Πέμπτη, 14 Ιανουαρίου 2016

T-10: The other Don, the other ghost, and the Spanish Inquisition…

Well, hello there! I realize that the last time I wrote something meaningful was on the last day of 2014 and, after a whole year’s silence, I’m finally back, so, cue the drum roll! Or not. Whatever. Anyway, first things first: Happy 2016 – although, so far it hasn’t been great; I mean, c’mon, David Bowie AND Alan Rickman have already died? Both at the age of 69 and because of cancer? It’s 2016 for crying out loud! Why have we not discovered a cure for cancer yet? I guess we are way too busy doing other things, like fighting wars against terrorism and such. I suppose it makes sense. The statistical probabilities of dying in a terrorist attack these days has increased exponentially – even for us Europeans. But, if there is one thing I have learned through art, it is that we should not stop living our lives because of the fear. So, yes, I am still here, still reporting on my great love: opera.
As to why I disappeared for a year? I do have a pretty good explanation: I had to write my master’s thesis (which, at some point I am going to upload to Academia.edu for anyone crazy enough to read it) so now I am officially a Master of Arts! Congratulations me! I do not even know what it means to be a “Master of Arts”. Additionally, after completing my studies, I got into an incredible inspirational trip. I started writing again (not on the blogosphere obviously), but for myself. I rediscovered my passion for short stories and I even started a somewhat longer one. I do not have to tell you that you will probably never read those, because I am not sure what to do with them (once I’ve finished them, which, I have not…); but still, I did some writing. And finally, 2015 was one hell of a culture experience for me here, because I had a totally booked out schedule and it was brilliant! I can tell you, I have never felt more alive than last year – despite the fact that I am still single! So, yes, 2015 was a good year for me, but now it is finally time to get down to business once more.
I vaguely remember promising a new list. And today I am going to make good by that promise by introducing the new Top 10 of Operas I Love to Hate! First up on this lovely countdown is a masterpiece by Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlos!

SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY!!!

Ok, so, you know that saying about opera being where the soprano and the tenor want to have sex but the baritone interferes? Well, in this case, it is the bass who is responsible and for a completely idiotic reason too (he gets to sing one brilliant aria, that’s it). The plot is actually quite simple (based loosely on historical facts): Don Carlos (the tenor), Heir to the throne of Spain and son of King Philippe II (the bass), is supposed to marry Elisabeth de Valois (the soprano) to seal a certain peace treaty. Naturally, and even though these two fall in love at the beginning, Philippe II behaves like an a** and decides he wants to marry Elisabeth instead. He could easily be her grandfather, the age difference is so huge! And, there is no reason why his marriage to her would seal the treaty better than if his son married her, because Carlos is his heir! So, yeah, Philippe II is just being mean. There are some other characters that complicate matters as well: first you have Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, who – and that is definitely not just my idea – has a huge crush on Carlos. Yes, they are best friends, but his idea of friendship, I am certain, goes a bit further than Carlos’. And then there is Eboli, who serves no purpose whatsoever in the entire plot, even though there is great potential for the character. She too sings a fairly famous and recognizable aria at some point.
Anyway, let’s do a short character breakdown. First we have Don Carlos. He is a bit of a pawn and doesn’t get much done. He loves Elisabeth and he succeeds in staying away from her after she becomes his step-mother. They do have the occasional interactions, but they are not in the least bit erotic or anything. Mainly, because she shuts him down, like, all the time. Then, there is his relationship with Rodrigo. He sees a friend in him and is too innocent to conceive his friends’ true feelings for him (I mean, how much more evidence does a guy need than their famous duet???) He turns a cold shoulder to Eboli – who is infatuated with him, but has no idea how to show it; and he hates his father for stealing his bride right under his nose. Most of the time, Carlos behaves like a teenager; literally!
Then there is Philippe II. There are no redeeming qualities to this guy. He steals his son’s bride; he refuses any help to the oppressed in Flanders; he condemns his son to death at the Grand Inquisitor’s suggestion; and he still wonders why nobody – especially Elisabeth – loves him! Granted, his monologue is sublime, but, with the deepest apologies to Verdi, who, if anything, knows exactly how to redeem a fallen character through his music, the trick doesn’t work this time. Philippe II remains an a**hole.


Rodrigo, then, the Marquis of Posa, is perhaps the actual political hero here. He is a supporter of the Flemish cause, but knows how to be diplomatic about it and behaves accordingly. Of course, he dies in the end and what a death it is too! His death simply solidifies my opinion that Rodrigo and Carlos should be lovers, actually, because Rodrigo dies in Carlos place and in his arms. I mean, how much more obvious can it get? And that duet! My God, I melt every time I hear it, it is such glorious music!


Moving on, there is Eboli, who, as I have already stated, harbors a secret crush on Carlos. But because her feelings are not reciprocated, she devises a plan to reveal his affections for his step-mother to the King. Now, there is another – subtler – love story going on here as well: Eboli is Elisabeth’s lady-in-waiting sort of. They are relatively close. And when Eboli realizes that she has condemned not only Carlos but Elisabeth through her actions, she decides to join a convent. So, maybe, Eboli too harbors some feelings for Elisabeth and not just Carlos (or maybe I am overreaching here, but it does make some sense). However, considering that her character is completely underused in the entire plot, there is no concrete evidence. Bottom line: Eboli is redundant in this storyline. She does sing this, however:


Then there is the Spanish Inquisition. One thing I absolutely love about this opera is the "Auto-da-fé", the infamous burning of the heretics in the third Act! It is simply brilliant and terrifying to be reminded of these dark times of the past, which are becoming once again terribly contemporary if one takes a glance towards the Middle East and what rages on down there. Trust me, the difference between the Spanish Inquisition and the religious fanaticism practiced by some people today, is literally nothing – not even the religion! Essentially it comes down to the same thing: murdering people for having an opinion not sanctioned by the respective religious leaders! And the Grand Inquisitor who advises the King to execute his own son is also an extreme example of the Church’s powers. Simply terrifying! (The following video is the "safe" American version of old - nothing like the stuff you might get to see on German stages these days... Guess which one I prefer!)


Finally, we have Elisabeth of Valois. You know my affinity for strong female characters, and she is one of them, although it may not seem so at first. You could accuse her of being too frightened to follow her heart when she learns of her impending marriage to Philippe II. But let us not forget that Elisabeth is the ultimate pawn here: she is the sacrificial lamb – she has no choice, but to do as ordered. Instead of beginning an adulterous affair with her step-son, however, which would have been the logical thing to do after her marriage, she is faithful to Philippe II, not out of love, but out of a sense of duty. Elisabeth succeeds in remaining innocent throughout the entire opera – which should earn her some respect. And, of course, she has a showstopper at the beginning of Act five that simply brings the house down (if sung well).


And then there is the ghost! Ok, the debate on whether it is actually the ghost of the deceased Carlos IV, grandfather to Carlos, or a monk who just happens on the scene is still going on, but I’m going with the version that says it is, because what else would make this opera even grittier than a ghost come to rescue his grandson! I do not know what kind of a rescue that is, but hey, ghosts know better and we are not to argue with them.

So, yes, Verdi’s Don Carlos is a weird case. There are a lot of problems with the source material too: do you do the French or the Italian version? Do you include the Fontainebleau scene or not? Let me tell you, without it, the opera simply doesn’t make sense. So far, the best production I have seen is the one from Munich by Jürgen Rose (the man is a genius, by the way). Would I go see this opera often? Only if Anja Harteros were singing Elisabeth (I have seen her three times in this role so far), because, even though there are some pretty amazing pieces in it, it is a really long and pointless story in the end. So, there you have it! Don Carlos is great, but only under certain conditions…