It’s Puccini Week over at the Met’s Nightly Streams, beginning with an opera I haven’t seen any version of yet: La Rondine. And this version stars Roberto Alagna and Samuel Ramey! I’m not sure what I’ll make of the opera, but I’m intrigued to give it a try.
Also difficult to resist will be a rewatch of any La Fanciulla del West, my favorite Puccini opera. I am also intrigued by this casting of La Boheme, which is one I’ve not yet seen.
Have a happy week, everyone…and happy opera listening and watching!
My friend Gabriela and I have long thought that he deserved one, so why not create it ourselves? The incomparable Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea has been a favorite of ours for years. I recall first hearing his voice on the radio, and wondering: “Who is that?” Along with our dear friend and group admin extraordinaire S. Blake Duncan, we now have the beginnings of a fan group, which I will link to here.
I will write an entire separate post (well, probably several, eventually!) about the work of Mr. Relyea, but for now…please feel free to come check out the group, and share or learn about this extraordinary bass-baritone.
It’s a week of bel canto streaming free from the Metropolitan Opera, and each stream will be available for approximately 24 hours.
Due to work this week, I’m not sure I’ll be able to make most of them, but I definitely want to rewatch I Puritani with the great bass John Relyea this Friday ~ which I’ll probably start around 7:30pm Oregon time! It’s one of my favorite operas just for the sheer beauty of listening ~ it’s one of the rare ones where following the plot is not as crucial to me, I just love to listen to it so much. I never did get around to seeing this week’s version of L’Elisir and Norma (Sat/Sun), so perhaps I’ll be able to dip into those as well.
“That’s what I like about Shakespeare, the pictures.” ~Al Pacino, “Looking for Richard”
This blog post might as well have been titled “…And he can sing, too!” which happens to be another of the joking lines that are often used by my family in relation to the all-around marvel that is Jonas Kaufmann.
I finally caved and bought “the picture book,” as I was mentally titling it, having seen the price drop by about $20 U.S.D. recently from one vendor (which, alas, I am not sure is still selling it). But I should have bought it right away. It is written/photographed by Jonas’ friend, biographer, and media manager Thomas Voigt and my lovely friend Christine Cerletti, and it an absolute must for those of us suffering from the happy malady known as Kaufmannia, described in a post from 2016. And who among us couldn’t do with a little more light and beauty right now?
Jonas Kaufmann: Eine Bilderreise is a dual-language, heavily-weighted, and very attractive book, following our hero in pictures through the wealth of his many performances, from snapshots of his “early years,” including Idomeneo and Cosi fan tutte, through his work mostly categorized by composer or repertoire, from “Giuseppe Verdi” to “German Repertoire” to “Giacomo Puccini” to “Verismo,” to “Recitals,” “Concerts,” portraits of Jonas, and even a special little selection of Jonas’ own abstract photos. The introduction by the Director of the Munich Staatsoper, Nikolaus Bachler, as well as those by Voigt and Cerletti, express well the beauty and attractiveness that draw us to the “dark” tenor.
“What matters to him is presence instead of semblance, content instead of an empty shell. Not only do his heroes always emanate a sun-like magic, an inner fire and glow, but also dark presentiment and abysmal depths. Kaufmann does not merely belong to those who have been called, but is among the chosen…” ~Nikolaus Bachler, pg. 6
This is far more than your typical coffee-table book, perhaps because it brings into visual relief the wealth of this unique tenor’s incredibly rich and diverse work in a way both sensitive and insightful. Many of the featured photographs are essentially Christine’s own “screenshots,” some of which those of us in Jonas’ fan groups have enjoyed over the years. They capture moments of supreme beauty and emotion which recall us instantly to the performance. And none can so completely draw us into the emotional depth and interiority of a role as can Jonas.
Christine, in her delightful introduction, relates the way she first heard our tenor’s voice, as she was searching for an interpretation of Schubert’s Winterreise, and she’d frankly been trying to avoid the tenors. But his name kept coming up, and when she finally listened, it was transformative: “I would never have thought it possible that a tenor’s voice could electrify me that profoundly. I was completely taken with its baritonal, bronze, and sensual tone alone, let alone the singer’s eminent musicality and enormous expressiveness. This was not a narrator describing the figure of a wanderer in winter–this was the lonesome wanderer struggling with his fate.”
I think this beautifully sums up what makes Jonas’ voice and interpretation so unique: not only the dusky sound, but his approach to a role as if it had never been sung before. As if from within. This echoes Voigt’s insight into the words of Helmut Deutsch, who had said of Jonas that each time he comes to a role, even one which he has done many, many times before, “not the slightest routine made itself felt, each time it was all or nothing–and each time different,” his energy never abating. Jonas connects to the audience as if mind-to-mind, and heart-to-heart. Or, as Antonio Pappano has said of him, he is “the thinking-man’s tenor.” And he just happens to be a marvelous actor as well as singer and interpreter.
“Whenever you’re on stage, don’t act ‘as if’! This is about genuine feelings! I have learned this from the great stage director Giorgio Strehler, with ‘Cosi fan tutte,’ my very first opera production in Milan. He required absolute, unconditional commitment and passion from us; and this has literally burned itself into my mind.” ~Jonas Kaufmann, pg. 43
Thank you, Thomas Voigt and Christine Cerletti, for such a beautifully photographed and sensitively composed tribute to “our tenor,” and another ray of light in the midst of this ombra di nube.
I know I’m not alone in feeling something of a constant, low-grade “depression” (not to be clinical about it, but for lack of a more accurate word) during what has been a uniquely difficult year for the world.
Countless fires in my home state, Oregon (or is it “Mordoregon”?) ~ one of which started at the north end of my own town, Ashland, this past Tuesday, and caused devastation in its northward path to neighboring towns ~ and all over the West, and the Covid-19 shutdown, and ineffective leadership, and racial injustice…all feel like an oppressive shadow obscuring any brightness in the world. Now, we hardly need more brooding words about the state of the world; rather, we need hope, joy, kindness, good works for our neighbors, beauty, and art. Sometimes it has been all some of us can do to just live, and pray, and work; some of my own opera listening and watching has fallen by the wayside. But it is a sad loss, if that’s too long the case. We’ve lifted up the neglected “essential workers” during this time of pandemic, and it’s beyond wonderful. Now, I feel more than ever how truly essential also are our artists, actors, musicians, and those who bring beauty into the world. I don’t intend to focus on anything but music and opera in this blog, but only to take a brief pause, to remind myself, if nothing else, not to neglect the beauty that we live for.
Speaking of those who bring beauty into the world, one of my opera heroes, Ildar Abdrazakov, has tested positive for Covid-19, and I hope and pray for his quick and full recovery, and for all of his family.
I am so curious as to how, and whether, the Don Carlos from the Wiener Staatsoper, with Ildar and Jonas, will continue as scheduled, in the midst of social distancing. But if does, I’ll be there…virtually!
The latter, set on a platform above a beautiful Mediterranean vista, was so much fun, and particularly the duet from L’Elisir d’Amore, that I finally watched my first L’Elisir! I can’t believe I hadn’t seen one yet. It was a subtitled 1997 version from Lyon, with a very young Roberto Alagna ~ whose Nemorino was very reminiscent of a clumsy, adorable, hapless Charlie Chaplin ~ and Angela Gheorghiu. The whole cast did a lovely job, and the two leads were so delightful.
If anyone else has beautiful, inspiring, or just downright funny and delightful operas to recommend, I’d love to hear them! Meanwhile, here’s a virtual toast to art, opera, opera friendships, and laughter! And prayers for all of our beloved artists worldwide, and for our suffering world.
I couldn’t resist jotting some thoughts on my reaction to the recent and much-anticipated Royal Opera House production of La forza del destino, starring Jonas Kaufmann, Anna Netrebko, Ludovic Tézier, and Ferruccio Furlanetto, even though I’m not very familiar with this opera. When I first became infatuated with opera, I saw a recording of the Kaufmann/Harteros/Tézier version from Munich of several years ago, but that was the only complete version I’ve seen. I was intrigued, but a little confused by what seems a fairly simple story. Perhaps it was some directorial choices that made certain things unclear, whereas many who saw it were probably well familiar with the story from other versions and had no trouble following along.
In essence–SPOILER ALERT–the story begins in the home of the Marquis of Calatrava, who believes that his daughter Leonora has gotten over her infatuation with the foreigner, Don Alvaro (an Incan prince from the Americas). In reality, they’ve planned an elopement, and Don Alvaro shows up that very night, and overcomes the reluctance of Leonora to fulfill their plan. They are caught, however, by the Marquis, accompanied by the pursuing “destiny theme” in the music, and provoke a fight with Alvaro, who has tried to take the blame on himself. Alvaro, in trying to hand over his gun, accidentally shoots the Marquis—who, with his dying breath, curses his daughter. Both Leonora and Alvaro flee the same night, but not together; she believes he has escaped, perhaps gone back to his homeland. After overhearing her brother’s plan to find and kill his sister in order to avenge the family honor, Leonora begs Padre Guardiano to let her follow in the footsteps of another unhappy woman, and to commit herself to the life of a solitary anchoress in a cave near the friary. After some resistance, Guardiano agrees to support her. Meanwhile, after having sought Leonora for a year and now believing her dead, Alvaro joins the fight for Italy against the Germans. Rising in the ranks, he ends up—under another name—saving his foe, Don Carlo (who is also going by another name), and the two swear eternal brotherhood. Alvaro, having become mortally wounded, gives Carlo the key to a box that he keeps, revealing his identity, and asks Carlo to burn the contents. Carlo finds out the identity of Alvaro, and is eager that he should be healed–which is what happens–in order that he may kill him himself. Carlo reveals to Alvaro that Leonora is alive, but will die by his hand. After presumably both time and a game of cat-and-mouse searching have passed, Don Alvaro ends up committing his life to the friary in order to expiate the misdeeds of his past, and is much beloved by the populace. Finally, his whereabouts are discovered by Carlo, who provokes the dormant ire of the now-nonviolent Alvaro; they duel, ending up disturbing the peace of the nearby (dying) anchoress Leonora; Alvaro strikes a mortal blow at Carlo, and as the latter is dying Leonora and Alvaro recognize one another, and the dying Carlo, unrepentant still, kills his sister. During her final, peaceful passing, Alvaro finds in the situation and in her words assurance of his own redemption in spite of the brutal force of destiny.
In Charles Osborne’s book, The Complete Operas of Verdi, I was surprised to read that La forza, based on a play by Angel Saavedra and on a scene from Schiller, was first composed for a Russian audience and performed at St. Petersburg at the Imperial Theatre. The original ending was even more Russian, dark, and Dostoyevskian, coming directly from the play:
“Riva’s play ends, after the duel and the death of Leonora, with Alvaro’s suicide. He rushes to the cliff edge as the Father Superior and the monks appear on the scene. When the Father Superior calls him by his monastic name, Rafaele, he cries: ‘You can search for Father Raphael, you fool. I am a messenger from hell. I am the spirit of destruction….Hell, open your mouth and swallow me. Let the heavens collapse! Let mankind perish!’ And, with a final shout of ‘Extermination, Annihilation”, he flings himself over the cliff….The gentler ending as we know it today stems from the Milan revision of 1869” (Osborne 336).
Anna Netrebko’s low, melancholy soprano and the passionate but sadly tormented demeanor are a great fit for Leonora, and although Jonas is the only Don Alvaro I’ve seen, he fits the role beautifully with his winning charisma as well as his dark and dusky tenor voice and his phenomenal acting ability revealing the character’s guilt-ridden torment.
Ludovic Tézier is a brilliantly cold Don Carlo, whose rich baritone mingles so beautifully with Jonas in their scenes together; the two always have the most compelling chemistry. Theirs is the friendship that might-have-been; it is for me possibly the greatest tragedy in the story. The extent of Don Carlo’s need for revenge goes beyond any kind of bounds of honor; it becomes sheer passionate excess; but one sees, in the budding friendship before he realizes the identity of Alvaro, the potential that this character has. The gorgeous friendship duet, “Solenne in quest’ ora,” is breathtaking.
And Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Padre Guardiano is spot-on; the beauty of Furlanetto’s voice, so brilliantly preserved and rich, is always a sheer delight to listen to, and he plays the role with the appropriate complexity; he clearly admires Leonora but doesn’t know what to make of the whole situation. And, like a well-meaning but possibly quite misguided Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, allows her to persuade him to an extreme course of action. (His voice sometimes made me weepy just with the sheer beauty of it.)
I liked the simple staging and updated dress, whose time period was a little hard to pin down. The glimpse into Leonora’s childhood with an abusive brother, which we witness during the overture, makes an imaginative and helpful background for Carlo’s fanatical, Javert-like pursuit of his sister and her would-be lover. Thankfully, Christof Loy’s direction is neither overly-symbolic nor unnecessarily ambiguous; any interpretation that can be attached to it is something that one considers only in hindsight—at least, this was my experience—because the drama takes precedence. In Loy’s use of the background film projections of close-up, exaggerated reactions of the prinicpal characters, generally in slow-motion, I was reminded, as was my friend Viv whose review I would love to link here if I can find it on a public site, of the Warlikowski Don Carlos of Paris, 2017, though I don’t believe Loy’s was as creative and inspired as the latter overall. Another curious stage choice was that, whether in the Calatrava household or later in the friary, we seem to be in the same “setting”–a dining room of sorts—and I couldn’t help but wonder if the director wanted us to believe that Leonora was simply exchanging one kind of submission (that of a daughter to an overbearing father) for another (that of an anchoress to a religious father). I appreciated the “deeper logic” that the director was trying to get at in the staging, with the recurring room perhaps more reflective of Leonora’s consciousness and her tormented memories, than the real setting itself.
In terms of direction, the only thing I had a negative reaction to–because it took me “out” of the drama, as not entirely making sense except in terms of directorial imposition–was the scene where the friars are accepting their new “charge,” their new anchoress who will dwell in the cave, after Leonora has persuaded Padre Guardiano to allow her this chance. At a certain point, the mood of the scene changes from the somewhat daunting, somber and inspired piety of the action, to one where Leonora seems to have a last-minute change of mind, but the monks physically force her to stay and she ends up in a restraint position on the ground. Here again, I felt a little bit of the director’s imposition: the idea that she has merely exchanged one form of submission for another. To me, this undermines the strength of the love-sacrifice of the story, and the strength of Leonora’s character. After all, however misguided Padre Guardiano was in agreeing to it, it was her request and her resolve that won the day, and I think we need to respect that in the storyline, as it shows no little strength of character. We are dealing with people of a different time and different ideals, including those of the Romantic—often to the point of melodramatic—19th century stage here, and, in my opinion, the piece is more poignant if played straightforwardly and as though the characters are acting out of their authentic convictions, and not with our own 21st-century abhorrence for the extreme choices of cloistered, consecrated, or eremetic life, with the added submission to authority that is inherent in such a choice. So, while I see what the director was saying, it was, for me, a momentary misstep.
I do want to give a special mention to the fabulous supporting cast. In particular, for me, Alessandro Corbelli gave us some welcome comic relief with his wonderful Fra Melitone, and Robert Lloyd was both haunting and intimidating as the Marquis…such a key role and a key scene in the psychology of Leonora, and of her sad destiny. Veronica Simeoni did a fine job in the role of Preziosilla, though hers was overall, for me, not as strong a performance as the others. (This may be my own unfamiliarity with the opera and the character’s role in the drama, and having nothing to compare with.)
In terms of Pappano’s brilliant conducting and the beauty of the orchestration, nothing could be better. The thrilling final scenes, the Don Carlo/Alvaro duel, and the heartbreaking look on Jonas’ face which brought tears to my eyes—all made for a brilliant finale.
My next Forza, I think, will be the 1958 video recording with Corelli, Bastianini, Tebaldi, and Christoff…and very much looking forward to it!
But I also look forward to revisiting this one; I very recommend this production, which was a good vehicle for an excellent cast and orchestra of this strange and poignant opera.
Speaking of “malaise,” the overworked pace of 2018 kept me on a restricted opera regimen–and, actually, a restricted regimen of any life outside of work!–and I regretted having missed most of the Met’s HDs and radio broadcasts and many of the other broadcasts I would love to have seen and heard. (I’ve generally been MIA from my favorite opera groups online. I miss my dear opera pals so much!) However, things are looking up, and on this restful Sunday morning I’ve been spending time reviewing the recent announcements on the Met’s 2019-2020 season, both on stage (radio, for me!) and cinema.
Overall, nothing stands out in the way that La Fanciulla del West did this past season, with the return not only of this too-little-performed Puccini opera, but of Jonas Kaufmann. Nor have any of my long-term hopes been realized: another big HD role for John Relyea and Štefan Kocán–both of whom are notably absent from any Met performances in the coming season; nor my perhaps quixotic hope that the Met will one day put on a gloriously heartbreaking production of Don Quichotte with Ferruccio Furlanetto, capturing this iconic role in HD for the ages; nor yet the promised all-star Don Carlos in the 5-act French version. Nor do I see anything with King René Pape.
On a few underwhelming notes, what we do have are some of the standby, albeit beautiful Zeffirelli productions–La Bohème, Turandot. (Frankly, I was hoping that they wouldn’t HD the latter again until Jonas Kaufmann finally sings Calaf.) We have an Anna Netrebko feast, with her special concert, as well as the reprisal of her Lady Macbeth and Tosca roles. But we also have Marco Berti back, and Aleksandrs Antonenko.
But I’d rather stick to a few more exciting, positive highlights:
To hear the great Luca Pisaroni‘s Guglielmo and Gerald Finley‘s Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte, although not an HD of the season, alas.
The return of Sir Bryn Terfel, in Der Fliegende Holländer, conducted by Valery Gergiev in a new production.
Stars such as Elīna Garanča, Bryan Hymel, and Ildar Abdrazakov in Berlioz’s Faust.
Morris Robinson’s Sarastro, although the shorter, English Magic Flute.
Diana Damrau and Jamie Barton in Maria Stuarda.
Angel Blue and Eric Owens in Porgy and Bess.
Luca Pisaroni again, as Figaro in the Nov/Dec Nozze.
Luca Salsi as Germont in Feb/March La Traviata–though I’m not overall a huge fan of the opera–and Quinn Kelsey in the Jan/early-Feb performances.
Kate Lindsey and Joyce DiDonato in Agrippina.
Other intriguing cast members: Peter Mattei and Tamara Mumford (Wozzeck); Roberto in Bohème; roles with Matthew Polenzani, Javier Camarena, and the great Željko Lučić.
I decided to write this after being informed about the announcement by my dear opera pal Gaby, but before getting back on my beloved opera groups, and I’m intrigued to hear others’ reactions. Similarly underwhelmed? Or perhaps intrigued and inspired? I’d like it to be contagious, if the latter.
In any case, here’s to a new season–not to mention, grateful for a lineup of fantastic performers–and, hopefully, pleasant surprises.
I don’t have words right now, and must go to work ~ somehow, eyes red from crying ~ but I just heard the news from a dear friend about the passing of our beloved Dmitri Hvorostovsky. With a broken heart, I add my quiet condolences to those of all of his many, many fans throughout the world. Rest in peace, beloved Maestro. Thank you for all the beauty you have given us. Our lives are richer for your presence. You will always be our Beloved Baritone.
I have been listening rather obsessively to Jonas’ most recent album of French repertoire, L’Opéra. (That is, when I’m not obsessively relistening to passages from Don Carlos!) One can see and sample, at the previous link, the arias included in this album, from Gounod to Massenet to Bizet, including a gorgeous “Au fond du temple saint” sung with Ludovic Tézier.
This album is more “up my alley,” as they say, than the recent Dolce Vita. (But hey, I would listen to Jonas sing the alphabet song, when it comes to that, so I am far from complaining!) L’Opéra is exquisitely sung and orchestrated, and the CD comes in a beautiful cover with a booklet of photos ~ including some of the stunning Palais Garnier which comprises the outside and inside background of the CD cover ~ and the lyrics to each aria, both in English and French.
Aside from the dazed and giddy feeling on hearing Jonas sing my name in #12 (“Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from La Juive, by Fromental Halévy), the real revelation of this beautiful album was, for me, first hearing the transcendent aria from Massenet’s Le Cid, “Ô Souverain, ô Juge, ô Père.” I am surprised that this aria has managed to escape me before. It was truly a revelation, and has sent me on a quest to get to know this opera. (Link above to Jonas singing it previous to the album.)
Ah! All is over, finished! My beautiful dream of glory, my dreams of happiness, have flown away forever!
You take away my love, you take away my victory, Lord, I submit myself to you! Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father, always veiled, (but) always present, I loved you when times were good (prosperous) And I praise you on somber days I go where your law leads me, free of human regrets. Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father, your image alone for my soul is where I submit into your hands.
Oh Heaven above, so blue, so bright… spirits from above, looked at me, although this soldier may be in despair, but his Christian faith remains. You may come, you may appear to me, at the dawn of the eternal day. Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father! As the servant of a just Lord, I will respond to your call without fear, Oh Lord, Oh Judge, Oh Father!
It is too bad, in a way, that recordings of the aria in concert don’t tend to include the brief interlude of the chorus of heavenly voices, including that of St. James, as it does in the opera. It of course makes sense…but still, it is so beautiful that I wish it could be included in every version.
A few notes on the opera: Massenet’s 4-act opera premiered in Paris in 1885, based on the Pierre Corneille play, with libretto by Louis Gallet, Adolphe d’Ennery and Edouard Blau. The story is one of honor and duty, versus love; of interpersonal and familial struggles within the politics of 11th century Spain. Rodrigue, a valiant warrior who is later nicknamed “le Cid” (“the Lord”), is knighted by the King in Act I, and Rodrigue’s hoped-for marriage to his beloved Chimène is approved. But in addition to these honors, Rodrigue’s father, Don Diègue, is made the protector of the King’s daughter. This act is felt, by the Conte de Gormas (Chimène’s father), to be a deliberate snub to himself. Gormas proceeds to insult Don Diègue, compromising the latter’s honor. In order to regain it, Don Diègue begs his son to challenge Gormas. Rodrigue knows that such an act would estrange him from his beloved Chimène forever; yet, honor bids him fight. Ironically, as my mom has pointed out about the original Corneille play, the very thing that Chimène loves about Rodrigue is his honor; thus, it is a catch-22. I won’t spoil the rest, except to say that the exquisite aria comes in the midst of what Rodrigue believes will be his final battle for the glory of Spain, as he and his army appear to be defeated, or nearly so.
I loved this opera, and want to continue to get better acquainted with it. Along with the stunning Act III aria ~ a fulfillment of earlier set-up in Rodrigue’s vision of, and dedication to, Saint James of Compostella ~ I also particularly loved the Act I knighting scene, and the ceremonial chorus of bells and voices that precedes and follows it.
Unfortunately, there is no recording, CD nor DVD nor elsewhere, of our tenor singing the title role. So, I looked elsewhere, and found a broadcast which, at the time of this writing, is available on YouTube, from the Washington Opera, with Placido Domingo and Elisabete Matos. I chose this recording first because of the obliging English subtitles. It was a lovely production with spectacular costumes and staging, even if the video quality looks like a VHS recording of a TV broadcast, which might well be the case. It’s a treasure.
My second experience of the opera was also thanks to YouTube. It is from l’Opéra de Marseille, 2011, with Roberto Alagna in the lead and it still can be found at this link at the time of this post. I waited on this production, as it doesn’t have the English subtitles, but once I had the gist of the story I was happy to follow along without them.
I loved the costumes in this one, and the casting overall. Béatrice Uria-Monzon was a fantastic Chimène. It took me a bit to warm up to her, but I ended up loving both her voice and overall portrayal. She is strong and fierce, without losing a certain emotional vulnerability which is crucial. I felt the chemistry between the two leads, especially in their big scene together before the battle. As to Roberto, he not only has a beautiful voice especially for French repertoire, but there is something about him that makes our hearts go out to him; he is eminently watchable and lovable.
His visible distress, his hopeless courage, give one the irrational wish to take him into one’s arms and reassure him. One hears it in his voice: the earnest, distressed appeal. It is irresistible and I was behind him completely. It is this quality that makes Roberto so compelling in the earnest, noble, and self-sacrificing roles. It is what makes him such a lovely Don Carlos, particularly in the French, and a heartbreaking Cyrano de Bergerac.
What is it about the French repertoire that is so compelling at this time? From the French Don Carlos, to the French version of Les Vêpres Siciliennes, to Le Cid and L’Opéra…it seems to be a recurring theme at the moment. All I can say is that it is a beauty that has come rather unlooked for, and I’m thirsting for more.
“Je cherche en vain la paix et l’oubli du passé: De celle qui me fut ravie l’image erre avec moi dans ce cloître glacé!” / “I seek in vain the peace and oblivion of the past! The image of her whom they have stolen from me remains with me in this dread cloister!”
~Don Carlos, Act II
As “Part Two” of my “Don Carlos Adventure,” I wanted to reflect on the production of the opera that brought my friends and I to make the trip in the first place. (The link to “Part One,” an overall summary of our trip, can be found here.)
As an avid theatre-goer, I am entirely accustomed to modern updates, however seemingly “time-bound” the play–Shakespeare’s history plays, for example. But as an opera, Don Carlo(s)--my favorite opera–has always struck me as one that doesn’t lend itself as easily to any time and setting outside its own. So, when I’d heard that the Carlos I was so looking to was to have an updated setting and a modern ambiance, I was somewhat disappointed. I consoled myself with the thought that I would be hearing the cast of a lifetime in Jonas Kaufmann, Ildar Abdrazakov, Ludovic Tezier, Sonya Yoncheva and Elīna Garanča—conducted by the masterful Philippe Jordan. At worst, I thought, I could close my eyes at times and just revel in the sound, if need be.
I have never been happier to be wrong in my life.
I was haunted and compelled from my first viewing on the night of October 19th during my trip-of-a-lifetime to see this Carlos in person, in Paris. The whole production had a strange, haunting elegance. Leaving the best night of my life, emotionally shipwrecked, I tried to reason with myself: surely, this blissful reaction is just because I am so emotionally overwhelmed at the sheer beauty of Verdi’s music, Jordan’s conducting, and the experience of seeing and hearing so many opera heroes for the first time in person. I must have put on rose-tinted glasses about the production itself…
But it continued to haunt me. By the time I watched some of the live-stream (later that same night after we saw it in person) and then went to see it for the second time on the 22nd, I was deeply in love with the production itself, directed by cinema-lover Krzysztof Warlikowski. It is a combination of an impressionistic silent film, whose imagery is neither overwhelming, nor on-the-nose. Nothing is showy and abstract for its own sake, but leaves one with the tragic sadness of this particular vision of Don Carlos. It is a perfect vehicle for this more melancholy, French-language version of Verdi’s great opera, which is so much more widely known in the Italian. On the contrast between the French and Italian, Zachary Woolfe of the New York Times brings up some fantastic points in his review, linked here.
At the opening, a melancholy prince emerges from the shadows before the music begins, wrists bandaged after a recent suicide attempt, leaning over a washbasin. His is a tragic, purposeless existence. Repelled by a father who gives him no credit, he is even wearing what resembles a King’s College cricket jumper, as though he has nothing better to do than play sports and fritter away his time. He is underused, undervalued, disregarded. The bare but elegant stage, the intense focus on the internal state of our hero and the relationships between the characters, is consummately Shakespearean: we’re reminded of the estrangement between the little-regarded Prince Hal and his father the king, or of the tragic Hamlet, “passion’s slave.”
At first, I was mildly puzzled by how the desk and chaise-longue fit into this opening scene in the forest of Fontainebleau, but the impression I was left with is that it is his own retreat—or a kind of exile.
Élisabeth enters in a wedding gown—which, as Viv noted, appears to be a direct hommage to Grace Kelly’s wedding gown—in ghostly white, though looking more as though she is going to a funeral. Or, perhaps, as though she has died already. At this point, neither Élisabeth nor Carlos know one another; they only know that their fates are controlled by their fathers, and the cruelty of destiny.
Projected images of the various leads fill the set background at key emotional transitions: Carlos, the ultimate tragic lead, is shown at various times looking as though he is on the brink of a nervous breakdown, sometimes lifting a gun to his head. The shadow passing across the face of Élisabeth’s projected image as she accepts the “offer she cannot refuse” ~ marriage to Philippe ~ is rending.
A central image is that of the cage—illustrative of the interior cage that each of the characters carries around with them at all times—and this image appears in various guises throughout the production. The set itself is a kind of elegant cage: we see, alternately, Carlos, Élisabeth, or Eboli behind the red cage that appears at various intervals on either side of the stage. Élisabeth uses sunglasses to cage her eyes from view and hide her tormented emotions. Bars across the fencing studio (the Act II, Scene 2 garden setting with Eboli and the ladies-in-waiting) give the impression of a cage. The cage-like shadows across Philippe and Rodrigue during the “Restez!” scene have an understated power. The room where we see Philippe and Eboli lounging in Act IV is a stifling box of a room. We might go on and on. Ultimately, each character is a solitary prisoner, tormented and alone.
Like Hamlet, Carlos could say: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (II.ii). And indeed, there is a strongly dream-like quality to the production whose atmosphere and motifs echo the world of silent cinema. Flickering shadows fill the stage at various intervals, as though we are seeing images cast by an old film projector ~ a film, perhaps, that hasn’t been yet restored by Criterion ~ of something whose beauty and grandeur has been lost to a dreamlike yesteryear. Did this grandeur ever truly exist as we imagine? It is all the more poignant for its ephemeral quality. To quote Hamlet again, “a dream itself is but a shadow.”
Again, going back to the cage theme: shadows of the cloistral “cage” fall across Carlos in the cloister of Saint Yuste monastery, only dissipated, for the moment, by the entrance of opera hero, Rodrigue, the consummate honorable and faithful friend, sung so exquisitely by the understated baritone Ludovic Tézier.
The lead-up to the beautiful friendship duet is so entirely different in French than in Italian, that previous to this production, it took me some time to grow accustomed to it; since this version, however, it has become for me an immense treasure. The haunting and understated pre-duet is a testament to friendship amidst tragedy. Even the different tone of “Demande à Dieu la force d’un héros!” in the French version, is less a triumphant call to heroism than a plea for suffering resignation. (And really, the very idea that Carlos could be ready for a life of leadership in suffering Flanders, when he is so broken, is another part of the tragedy and poignancy not only of the French Carlos, but very particularly of this production.)
“Thou speakest of times that long have passed away. I, too, have had my visions of a Carlos, whose cheek would fire at freedom’s glorious name, but he, alas! has long been in his grave…those dreams are past!”
~Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos
A white horse stands not quite center stage, for a long period; it is an image that is never entirely clear, and yet, the more I lived with it, the more it felt strangely appropriate, like an image that is part of a “paradise lost”; a future that might have been; childhood; of the moment of happiness at Fontainebleau at the opening; or of nature, and natural emotions, suppressed, cast aside…frozen in time. As to the latter, the production is filled with such indications of natural emotions suppressed or frozen, from the guarded meeting between Élisabeth and Carlos at the opening, to the entrance of Rodrigue, whose affection for Carlos is checked by his sense that they are being watched; and ultimately, to the heartbreaking Act IV arias of Rodrigue, who begs for Carlos to take his hand, and who tries to crawl to his friend as Carlos desperately reaches for him from behind his cage.
The notion of a “lost paradise” haunts our characters: Élisabeth longs for her dear France, and her mother, and then, for the love that might have been with Carlos; Carlos mourns this stolen love, and the peace that eludes him, as well as the shadow of his grandfather who spent his final days in the cloister in reparation for a life of power-seeking, as Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his father. Philippe, in this production especially, has a coherent reason for distancing himself from his son: jealousy. Carlos may be “passion’s slave,” but there is something in him that Philippe lacks: warmth, the capacity for friendship, and the ability to inspire loyalty in such a heart as that of Rodrigue. This is certainly in line, in many ways, with the Schiller original.
I will just give a brief mention, as well, on the father-son note, to the haunting image that is projected at the end of the auto-da-fe, reminiscent of the famous Goya painting, “Saturn Devouring His Son.”
Philippe longs for the particular friendship of Rodrigue, and for the authentic love of Élisabeth ~ yet, “elle ne m’aime pas.” Ildar Abdrazakov’s Philippe, a younger, dashing monarch, is also here a tormented alcoholic. Somehow, it works beautifully. Woolfe writes in his New York times review on the contrast between the French and Italian versions of this aria: “In Italian, it’s a public moment, even as a soliloquy. In French, it’s the murmur of a tortured soul.”
Ildar’s commanding tone and slick, intelligent presence make him a powerful adversary. His great Act IV aria, “Elle ne m’aime pas,” left me in tatters.
Eboli, such a crucial character, is often underemphasized, or is overshadowed by the other leads. Not so here. Elīna Garanča is a force to be reckoned with ~ the ultimate femme fatale as she fences her way into the lives of all the tormented leads, herself as solitary and broken as any.
“Je said votre pouvoir…vous ignorez le mien.” / “Your power is known to me…you do not yet know mine.”
~Eboli, Don Carlos III.i
Sonya Yoncheva’s Elisabeth is glamorous, self-possessed, and heartbroken. She sings the role with power, dignity, and restraint.
Tézier’s voice was the one that surprised me the most, as carrying with supreme beauty and power up into the opera house. His Act IV arias were devastatingly beautiful, and the lack of fulfillment of his wish to hold Carlos’ hand to the last, was a surprise. I had to stifle audible sobs at this point…
“Yes, sire, we two were brothers! Bound by nobler bands than nature ties. His whole life’s bright career was love…”
~Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos
Of course, it is needless to say that I was in tears from the first glorious sound from Jonas Kaufmann. But more than that, his baritonal tenor, his shadowy and emotionally-rich tone are perfect for this haunting version of Verdi’s opera. From the moment he sets foot on stage, he is entirely invested in the role. Of course, Don Carlos must be the emotional center in order for the rest to have its full impact; he fulfills this perfectly.
As a teenager, I was obsessed with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is no wonder, then, that Don Carlo(s) is my favorite opera, for it is certainly the Hamlet of opera. What has surprised me, after the impact of this production, is my reaction to the French-language version. One becomes so accustomed to the “sound” of the Italian, that its less-familiar predecessor sounds off-putting at the outset. I recall my struggles even to find a recording of the 5-act French version. There is the marvelous 1996 recording with Roberto Alagna and Thomas Hampson; there is the Domingo/Raimondi CD, conducted by Claudio Abbado, from the mid-’80s. And that is nearly all one can find. Now, having seen the live production, it will not leave my sleep-deprived and jet-lagged brain. It has given an entirely new dimension to the Don Carlos obsession.
With the Krzysztof Warlikowski Don Carlos, I believe we have one of the additions to the canon of all-time great opera productions–of any opera. The stars have aligned. How marvelous that it has, in a way, “recalled to life” Verdi’s poignant 1867 masterpiece.