POLITICAL CUNNING and intrigue: ‘Don Carlo’

A scene from The Israeli Opera performing Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
A scene from The Israeli Opera performing Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Don Carlo’
Opera House, Tel Aviv
March 11
Sunday night at the opera, I thought, would provide a welcome relief from the political drama playing out on the national stage. For a few hours it would be possible, I imagined, to escape the political intrigue in Jerusalem, leave the personal cunning and the debates about the role of church in state that is infusing the current coalition crisis, and take flight on musical wings to a different, perhaps more pleasant reality.
I picked the wrong opera.
Don Carlo, Giuseppe Verdi’s grand opera from 1867, is all about political cunning and intrigue, and about who has the final word – the ecclesiastical or worldly authorities. This political drama took place in 16th century Spain in the court of King Philip II.
The Israeli Opera’s sumptuous production of Don Carlo, which was stunning both visually and musically, did allow one to take flight to a different reality, but this was an even more depressing political reality than the one we face here, though at times, while watching the singers/actors on stage, one could imagine they were portraying emotions going through the minds of some of the players starring in our own political dramas.
“You must reign, and I must die for you!” the Infante Don Carlos’s loyal friend Rodrigo sang in his rich baritone in Act 3, when he had come to Don Carlos’ prison cell to sacrifice his life for that of his friend. Oh, what nobility in the service of a friend and a cause!
Rodrigo, played by the Romanian Ionut Pascu, was one of the many highlights of the three-hour-and-45-minute production. His duet with Don Carlo in the the first act, a splendid paean to friendship when Rodrigo stands by Don Carlo even after the latter admits his desire and love for his own stepmother Elisabetta the Queen, set the stage for Pascu’s commanding performance throughout the evening.
Another highlight was Princess Eboli, played by Ketevan Kemoklidze, a native of Georgia making her Israeli Opera debut.
Wearing an eyepatch, in deference to the historical Princess Eboli, her trills in the “Song of the Veil” in Act I sounded like the chime of a heavenly cuckoo-clock, and her passionate rendition of “O don fatale” in Act 3 filled the stage with her presence. In it one could feel her torment for having twice betrayed her friend Queen Elisabetta: once by revealing Elisabetta’s secret love for Don Carlo to the king, and a second time by having had an affair herself with the king.
Korean-born Simon Lim, who portrayed King Philip, did so with tremendous nuance. His bass was convincing in reflecting cruelty in the scene where he orders the arrest of his son Don Carlo, yet he was able to equally evince pity when singing that his wife, the queen, never loved him.
The wonder of this particular opera is the multifaceted nature of the characters: not comic-book, monochromatic ones, but multifaceted personalities that contain both good and bad. That was mirrored in costume designer Jesus Ruiz’s selections as well, with Princess Eboli wearing in her confessional aria a dress that was both black and white, reflecting her character. Yes, she cheated with the King and betrayed her friend, but she also felt true remorse and sought to save Don Carlo.
The only character who was one-dimensional was the Grand Inquisitor, portrayed by Ukraine’s Ievgen Orlov. He was the embodiment of evil, his bass voice condemning people to the death in the name of God. Blind, with long grey hair and a white gown, the Grand Inquisitor’s appearance on stage brought to mind the Angel of Death from Had Gadya in the Passover Haggada.
The Grand Inquisitor is a looming presence during the opera’s most gripping and powerful scene – a scene in the town square in Madrid where heretics are to be burned at the stake. The melancholy lighting, a three-story tall crucifix, rich costumes – monks in black robes, Spanish guards in copper-colored armor, peasants in white rags – and the trumpet and brass flourishes of the symphony, which under Daniel Oren’s baton was superb throughout the performance, all created a chilling and eerie mood. One could almost feel the auto-da-fe.
Don Carlo is not a simple story to follow; it is recommended to read a synopsis of the opera and do a little background historical research beforehand to be able to understand the action on stage. This is a tale of love and hate, jealousy and loyalty, treachery and faith. In short, it’s the story of politics. But unlike what is playing out in the pages of our daily newspapers, the Israeli Opera’s artful production of this particular political drama is a joy to behold – an engrossing feast for both the eyes and the ears.