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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dearly Departed Dexter: Don Carlo Remembered

The next opera review coming to this blog (which will probably be written next Tuesday morning, is of the new Nicholas Hytner production of Don Carlo, which bows at the Met on Monday night at 7pm. But before that prima, I feel obligated to RANT say a few words of praise for the previous staging.
Act III of the John Dexter Don Carlo at the Met.
Photo from OperaChic.
The Met's previous Don Carlo was directed by John Dexter, and dates from an era before lavish Franco Zeffirelli stagings were the order of the day at the big house on 64th St. Dominated by a huge, black show curtain depicting the royal crest of King Philip II, Dexter's vision of Spain was of a series of increasingly bleak landscapes: the frozen forest of Fontainebleau in France, the tomb of King Charles V, and the King's private chambers in the Escorial. This Carlo felt like a feverish, five-hour nightmare, with powerful visuals and traditional costumes that actually made the characters look like Spanish nobles. And it was detailed with little historical accuracies, right down to a cute little eyepatch for the Princess Eboli.

The only break in all this darkness came in the second scene of Act II. The auto da fé (where King Philip celebrates his authority by having few sinners burned alive by the Inquisition) took place under blue skies and blood-red banners blowing in the breeze. The bright sound of the chorus, singing in celebration as the pyres were lit, underlined the chilling authority of the Catholic church, a central message of Verdi's darkest opera.

Don Carlo is a long opera--Verdi's longest, in fact. Written as a French grand opera, it's five acts with a ballet and a complete recording of the score clocks in at five hours. Most opera houses slash the whole first act, moving the tenor's big number up to Act II and presenting a four-act torso. But the Dexter/Met staging restored the entire first act, putting the tenor arioso "Io lo vidi" in its proper dramatic context.
Act III of the Hytner Don Carlo as staged at Covent Garden.
Photo from MostlyOpera.
Music director James Levine even insisted on adding a standard cut: the first scene of the opera featuring a group of woodcutters freezing in the forest. his made the whole evening clocked in at four hours and 35 minutes, but the results were worth it.

Now, a bunch of woodcutters may not sound like much. Truth is, they have little to do with the rest of the opera. Verdi himself (citing reasons of length) cut the scene before the opera's Paris premiere. But seeing the opera with the woodcutters scene restored, the bizarre choice made by Isabella (to marry Philip even though she is in love with Don Carlo, his son) makes dramatic sense. The people are freezing and starving, and she has to put her country ahead of her personal life.

Don't get me wrong. I'm looking forward to seeing this production on Monday night. And I might go more than once if it proves itself to be worthy. But I'll miss that old Don Carlo and I'm sorry to see this classic production retired and replaced.

Besides, I've heard that the new staging cuts out the woodcutters.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.