Paris in the fall

Verdi, Mozart, El Greco and Leonardo provide a plethora of music and art.

René Pape as King Philip and Vitalij Kowaljow as the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s Don Carlo (photo credit: VINCENT PONET-ONP)
René Pape as King Philip and Vitalij Kowaljow as the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s Don Carlo
(photo credit: VINCENT PONET-ONP)
Paris always exudes a certain magic. With its magnificent vistas, the city revives the spirits. Then, there are always cultural attractions. Over the years, I have heard operas in five different Paris venues. Few cities can compete with this.
In addition to operas, there were breathtaking art exhibits, including works by El Greco at the Grand Palais and paintings by Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre. Plenty to satisfy the inquiring mind!
Verdi’s opera Don Carlo, adapted from a play by the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller, is the longest in his canon, and was being performed at the Opéra Bastille. The premiere of this epic five-act masterpiece took place in Paris in 1867. The opera is set in a background of uncompromising religious fervor and political intrigue. It pits the church dominated by the grand inquisitor against the monarchy.
As part of the peace treaty between France and Spain, Elizabeth, daughter of the king of France, had been betrothed to Don Carlo, son of Philip, King of Spain. They had a brief encounter in the Fontainebleau Forest, but this transient moment of happiness rapidly took on tragic consequences, as the revised peace treaty demanded that Elizabeth wed Philip instead of Carlo. These two young people spend the rest of the opera in despair.
This production, sung in Italian, used Verdi’s revised 1886 version. Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski resorted to classical film-noir. Flickering, somewhat distracting, repetitive grainy splotches of old celluloid films initially played continuously, and subsequently, intermittently. French video designer Denis Guéguin projected giant close-ups of the sad Elizabeth, the distraught Philip and the unstable Carlo with a gun to his head.
Polish stage and costume designer Malgorzata Szczesniak updated the action to contemporary times. The vast stage was almost empty, the floor and walls covered with wood. In the Fontainebleau scene, Elizabeth was dressed somewhat prematurely in a white bridal gown. There was also a prominent synthetic fiberglass horse. Its significance eluded me. Was this a throwback to Luc Bondy’s production of Don Carlos at the 1998 Edinburgh Festival, when Elizabeth appeared on a live white horse?
The scene with Elizabeth’s attendants is traditionally set in a lush garden. Here it was staged in a fencing school, with the queen’s entourage dressed in white fencing gear. Their instructor, Princess Eboli, was attired in black costume and helmet. This was a clever ploy. Historically, Eboli lost her eye in a fencing accident, and is customarily shown wearing an eye patch.
In this opera, there are frequent allusions to Charles V, Philip’s father. Instead of a tomb, his bust was perched on a table. The auto-da-fé scene revealed a cross section of Spanish society with nuns, monks, soldiers and nobles in their finery, and common folk in simple garb seated in an amphitheater. All were out to enjoy the gruesome proceedings. A video image was projected at the conclusion of this dramatic scene, reminiscent of the black painting by Francisco Goya of Saturn devouring his son. This was the prelude to Philip’s punishment of Carlo for his relationship with Elizabeth and support of the Flemish insurrection.
THE ORCHESTRA of the Opéra National de Paris under Italian conductor Fabio Luisi was in top form, and captured all the nuances of this great score. José Luis Basso did a masterful job with his outstanding choral forces.
Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili took the role of the duplicitous Eboli. She was in love with Carlo, but when rebuffed, betrayed him and became Philip’s mistress. She was the unquestioned star of the evening, with an imposing stage presence and gleaming voice. Her singing and acting captured the changes in her demeanor. Both the subtlety of her “Veil Song” and the astonishing vocal range of “O Don Fatale” (“O Fatal Gift”), her two show-stopping arias, were rapturously acclaimed by the audience.
Polish lyrical soprano Alessandra Kurzak was the restrained, sensitive and tormented Elizabeth, queen of Spain. She proved up to the task and gave an impassioned performance, trapped in political and personal plots as she tried to put regal obligations before love.
It is not easy to portray Carlo’s reckless and hysterical mental instability, but French tenor Roberto Alagna gave an emotional, vocally committed performance. After hearing that Elizabeth was not destined to be his wife, he stood alone, a forlorn pitiful character with bandaged wrists, suggesting a suicide attempt.
Carlo and Elizabeth complemented each other. Their initial meeting revealed two immature passionate lovers. Later, as queen, Elizabeth rebuffed Carlo’s advances. In their final encounter, they realized the futility of their relationship, which evolved into one on a spiritual level.
Veteran German bass René Pape was the powerful autocratic king. He stood out with his mellifluous dark voice and rich characterization of the role. His Philip was a drunken alcoholic, a broken man beset by doubts. Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow was the uncompromising terrifying grand inquisitor and brought out the character’s malice. Much of his bald head was concealed behind thick oversized glasses, but more of that later.
The most complex personality in the opera is Rodrigo, marquis of Posa. Unlike Eboli, he was a creation of Schiller with no historical authenticity. Rodrigo, the only friend and confidant of the king, was also the bridge of communication between Elizabeth and Carlo. He encouraged Carlo to support the Flemish insurrection. The role was sung by Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis, whose mellifluous voice exhibited an ardent and confident tone.
To my mind, Act 4 represents the pinnacle not only of Verdi’s oeuvre, but also arguably of all opera. It has everything – love, devotion, remorse, pity, hate, jealousy, revenge, arrogance, pride and anger. The curtain rises to reveal Eboli, smoking and languishing on a couch with her dress disheveled. Clearly, she has spent the night with Philip. Cellist Cyrille Lacrouts then slowly introduces Philip’s great soliloquy, “Ella Giammai M’amo” (“She Never Loved Me”), when he bemoans the fact that Elizabeth has no affection for him.
In the subsequent confrontation, Philip confides to the grand inquisitor that his son has committed treason. The inquisitor agrees to the king’s decision to kill him, but asks in turn for the head of Rodrigo. Philip angrily refuses and wistfully asks why the throne must always bow before the altar. Then there is the altercation between Philip and Elizabeth, when he mistakenly accuses her of infidelity, and Eboli’s aria, when she admits to betraying the queen.
In the final scene, Rodrigo visits Carlo, now imprisoned in a cage. Rodrigo is shot on the king’s order. In their final poignant duet, Rodrigo and Carlo express their undying devotion – climaxing to the strains of the leitmotif that was heard in their earlier encounters. This was true grand opera!
MOZART’S OPERA buffa, La Finta Giardiniera (The Fake Gardener), composed when he was 18 years old, was performed in the Opera Theater of the Chateau of Versailles. The construction of this theatrical jewel, begun by Louis XIV, was inaugurated during the wedding celebrations of the future King Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette.
The rather weak, ridiculous and complicated libretto is a commedia dell’arte tale of disguised mistaken identity. Three couples meet in the estate of the mayor. Much envy and suspicion ensues. Eventually the couples switch partners and reunite with someone from a similar social milieu resulting in joy and three weddings.
This was performed by Les Arts Florissants, a renowned orchestra specializing in Baroque music played on period instruments. Their director, William Christie, led a performance that had brisk, thrilling tempos. The vocalists came from the Jardin des Voix, its academy for young singers. All seven soloists acquitted themselves admirably, most notably soprano Mariasole Mainini as the impostor gardener.
The young Mozart did compose some high-quality music, a forerunner of things to come in his more mature works. One can only speculate what Mozart would have done with this opera and an accomplished librettist like his future partner, Lorenzo Da Ponte.
WHILE PHILIP II and the grand inquisitor held center stage at the Bastille, their visual representations were evident at the Grand Palais, which hosted an exhibit of the Greek artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as El Greco.
Born in Crete in 1541, El Greco began his career as a painter of icons. He moved to Venice, where he was influenced by Titian, and subsequently to Rome. There he antagonized the artistic fraternity by offering to replace Michelangelo’s Last Judgment with his own creation. Because of his arrogance, his career in Rome floundered and he departed for Spain, settling in Toledo in 1577.
Highlights in the exhibit included his St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child, in the Byzantine icon tradition. There were also four versions of Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple. Two are typical of El Greco’s Venetian period; the others, with tortuously elongated figures, represent his later style. One version includes in the lower right foreground, portraits of Titian, Michelangelo, his friend Giulio Clovio, and Raphael.
El Greco painted the Adoration of the Holy Name, also known as The Dream of Philip II for the King. Heaven is represented above by the name of Jesus with angels. Below, in hell, are damned souls in the mouth of a monster. The foreground depicts the same Philip ll from the opera Don Carlo, together with other members of the Holy League celebrating their victory over the Ottomans in the battle of Lepanto.
Both versions of this painting, one from the El Escorial in Spain and the other from London’s National Gallery, were on show. Despite this masterpiece, El Greco failed to achieve his aim, an appointment as official painter to the king.
El Greco spent the rest of his life in Toledo painting religious images and portraits, several of which were on display. Especially impressive was his Portrait of Fernando Niño de Guevara with thick glasses. Was this painting the inspiration for the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo? This memorable exhibition can be viewed until February 2020.
FINALLY, MENTION must be made of the outstanding Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre. This year commemorates the 500th anniversary of the death of this versatile genius. Numerous museums are celebrating this event. No institution is more qualified than the Louvre to have undertaken this venture since it has in its collection five – or one-third – of Leonardo’s extant paintings. All were on display with the exception of the Mona Lisa. Because of its popularity, this is exhibited elsewhere.
The Louvre’s rich trove of Leonardo’s drawings was also on show, including one of Isabella d’Este. On loan from the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice was Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, a drawing of a male figure perfectly inscribed in a circle and square, one of the most famous images in the world.
The exhibit in the Louvre was supplemented by three additional paintings: Portrait of a Musician from Milan, Madonna and Child with Flowers (The Benois Madonna) from St. Petersburg, and Saint Jerome in the Wilderness from the Vatican. London lent The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, also known as The Burlington House Cartoon, done in charcoal and black and white chalk.
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne from the Louvre beautifully illustrates Leonardo’s trademark sfumato technique. This involves using numerous layers of thinly applied paint, allowing tones and colors to shade gradually into one another and producing softened outlines.
Many of Leonardo’s paintings that were not in the exhibition were presented as ultra-violet refractographs, a technique which examines under-drawings despite being covered by several layers of paint. This enables one to see how Leonardo revised and developed his ideas. This unique exhibit closes in February 2020.