American drama and music critic William Foster Apthorpe (1848-1913) as he described the intense, taciturn Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901):
His was a voice from the nether stratum, frank, fierce, lurid, unheard before on the lyric stage; he brought into over-sophisticated opera the popular song…and turned its siren warblings to passionate utterance…His volcanic heat fairly singed the boards; people began to wake up, and say: Here verily is a man!
Nabucco – the First Success
With Nabucco in 1842, Verdi exclaimed that “With this opera, my artistic career can truly be said to have begun.”
The music of Nabucco was so compelling and exciting that during rehearsals, employees working off stage, including painters, workers, and machinists, left their tasks to stand, watch and listen to what was taking place onstage. Accounts from the day noted that “the music was so new, so unknown, rapid, and unusual that everyone was amazed.” Verdi had opened and expanded the formula for the bel canto opera. He used a larger orchestra, thus producing a more commanding tonal drive. There was no more lingering on empty vocal display, and while there were plenty of vocal fireworks, it was to portray emotional meaning rather than exhibitionism.
The Plot & Production
There are venues in which it is more relevant to opine about what version or in what language Don Carlo(s) should be performed, which acts should be reinstated or cut, whether a singer’s volume was properly balanced with the orchestra, a diphthong properly executed, a piccolo dropping a note at the end of a difficult prestissimo passage, or whether the lower brass timed a fortissimo entrance precisely with the woodwinds.
For some, pointing to subtle flaws in a production is construable as an act of literary sanctimony that arguably dismisses consideration of the artist’s integrity. Consider Vladimir Horowitz’ return to the stage in 1978 to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic, Eugene Ormandy conducting. Horowitz is indisputably one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. While listening to a recording of that performance for RCA, and determining whether wrong notes remain on the recording he replied in the affirmative saying, “It is, after all, a performance. That’s the way it should be.” From the first phrase, his interpretation reflects his insights and mastery of the form. It is powerful, glorious, and commanding.
Consider opera as the ultimate multi-media product of human artistic expression striving for the apotheosis. Opera occurred well before the recorded media of the 20th century and is, after all, an amalgam of music, visual art, literature, dance, and drama. Performed by artists of bravura, integrity, and accomplishment, it is driven by music and mystical Euterpe, evoking the full range of human imagination, frailty, and aspirations.
The Metropolitan Opera company and its orchestra are among the finest in the world. Its productions are consistently superb, its performing artists sublime, and its patrons and audiences loyal and informed. Sets and costumes, lighting, and ambiance are consistently excellent, drawing authentic appreciation from those in attendance. It is always thrilling to arrive at Lincoln Center, walk past the iconic fountain, and enter the opera theater under Marc Chagall’s massive representations. Have you yet stopped at Fiorello’s across the street to sample their decadently delicious homemade Italian wedding soup?
Verdi’s music made him the true colossus of Italy of his time. His music can set the most fatuous ridiculous libretto to sound like the music of angels in the heights of lyric ecstasy and rapture. He can take a tedious, vacuous, melodramatic gallimaufry and express it with fabulous fountains of melodic verse. Some of his finest music emerges with powerful libretti as in Falstaff, Othello, and his Requiem.
While Verdi never pretended to be a learned, erudite musical scholar, we know he was a genius who created new vistas of inspiration and craftsmanship. He was recognized early on by those like Bartolomeo Morelli, Impresario of La Scala, who inspired him to create his first commercial success, Nabucco.
Like Clara Schumann, her sister Marie Wieck was a prominent pianist of her day. She writes in 1855, “The youthful vigorous singers of today have only one name on their lips, and that is Verdi. Upon his operas rest the whole art of music, for the present time as well as for the future, and for this reason, many singers, under certain circumstances, sacrifice the remains of their voices, sometimes even their health and constitution. All are ambitious only to be called Verdi singers, and they claim their title with glorious pride.”
Led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met presents this 1867 version in the original French of the Paris premiere, libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle. It is inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s play Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien. David McVicar designed stunning staging for his 11th season at the Met. Conductor Patrick Furrer leads the world-class Met orchestra to ensure the full range of orchestral colors and support for the cast.
Through a panoply of landscapes gliding throughout Spain and the Netherlands, Don Carlos is a four-hour, five-act masterpiece projecting a sense of grim destiny set in magnificent music. The work is dominated by the tormented King Philippe II of Spain, not hero and heroine Élisabeth of Valois and Prince of Asturias Don Carlos. Initially betrothed by elder parties, they meet by accident, discover each other’s identity, and fall in love. However, to maintain peace between Spain and France, arrangements are modified, and Élisabeth must instead marry Don Carlos’ father, King Philippe. Élisabeth becomes Don Carlos’ stepmother.
We are in the time of the Inquisition at the peak of its ultramontane evil powers. For a primer on the monstrous depravity of the Inquisition, explore Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe. While the opera anthropomorphizes revenge, sacrifice, honor, adultery, and insurrection, it ultimately expresses love’s immortality, a theme explored by the Romantics through other doomed couples like Aida and Radames, Tristan and Isolde.
Heartbreaking, serene, and elegant–Carlos, écoute from Rodrigue’s (Etienne Dupuis) death scene.
The auto-da-fé scene possesses incomparable musical force and a type of chromaticism unusual for Verdi. Double basses, cellos, bassoons, and the contrabassoon grind away with ominous, viscous patterns countered by richly intoned, closely harmonized trombones and French horns, evoking a horripilation of dread tingling down one’s spine during Philippe’s confrontation with the blind, hobbling, all-powerful Inquisitor (John Relyea). Don Carlos is an epic work that deals with the burdens of rule, aspirations of freedom, and the plight of Europe’s war-torn countries.
Here are reviews of the Met’s recent marvelous 2022 productions of Madama Butterfly and Ariadne Auf Naxos.
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Readers may also enjoy our other opera reviews like Hamlet at The Met, La Bohéme, Ariadne Auf Naxos, and Madama Butterfly.
Don Carlos: “De quels transports poignants et doux”. Matthew Polenzani and Sonya Yoncheva sing an excerpt from Don Carlos and Élisabeth de Valois’s Act I duet in the final dress rehearsal. 2021–22 season.