On Saturday afternoon, Dec. 11, the Metropolitan Opera of New York will perform Verdi's Don Carlo at Lincoln Center. Simultaneously, the opera will be transmitted to around 1,500 theaters around the world, some 900 of them outside the U.S. I can't prove that the total audience will be the largest ever to watch the same opera performance at the same time, though it may be. But that's not what matters. What matters is this: You've not got much time (though there will be encores in some U.S. and Canadian theaters.) So beg, borrow or buy a ticket. Treat yourself. Give yourself an early present for whatever religious/winter solstice festival you celebrate. If you have to, take out a second mortgage, like you would have done if you'd seen Secretariat run as a two-year old. I'm serious.
This is a golden age of opera. You can enjoy it big or small, in grand arenas or tiny ones, indoor or outdoor, all over the world. But Don Carlo is special. It's the opera lovers' opera, one that combines wonderful music with a psychologically thrilling, poignant drama. The plots of many operas are silly, while others are so determined to convince you of their depth that they whack you over the head with a two-by-four (that's Wagner). Don Carlo is different. It's hugely enjoyable, but it's serious stuff; you can't mess around with it, which is why it is not staged very often. Think of it in Shakespearean terms. High school drama groups can dash off the Scottish play, but you need some gray hairs and wisdom to put together a great King Lear. Don Carlo is the Lear of opera.
Verdi composed the work for the Paris opera in 1867 and fiddled with it for 20 years. The new Met production spare without being minimalist, with the wonderful Met orchestra on great form is directed by Nicholas Hytner, and was first staged at London's Covent Garden. This Saturday, the title role will be sung by the French tenor Roberto Alagna and the soprano lead by the sensational Russian diva Marina Poplovskaya. The opera comes in four and five act versions; the Met is staging the five-act one, which is the right call, even though it produces a running time of four and half hours. The original libretto was in French, which I personally prefer to the Italian version used at the Met, but that is a minor quibble.
Based on a Schiller play, the story goes like this: It is the 16th century; France and Spain have been at war, and are conducting peace negotiations. Don Carlo, the son of King Philip II of Spain, is to be pledged in marriage to Elizabeth de Valois of France. The two meet and fall in love, only to have their happiness dashed when Philip decides that he will marry Elizabeth himself. In his grief, Carlo, influenced by his idealistic friend the Marquis de Posa, dedicates himself to the cause of the Flemish rebels who are fighting Spain. Posa becomes a confidante of the King, and disarms Carlo when he draws his sword on his father. Elizabeth's friend Princess Eboli Philip's mistress declares her love for Carlo. She is rejected, and, consumed with jealousy, betrays Carlo and Elizabeth's continuing love to Philip. Realizing the danger Carlo is in, Posa sacrifices himself for his friend and is shot by the Inquisition. Eboli is exiled by Elizabeth but determines to help save Carlo, who prepares to flee. He and Elizabeth, broken-hearted, say their farewells, and as the Inquisition prepares to seize Carlo, he retreats to the tomb of his grandfather, the Emperor Charles V, where.....but see for yourself.
In both plot and music, the opera combines the public and private, spectacle and intimacy, huge choral set pieces and quiet, heartbreaking duets. At its core are five interlocking triangles: Carlo and Elizabeth love each other, but she marries Philip; Eboli loves Carlo but sleeps with Philip; Carlo and Philip both love and depend on Posa; Eboli and Elizabeth both have unconsummated love for Carlo and joyless relationships with Philip. One of the things that makes the opera so unforgettable, though, is that the personal relationships are placed within larger contests between realpolitik and love, stability and justice, Church and state.
Don Carlo was the first opera I really fell in love with, many years ago, but although I have listened to it countless times, I had never seen it live until this month. The wait was worth it; the Met's superb production changed my sense of what the work was about. When I was younger, I thought that the story revolved around the doomed young figures the star-crossed lovers Carlo and Elizabeth; Posa, the romantic liberal. But I have come to realize that Philip is at the psychological heart of the opera. I used to think he was a stiff, cruel, mean, authoritarian. Perhaps it's age, but I can now see more clearly how the King is torn between public duty and private love, reasons of state and claims of the heart, faith and free will.
For all these reasons, for me the emotional high point of the opera is not one of the famous duets between Carlo and Elizabeth, but Philip's soliloquy "Ella giammai m'amo" ("She doesn't love me") at the beginning of Act IV. This extraordinary aria, nine minutes long, is sung superbly at the Met by the Italian bass Ferrucio Furlanetto. Somehow or other, find a way to hear it. I promise, you won't regret it.