Don Carlo from Verdi: ascent into madness?

in O & P Highlights/Opera/Reviews by

The week that followed last Saturday’s Oper Leipzig premiere of Don Carlo has been nothing short of madness. I couldn’t help noticing the motifs I had seen the night before when I woke up to the brutality of Spanish forces enacted upon innocent voters in Catalonia. And we are still reeling for answers as to what drove the white retiree in Las Vegas to rain bullets down on unsuspecting festival goers.

Don Carlo
Premiere 30.09.2017 © Kirsten Nijhof

It’s not surprising that Verdi chose this play by his contemporary, Friedrich Schiller, to adapt into an opera. As to exactly when he became politically active, the dates are a bit fuzzy. However, a devout Republican, he was happy to hear “Viva Verdi!” in the streets. The acronym was used in support of Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia who was crowned as the first king of the newly formed Italian nation in 1861.

From his first successful opera, Nabucco, where a chorus of Hebrews took to the streets, Verdi was always for the everyman.

I feel quite sure Verdi would have been at the polls in Catalonia.

Sometimes I research a piece before going to a performance and sometimes I don’t. This time not doing so backfired on me. Unfortunately at A2 level, the German subs were too hard for me to follow everything. Luckily the program has the scene synopses in English starting on page 5.

Of course I found that out after the performance, choosing instead to let the action unfold. Maybe it wasn’t only the difficulty of the translation, perhaps it was because of the version performed. Verdi’s original version lasted more than 4 hours and he had already started making changes and cuts before it even hit the stage. It would have lasted past midnight and patrons from the Parisian suburbs would have missed their trains home.

Later, when the Italian version opened in London, Michael Costa made further changes. One scene he cut was the opening where Carlo and Elisabeth meet in the woods. They are in love and plan to marry. From what I’ve read, this is when she tells him she must marry his father, King Phillip, because of political reasons instead. At first Verdi was very upset, but the opera was a great success and later he kept making alterations and this cut remained.

Don Carlo
Premiere 30.09.2017, Markus Meyer’s set design and Guido Petuold’s lighting make for dramatic scenes at every point © Kirsten Nijhof

Even today, various versions are performed. Oper Leipzig’s version lasted 3 1/2 hours, but it didn’t feel that long. For me, Markus Meyer’s set was the star of the show. It was simply elegant, modern yet classical. Dark and broody and glistening… with diamonds or blood? Guido Petzold’s lighting and use of fog made each scene its own.

While the set is minimal, there is one strong feature. In gleaming racing car black, an enormous omni-present locust hangs above the heads of Carlo and Rodrigo while they are away at war fighting the pestilence created by the church. It is where they become brothers and promise to be true to each other no matter what.

I couldn’t help but notice that it also resembled an uncircumcised penis. Later, when Carlo has his gun aimed at the king, Rodrigo stands between them. Is this to protect the king who warned him earlier to be careful of the Great Inquisitor when Rodrigo told him of the plight of the Netherlanders at the hand of the Church? Is this to protect Carlo? Is he jealous about Elisabeth?

Sven Bindsel’s costumes connected Carlo’s, Verdi’s and our time with elements from those and periods between. Ruffs, men’s 19th century long coats, Queen Elizabeth in mourning attire, early  peasant and guards in pleather jackets and toboggan hats dawned the stage seamlessly. I loved the Inquisitor’s bondage-like zippers for crosses.

Don Carlo
Premiere 30.09.2017, Phillip II (Riccardo Zamellato) and the Great Inquisitor (Runi Grattaberg) © Kirsten Nijhof

Always anticlerical, you can hear the darkness of the church in the music for the Great Inquistor. Its low monotone notes bellow forth from the belly of the beast. Runi Grattaberg is foreboding in size. While we feel a Darth Vader moment, we get more than that. He comes down the stairs, rather than up from the darkness. Though he is powerful, we see that his blindness makes him vulnerable. Somehow the king refuses to see that the Great Inquisitor is not all powerful without his minions.

Perhaps this is because the king, Riccardo Zanellato, has more than one side. We see him in his private moments. He warned Rodrigo to beware of the Great Inquisitor. We see him question the love of Elisabeth for him.

Don Carlo
Premiere 30.09.2017, Princess Eboli (Kathrin Göring) © Kirsten Nijhof

For me the strongest cast members were Mathias Hausmann as Rodrigo and Kathrin Göring as Princess Eboli. Of course she had the wonderful song where she teases Don Carlo with the veil. I love the playfulness of Verdi at that moment.

Verdi’s opera was based on a theory that was of their time. It tells of a love-sick Don Carlo who pines over his lost love. While Carlo was a real person, the portrayal of him is apparently completely wrong. He actually was born deformed as a result of inbreeding. When young he hit his head and after being treated (having a hole bored into his head to relieve the pressure), he was more and more unstable. Modern historians believe he died after a year and a half of being placed in solitary confinement by his father. There he alternated between binging and starving himself.


Verdi’s Don Carlo
Oper Leipzig

Sun 8 Oct 6.00pm
Sun 15 Oct 6.00pm
Sun 26 Nov 6.00pm
Fri 15 Dec 7.30pm
Sat 24 Feb 7.00pm

Maeshelle West-Davies gleans her varied life experiences to expose a personal perspective through a multitude of mediums. Sound, video, photography, dance, performance and public art are the tools she uses to convey her message. Her work is a response not only to a physical journey, but an emotional one, as with all of us who walk along or beside our individual paths.

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