The current Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD performance in movie theaters worldwide is Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo, on Saturday, December 11, 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. Eastern, with the encore performance of the opera in the evening on Wednesday, January 5. It is magnificent, not to be missed–even if it’s snowing, and you think you want to stay home.
This opera follows another with “Don” in the title, Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale-but there the resemblance ends, “don” simply being an Italian and Spanish title for male nobility. While Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is a comic opera, Verdi’s Don Carlo takes us into more serious territory.
Do people usually clap at the opera movies where you live? At my theater, we usually have pockets of restrained applause. (On the one hand, you feel silly for applauding performers who can’t hear you. On the other hand, sometimes you just have to express your appreciation. This was the case with Verdi’s Don Carlo in our theater; we clapped, freely, loudly and frequently.
What a magnificent opera! I almost didn’t go, since I was drinking coffee and relaxing in my pajamas when I realized, at 11 a.m., that this particular opera started at 11:30 (Central time). But I did go, arriving only a few minutes late,wearing reasonably matching clothes. And soon I didn’t care about any of that, so engrossed was I in the story and the music of this masterpiece by Giuseppe Verdi, with excellent singing throughout the four hours.
When I arrived, Act I had started, and Roberto Alagna as Don Carlo was already singing his aria in the wintry woods, so pretty and simple with stark trees and a winding path through the snow.
Carlo is happy because he is going to marry Elisabeth of France, in a political move arranged by his father, King Phillip II of Spain. (The time is around 1560.) He is even happier when he meets Elisabeth (a very lovely Marina Poplavskaya), traveling through the woods too, on her way to meet her future husband. At first she is apprehensive about leaving her homeland and her father to marry a stranger. But when she finds that the kind and handsome man she is talking to is her Don Carlo, she is as happy as he. They sing a pretty duet and have their moment of paradise on earth.
But not long after, the news comes that King Phillip has decided to marry Elisabeth himself; she will be his queen. Both Elisabeth and Carlo are plunged into sadness. A chorus of women in long grey dresses beg Elisabeth to accept her fate, to bring peace to France and Spain. Roberto touchingly reaches his hand to her, but she passses by him, in a gesture-or lack of it-that seems almost cold, but is in fact her surrender to her fate. We will see this regal distance in her throughout the opera, which is actually a demonstration of her fine character. The chorus sings a song of celebration while the young lovers are in agony.
In Act II, ladies in waiting in black lace carry red flowers, flutter red fans in front of red steps with a bell hanging inside a cutout cross. The sets are as lovely and appropriate as the music, in this production. Princess Eboli (Anna Smirnova) sings a gorgeous Moorish song, advising them all to hide behind their veils until they find true love.
Carlo goes to the monastery, to the tomb of his grandfather, Emperor Charles V. A monk who seems to be the ghost of Charles appears. He says that true power is God’s, and that true peace is found only in Heaven. These words will certainly resonate throughout the opera.
Then Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa (Simon Keenlyside) appears. He is Carlo’s good friend, and he urges Carlo to transform his anguish at losing his love into a fight for the Flemish people, who are oppressed by Phillip’s reign. Carlo agrees, and he asks Elisabeth, now queen, to intercede for him and ask the king to send him to Flanders. He can’t help declaring his undying love to her, but she rejects him out of her consistently noble submission to duty.
Posa tries to convince the king to end his oppression of the Flemish people. The king refuses, but is impressed with Posa’s courage. It is as if he has taken Posa on as a second, and more loved son when he asks Posa to watch Carlo, whom he suspects of still wanting his wife.
There is an intermission here, in which Deborah Voight interviews Ferruccio Ferlanetto, the King. They talk about how Don Carlo is Verdi’s biggest opera, with six principals. They discuss the character of Phillip who, though he is the most powerful man in the world, knows his son is against him and the Church is over him. Voight also interviews the lovely Marina Poplavskaya, who characterises Elisabeth as a very real woman. Indeed, all the characters in this opera (with the exception of the ghost) are all too real and human.
When Act III starts, Carlo goes to the queen’s garden. Having been summoned there for a secret meeting, he assumes it is the queen who wants to see him, and he freely sings his love to the veiled woman who meets him there. But when the veil comes off, it is not Elisabeth but Eboli. She has mistakenly thought Carlo was in love with her, but now she knows that it is Elisabeth he loves. Eboli tells Carlo that the court is plotting against him. She heard the king and Posa whispering.
“Rodrigo?” Carlo replies plaintively. Roberto Alagna has a strong voice and lots of sex appeal, but at this moment he is endearing, a bewildered boy.
“I could save you,” she sings. But he says they were both bewitched by a dream; he is unable to love. Eboli knows the truth of who he really loves and, rejected, she swears to expose him.
Posa appears and tells Carlo he is in danger. He has Carlo turn over to him secret papers that can further endanger Carlo.
Next, in a very impressive yet dark scene, the Inquisition comes forward in a procession of priests with religious banners, while the people engage in a combination of political fervor and religious worship. Shackled heretics in white and red, with pointed hats like dunces, are brought in and given the chance to repent before they are burned to death.
Carlo leads a group of Flemish petitioners to Phillip, who rejects their pleas for mercy. Carlo draws his sword on his father and is arrested.
Intermission and Act IV
There is a second Intermission. Act IV begins with a touching aria by King Phillip, who knows his wife doesn’t love him. The blind Grand Inquisitor (Eric Halfvarson) enters, looking in his red finery very much like a modern-day Cardinal from the Vatican. Phillip seeks his advice as to whether he should put his son to death. Is it natural? Moral? The old man doesn’t hesitate to say that yes, he should; it’s the best thing he can do for the state. The Grand Inquisitor then has a request of the king, that he also hand over Posa to him–Posa, the only person the king trusts.
Elisabeth comes rushing in to the king’s quarters and tells him that her jewelry box, with all her most precious things, has been stolen. He knows, because he has it in his possession. He confronts her with the portrait of Carlo she keeps inside it, with all her precious thing, and accuses her of adultery. “My heart is pure,” she sings. She has not been unfaithful to the king.
Posa appears, noting that the ruler of the largest kindgom in the world cannot control his own emotions. Eboli, alone with Elisabeth, sings a magnificent aria in which she confesses her guilt: she stole the jewelry box, falsely accused Elisabeth, and has been the king’s mistress. Elisabeth banishes her from the court Elisabeth sings poignantly that she is a stranger in this land.
Posa visits Carlo in prison, urging him again to keep fighting for Flanders. He says he will give his life so that Carlo can do this-and then he is shot by an assassin who slips in under cover of darkness.
In Act V Elisabeth, who has been a faithful and noble queen in spite of her love for Carlo, sings heartbreakingly in the monastery that she only wants her own death. When Carlo enters, they sing together and say goodbye. She tells him to take the strength of his love for her and use it in his fight for Flanders. Now, he is ready to do it. The lovers agree that the next time they meet will be in heaven. They had one day of paradise on earth and lost it.
Phillip, the Grand Inquisitor, and the agents of the Inquisition move in on Carlo. The Emperor Charles V appears and reaches out to him. Charles seems to symbolize what he said in Act II, that happiness and peace will only be found in Heaven.
As conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin pointed out in his interview with Deborah Voight, Don Carlo has everything we like about Verdi-passion, drama and spectacle; every emotion underlined exquisitely by the music. This production is deeply moving, like Shakespeare set perfectly to music. Don’t miss it!
Don Carlo summmary
MET synopsis ofDon Carlo
New York Times review of Don Carlo