, and light finally enters the stage, as the strong silhouette of Rodrigue enters to be with Carlos in death. Carlos dies in his friend’s arms, as Rodrigue had done in his. And it was perfect, breaking our hearts again ~ but in a way that heals.
“O my friend, yes, give me your great soul,
make me the hero of your new world!
Fill my heart with the divine flame,
or make room for me next to you in the tomb.”