Wednesday, December 8, 2010

In Flanders Fields with Don Carlo

One of the world's most beloved war-time poems is John McCrae's In Flanders Fields. Its haunting, lyrical voice comes directly from the front of the so-called "Great War" (the British term for what we know as World War One).

In flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

I believe one of the reasons we love tragic art (even if we'd be embarrassed to admit it) is because it touches our emotions so directly we are affected--we are moved--before the experience registers as a powerful affect (thus giving us the opportunity to disavow such affected responses. "Plausible deniability," right?)

I would never deny my deep affection and abiding love for Verdi's Don Carlo. Its historical epoch (the 16th c. reign of Spain's King Philip II) is centuries removed from WWI and even further from us. But one of the functions of pieces like In Flanders Fields is that it not only speaks for its own time, but like all great tragedy, it speaks for all time.

I adopt such an idealist tone, of course, to betray my sympathies with the title character and his freedom-fighter friend, Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa. Like all great stories, Don Carlo is full of human characters in dynamic relationships--with one another, with the state/church/society, and also with destiny (fate) and history.

Don Carlo is arguably more Shakespearean than Verdi's settings of the Bard. Based on a play by Friedrich "Ode to Joy" Schiller, Don Carlo deals with the complex relationships of six leading characters set against the historical backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition. This produces great tension across the spectrum of relationships, resulting in engaging drama. The Inquisition also conveniently provides the composer with an "excuse" for an elaborate, ballet-like demonstration of operatic "pomp and circumstance" in the auto-da-fe scene (a celebration crowned with the burning of heretics).

So Don Carlo has grand operatic spectacle on an epic scale with characters Shakespearean in dimension. The score is a paradigm of compositional virtue where motivic unity is concerned. That's a fancy way of saying it's "closely argued." Another way of saying it's "tight." One doesn't have to recognize "motivic unity" as such to hear or "get" Don Carlo. It is a cult favorite of opera (and Verdi) lovers because of its great cast of characters and the sheer beauty of their music. It casts its own special shadow full of deep-hued tones. It is beloved for the unusual aura of the deep voices in its cast (1 baritone & 3 basses).

The aforementioned Rodrigo is one of the great Verdi baritone roles (which makes it one of the great baritone roles)! His death scene near the opera's close is one of the most beautifully crafted and moving moments of any male singer in opera. King Philip should be an easy-to-loathe villain--a tyrant who selfishly steals his son's fiancee (via political deal) and rules by oppressive force. He has one of the greatest monologues in opera when he sings of the unrequited love of his wife.

The second stanza of In Flanders Fields identifies the chorus singing voice to the poem:

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Don Carlo is full of voices in dialogue and contains some of Verdi's greatest ensemble pieces. The second act alone contains not one but three major duets: the popular "friendship" duet between Don Carlo (T) and Rodrigo (B); a classic "lost love" duet between Carlo and Elisabetta, the prima donna. The act ends with one of the great baritone & bass duets in the repertoire. "Restate" (Stay) is also a chillingly relevant piece of theater in the form of a political conversation.

The new Met production is right on by allowing these voices to resonate. The next "Live in HD broadcast" is a co-production with London's Royal Opera House (Covent Garden). The eminent british director Nicholas Hytner tells the story in bold strokes underscored by great fields of primary color: red, black, and white.

In Great Britain, Armistice Day (what we celebrate as Veterans Day) is marked with near ubiquitous red poppy lapel pins. The scene from Act II mentioned above features poppies strewn about the stage; an entire field of poppies is the "background" to both the "lost love" duet & the great political duet that follows. The symbolism of those bright red poppies would not only have registered palpably with the London audience; it would do what symbolism is supposed to do: it would provoke (inspire) thought & reflection.

And Don Carlo has much to inspire & provoke. In addition to the spectral timbre of its sound world, its epic length contributes to its powerful cumulative effect. All grand opera is intended to pack such a wallop to the senses. That we have an-aesthetized those senses through (some of) the trappings of modernism should give us pause enough to invest the several hours required for such a mutually rewarding endeavor as an afternoon spent with Don Carlo.

"There he goes again being an utopian idealist.
Silly tenor.
Next he'll be quoting poetry!"
In point of fact, he shall.

The last stanza of In Flanders Fields reminds us why we need (tragic) art to begin, why Shakespeare and Verdi--poetry and music--help us feel more alive by helping us be more fully human.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I shall not break faith with Don Carlo as it has generously shared its wealth with me since I started my love affair with it, as an idealistic undergraduate at James Madison University some years ago. Of the 6 productions I've viewed, this new one is my favorite. But I love Don Carlo from his opening aria to Elisabetta's grand scena nearly 4 hours later regardless. Though I loathe the despicable villain, the Grand Inquisitor gets my attention and holds it every second he's on stage (his duet with the King following Philip's great monologue is a coup upon a coup)! Verdi wrote greater tragedies (Otello) and grander epics (Aida), but Don Carlo has a special power that seems to emanate from the mysterious tomb of Charles V of its source. Beware. It just might become your favorite opera, too...

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