WASHINGTON, D.C. – Kennedy Center audiences currently have an opportunity to see "Don Carlo," an opera of Giuseppe Verdi, based on a play by Friedrich Schiller. This opera by Verdi is not often performed, and plays by Schiller - one of the great dramatists of the world theatre - are performed even less in the United States. Thus, this is a unique opportunity, an opportunity to which the Washington National Opera’s performance only does partial justice. That partial justice is the quality of the singing; the injustice is the quality of the staging, though, in one scene, the avant-garde staging brings about a keen awareness of an ethical problem in the work.
The singing is excellent, and the quality of the orchestra was striking, reflecting Verdi’s sense of tension and drama not only on stage but in the orchestra pit. The music of "Don Carlo," in fact, deserves to be better known. A duet on the theme of friendship is spirited as well as moving, sung by Russell Thomas as Don Carlo and Quinn Kelsey as Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. This is a friendship based on “the same exalted love, the love of liberty.” One must be prepared to “die in brotherly love.”
Just who is Don Carlo? He is the liberal-minded son of the stern Spanish King Philip II, and he is particularly interested in throwing off the yoke of Spanish tyranny then oppressing Flanders. The opera and Schiller’s play off of which it is based are grounded in Spanish history of the 1500’s. Yet, a key point of the plot is not verified history but the stuff of melodrama: Don Carlo is madly in love with Elisabeth, the lady whom he expected to marry but who has been promised to Philip II. She becomes Carlo’s step-mother, though she is in love with Carlo. Rodrigo, the friend of Carlo, sympathizes with the Prince’s personal and political dilemmas and is willing to pay the ultimate price for friendship: “to die in brotherly love.”
In contrast to the story and music, the staging is jarringly abstract and modern: Ashes, octagonal peepholes and tunnel vision, metal gates, grates, and fences which descend. And oh, yes: the whole stage is slanted during the entire performance as well. While this approach is undoubtedly very interesting to the director and set designer, it scarcely works to engage the audience with the story. An opportunity for the Washington National Opera to win new fans to Don Carlo might have been sacrificed.
A rare moment in the opera in which I felt the approach was justified is an important one. Verdi apparently felt that Schiller’s play was lacking the “spectacle” expected in opera, so his solution was to add an auto-da-fé scene absent from Schiller’s play. An auto-da-fé was a public ceremony during the time of the Spanish Inquisition in which heretics, non-believers, Jews, and others were commonly burned to death. To treat inhumane mass-murders as an operatic spectacle to the fanfare of trumpets is undoubtedly offensive to modern sensibilities. This production’s sparse staging in which the condemned wore and (before death) discarded clothes reminiscent of Nazi concentration camp inmates may have contrasted to Verdi’s glorious music. Yet, at the same time, it brought across the point that the inhumanity of the Spanish Inquisition is not to be treated lightly as operatic spectacle.
Unfortunately, the occasions on which abstract set designs for opera work well are very limited. Nonetheless, the avant-garde approach to staging as seen in Don Carlo at the Kennedy Center has become increasingly popular in professional opera productions. Perhaps one day the opera audiences will exclaim in Schiller’s words from the original "Don Carlo": “Restore to us what you have taken from us!”