On the subject of "Don Carlo," commissioned by the Paris Opera, the composer was his own harshest critic. "In this drama there is nothing historical," Giuseppe Verdi once wrote, "nor is there any Shakespearean truth or profundity." The job of any "Don Carlo" at the opera house, of course, is to discover the Shakespearean properties Verdi claimed do not exist.
John Dexter's production at the Metropolitan Opera, introduced in 1979 with James Levine at the podium and frequently revived, still makes a persuasive case. Tomorrow's matinee (conducted by Fabio Luisi, with Sondra Radvanovsky, Violeta Urmana, Richard Margison, Dwayne Croft and Ferruccio Furlanetto in the principal roles) will be broadcast live to a radio audience estimated at 11 million listeners in 40 countries; the current revival continues through April 2.
Is "Don Carlo" actually as uninformed by historical fact and as devoid of imaginative truth as Verdi pretended? No, on both counts. That ayatollah of Christendom, Philip II of Spain (1527-98), really did have a son named Don Carlos. Don Carlos really was engaged (briefly) to the French princess Elisabeth of Valois, whose hand was then bestowed on Philip instead. Philip really did incarcerate his son, who in life was a haughty and violent mental defective, subject to fits of homicidal rage.
As for the Oedipal love triangle the librettists Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle constructed around these wisps of fact, that indeed is pure fantasy. In real life, Philip's short-lived heir and third bride (both 1545-68) were practically children at the time. Méry and du Locle were drawing on the high-flown dramatic poem "Don Carlos" of Friedrich Schiller, who cast his hero as an aggrieved, hypersensitive Hamlet of Spain, in desperate search of a mission. Schiller's prince (and Verdi's) has his Horatio in the wholly imaginary free-thinking Marquis of Posa, who urges him to join the fight to liberate oppressed Flanders. Likewise imaginary (though she shares her name with a historical person) is the scintillating Princess Eboli, a snake in the grass who sleeps with the king but lusts for his son.
One difficulty with "Don Carlo" is that it unfolds in broken arcs, like a suite of tapestries. Traditionally, directors and designers have underscored that effect, opting for costume drama in literal-minded décor. Elisabeth, heroic beneath her decorum, is often played mistakenly as a plaster saint. Grand opera implies pageantry, of course, and "Don Carlo" - one of the grandest - delivers not only a coronation but also a bonfire to the accompaniment of a Heavenly Voice that welcomes the burning heretics into the presence of God. The original scenario calls for seven locations - a monastery, a garden, a cathedral square, a prison and so on - each made to order for ponderous Victorian history painting.
Disjointed "Don Carlo" may be, but its grandeur is unsurpassed. Among the highlights: the stirring prayer and oath of friendship for Carlo and Posa (a love duet in all but name); solemn chant from the chorus of monks and bejeweled song from the court ladies at leisure; two show-stopping arias in contrasting styles for Eboli (and who cares if neither has much plot function); the prince's fatal tryst by moonlight with the wrong woman; the king's soliloquy in the cold light of dawn, contemplating the wreckage of a loveless marriage; his conference with the Grand Inquisitor, a blind nonagenarian, come to condone the prince's execution and to demand Posa's murder.
In the writing, "Don Carlo" gave Verdi no end of trouble. For a blow-by-blow account, consult Julian Budden's authoritative three-volume study "The Operas of Verdi" (Oxford), which distinguishes five versions, beginning with the five-act score, complete with the ballet Paris audiences expected, as Verdi delivered it to the Paris Opera (1866). Next comes the abbreviated version actually performed at the world premiere in 1867 and published the same year.
Which Version Is Best?
The standard version - unlikely to be supplanted - is the fourth, introduced at La Scala, in Milan, in 1884. Included here are definitive, sharply heightened realizations of some crucial episodes. Gone in its entirety, however, is the ballet, which affects the design not at all. Gone, too, is the entire original first act, which skews things greatly. The lost act is set in France, in the wintry forest of Fontainebleau. Here, Don Carlo, in disguise, meets Elisabeth, wins her heart, and reveals his true identity.
And here the lovers learn that the statesmen who dictate their fate have changed their minds. To secure the peace between France and Spain, Elisabeth is now to bestow her hand on Philip. A noble slave to duty, she accepts in a single heartbroken syllable. Dramatically, the scene at Fontainebleau lays the foundation for all that is to come; musically, it contains essential material to which the later acts refer. In the edition of 1886, Fontainebleau was restored (adding a half-hour to a running time that already includes three solid hours of music).
These days, whenever a major new production of "Don Carlo" is announced, aficionados want to know: Is it in five acts or four? And is it in French or Italian? Purists want French, on the very good grounds that Verdi composed and revised it in that language (as "Don Carlos"). It is easy to find passages where the Italian translation is generic, pompous, vague or misleading, yet the case for French is by no means open and shut. The original text has its infelicities, too; moreover, Verdi's ear for the ebb and flow of French verse is not as unerring as his ear for Italian.
The current Met production, in Italian, offered its distinctive solution to the "Don Carlo" dilemma. "No music is being cut that Verdi chose to retain," the Met explained, "and none of his revisions are replaced by unrevised passages." The company reinstates Fontainebleau, complete with recently rediscovered pages discarded before the Paris premiere. There is no ballet. A quarter century later, the Met's approach remains persuasive, but it hardly precludes others.
There have been some ambitious attempts over the last year. In June, the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam and the Berlin State Opera weighed in with new productions, followed in October by the Vienna State Opera. In December, the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence revived the milestone staging by Luchino Visconti, originally produced for Covent Garden, London, in 1958. A DVD of the Amsterdam production has been promised for later this year, adding to a considerable list already on the market.
The most eagerly awaited new entry was Vienna's, a world premiere. The score was Verdi's original of 1866, in French, with first act, ballet music, and all. The production, however, was belligerently up to the minute. In his Vienna debut, the director Peter Konwitschny, provocateur-darling of the German critics, sent his cast crawling hither and yon on all fours, cooked up some ham-fisted gags and injected some jolts of gratuitous sadism. To the music of the ballet (familiar to balletomanes from George Balanchine's delectable "Ballo Della Regina"), he brought on the five principals for a pantomime entitled "Eboli's Dream," a vision of goofy domestic felicity straight out of "I Love Lucy." Tellingly, Don Carlos - the big baby - wound up in a crib.
"Don't stage the libretto; stage the whole thing," Mr. Konwitschny likes to say, always adding, "Don't stage the music; stage the whole thing." Be it said in his defense that his free-for-all was frisky. And while it often made a mockery of the mood, it did comment in its own scurrilous way on the opera's every jot and tittle. Props were invested with heavy symbolic weight. As a sign of his political myopia, Posa the soldier wore a bookworm's heavy glasses. And for his coup de résistance, Mr. Konwitschny staged the auto-da-fé as a live telecast of breaking news. The procession began outside the opera house, winding through the lobby and auditorium en route to the stage. Patrons could watch the hubbub on monitors in the grand staircase if they liked, with awful broadcast sound piped in.
It so happens that the auto-da-fé was spliced into the original scenario at Verdi's request for crass commercial appeal, and recent commentators tend to regard it as something of an embarrassment. So, no doubt, does Mr. Konwitschny, whose realization delivered an implicit critique. Especially scathing was an onstage cameo for the Heavenly Voice. Rather than warbling from above, as Verdi intended, the singer put in a personal appearance (think Céline Dion at ground zero), crooning gooey benedictions to the cameras and falling out of her dress.
The Vienna press not only ate all this up, they licked their plates and asked for more, forgiving a musical execution that was far from distinguished. Vocally, the cast (Iano Tamar, Nadja Michael, Ramón Vargas, Bo Skovhus, Alastair Miles) ranged from adequate to abysmal. And in the pit, under the slack baton of Bertrand de Billy, the ragged orchestra, renowned on international concert stages as the Vienna Philharmonic, was unrecognizable.
A Hair-Raising Debut
Amsterdam and Berlin stuck to the standard edition, in Italian. Willy Decker, in Amsterdam, proved as microscopic an interpreter as Mr. Konwitschny but not such a joker. Mr. Decker's set replicated - in laboratory white - the royal crypt at El Escorial outside Madrid; the costumes looked like El Greco court dress reinterpreted by Prada. The action and the imagery throughout were sharp and clean. But the big news here was the hair-raising debut of Rolando Villazón in the title role. Taking his cue from the history Schiller deliberately suppressed, Mr. Decker asked him to play the prince as a madman, a danger to himself and others. Contrary to Verdi, the action concluded in the prince's suicide. It was a daring choice, validated in rave reviews and prolonged ovations.
The drawing card of the Berlin production, which I missed, was the matchless singing-actor René Pape as the king. As described in the overwhelmingly hostile press, the director, Philipp Himmelmann, set his entire production around a dinner table in a reductive attempt to play up the domestic tragedy. Happily, Mr. Pape, who scored a personal triumph, went on to perform the role again under what promised to be more satisfying circumstances in Florence.
Visconti conceived his production for Covent Garden in five acts, an even more unusual choice then than it would be today. Florence presented alternating performances in both five acts and four (in an irresponsible, defective edition that stripped the hero of his single aria). The stage pictures, inspired by the 16th-century Spanish masters, conveyed the dignity, sobriety and restraint of their sources. As one could see in an open scene change (the technical crew's creative and warmly applauded alternative to a strike in protest against draconian cuts in state support), the scenery consisted mostly of painted canvas. Yet as the elements moved into place, they assumed a solidity and presence perfectly suited to Verdi's solemn themes.
Intimations of the Present
Alas, Visconti has been dead for three decades now, and the psychologically penetrating character portraits his settings cried out for did not materialize, with the two casts milling around the stage more or less at will. Mr. Pape's king, however, created his own reality, burning with smothered wrath. His soliloquy, no aria this time but a devastating private meditation, earned a call of "Grande!" from a connoisseur in the boxes: a rarer tribute and a higher one than the firestorm of "Bravos" that followed.
Some ascribe the current vogue for "Don Carlo" to the rattled state of our world. Unfolding against a backdrop of distant war, militant fundamentalism and state-sponsored terror, the domestic imbroglios at the court of Spain may indeed possess a subliminal contemporary resonance. But as Mr. Pape's king revealed, the lasting power of "Don Carlo" lies elsewhere: in the anatomy of loves, betrayals and crises of self-worth that waste the heart.