The best opera evenings are where everything simply coalesces. The singers are on the mark, the direction is sharp, the sets and costumes agree with the music, the orchestra sounds fresh. Rarely does this happen. Certainly I didn’t expect it for the Staatsoper’s production of Don Carlo, a revival of a seven-year-old production, billed specifically as a vehicle for René Pape to sing the towering role of Philip II. Generally if one singer is trumpeted over the rest, the result is an uneven affair of awkward dominance, with the star reigning supreme while everybody else runs scared.
Fortunately, this was not the case at Friday’s Don Carlo. There was not a single weak link in the cast, the orchestra gave a sturdy if undistinguished performance under the baton of Massimo Zanetti, and Philipp Himmelmann’s staging matched the drama of Verdi’s opera, performed in its four-act, 1883 Italian revision.
Don Carlo, based on a Schiller play, tells a grim tale of religion intersecting with politics and love: King Philip II of Spain is to marry Princess Elizabeth of France to seal peace between the countries, though his son Don Carlo is madly in love with her. In revolt, Carlo takes up the cause of freeing Flanders, various machinations occur, the Inquisition rears its ugly head, and all ends in misery.
Himmelmann places the opera in a vaguely contemporary setting, with the characters clad in the outfits of modern aristocracy (tuxedos, three-piece suits, slinky dresses). Much of the staging rotates around a dinner table at which the principal characters sit, eat, and make love, emphasizing the family dynamic of the opera and the stifling conformity demanded by both royal and Catholic authority. Schoolgirls point guns at the audience, heretics are hung from their feet, but nothing gets too crazy by Berlin Regie standards.
Verdi’s opera is about the irrelevance of speaking truth to power. The loyal, freedom-loving Rodrigo fails to win over Philip’s support for Flanders and arouses the ire of the Grand Inquisitor, ending in his death; the people, finally compelled to rebel against Philip’s tyranny and free Carlo from prison, balk at the presence of the Grand Inquisitor—they will overthrow the government but not the church. Himmelmann matches this oppressive dynamic with stark sets drained of color. At the end of Act II, the four principals dine together while watching an auto-da-fé hanging of heretics, the ultimate sign of complacency in the face of evil.
Pape commanded the stage, embodying the role of the tormented monarch and achieving a resplendent terror in the opera’s most agonizing moments. His tortured monologue in Act III, when he realizes that his wife never loved him, was haunting and nuanced, his stentorian bass flecked with pain as he seemed to drown under his own power. Fabio Sartori and Alfredo Daza were a potent pair as Don Carlo and Rodrigo, the former with a soaring voice and the latter commanding with rich, bold hues. Amanda Echalaz sung the role of Elizabeth with glowing piety and Nadia Krasteva displayed refined coloratura as the sex-crazed Princess Eboli. Rafal Siwek made a fearsome Grand Inquisitor, regrettably looking like a Men in Black extra in sunglasses and a suit (the only real mistake of the production).
Verdi is at the height of his abilities in Don Carlo, with slashing music constantly racing towards the opera’s tragic end. At times, the orchestra seethes with rage before suddenly evaporating into bouncy lightness; the charming music which accompanies the execution of heretics makes a horrifying juxtaposition. In the final scene, after his friend Rodrigo has died, Don Carlo attempts to flee to Flanders and is stopped by his father and the Grand Inquisitor. Verdi writes that Philip demands Carlo’s execution, but suddenly the king’s father, the ghost of the emperor Charles V, rises from the grave and steals Carlo away. Instead, in Himmelmann’s version, Philip’s lackeys shoot Carlo in cold blood. As Charles V sings “The sorrows of the earth follow us even in this place,” Philip, the Grand Inquisitor, and Elizabeth sit down to dinner. The king butters bread and his wife pours tea, chillingly indifferent to the voice of God.