Tuesday 24 November 2009

Don Carlos

King Philip of Spain

Verdi's opera Don Carlos has a complicated plot. King Philip of Spain marries his son Carlos's fiancee, Elizabeth. King Philip's ex-girlfriend, Eboli, is plotting and scheming. So is the King's friend, the Marquis of Posa, who is also a close friend of Carlos... Meanwhile, Philip has a little habit he likes to indulge: burning heretics. Spain has conquered Flanders, which is full of - ugh! - Protestants. There are a lot of scenes in a graveyard.

There are two big central setpieces: emissaries from Flanders try and put their case to the King just as he is about to burn some heretics. Carlos comes in on the Flemish side and is thrown into prison.

That night, the King is alone in his bedroom (which is the size of the Royal Opera House stage). In his wife's jewellery box he has found a portrait of Carlos. "She never loved me!" he mourns and looks forward only to death. A Jaws-like theme announces the Grand Inquisitor, blind and 90 years old. The King asks "Will you absolve my sins if I have my son killed?" The Grand Inquisitor says that'll be fine. Enter the Queen. The King accuses her of betraying him. She faints and he calls for help. In rush Posa and Eboli, fully dressed and they all sing a lot...

There's just one downside: the acting! The terrible operatic acting! It never changes. All attempts to look naturalistic only come across as a series of bizarre clichés. About 40 years opera singers were told "You can't just stand there and sing! You've got to make it look more real!" So instead of standing there and singing and letting Verdi's music do the acting for them they're never still. They move their heads from side to side, they crouch and spring up again, they fling their arms into weird postures, their entire faces dance about: rolling eyes, waving eyebrows, flaring nostrils, trembling lips. King Philip did all of this during his most touching aria. Eboli was the worst offender. Opera singers have to keep their necks and backs in a straight line, but they think if they bow from the hips while doing balletic portes de bras you won't notice. They also sing to the ground, or a piece of furniture, instead of the person they're supposedly talking to. Eboli's most ghastly posture was the one with arms oustretched and head down, looking up under her eyebrows. Posa was quite restrained - perhaps that's why he looked more handsome. Meanwhile Carlos reeled around the stage and pulled exaggerated crying faces.

During the heretics scene, the chorus has to come on waving crucifixes and prayerbooks and sing a bit about how they support the King's persecution of everybody with slightly different opinions from the Pope. Well, no, they don't have to hold them up and wave them about all the time. But if they must, must they do it so fast and twitchily? It would have been much more effective if they'd processed slowly and just held their props. Or not held anything. If you leave opera choruses to do their own acting they turn and nod to each other the whole time – like here.

The Marquis of Posa and Carlos

The music is wonderful. Verdi gets in a lot of digs at kingship, dictators, conquering other countries, religious intolerance etc. Carlos is meant to be the hero, but the Marquis of Posa is always much better-looking, and the King is far more sympathetic. If you can't get there in person, you can watch it on BBC's Iplayer: Don Carlos.

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