Royal Opera House
21 May 2013
Ferruccio Furlanetto (Philip II), eloquent at the opening of Act III. From here.
A good, but not great, production of an overwhelming masterpiece.
Verdi’s operas typically explore the standard, almost ubiquitous, suffering woman theme of serious Italian music drama. They also explore family relationships, like much of the non-musical theatre of the period. Only this work seriously examines existential concerns of our relationship with power and with faith.
Which is not to say Verdi didn’t employ his usual themes as a way to address these others. Elisabetta suffers, and Carlo has a murderous relationship with his father Filippo, but the overriding impression is rather the painful way in which power and faith, while bolstering each other, do so only to make our lives worse.
Although the private scenes between Rodrigo and Filippo, then Filippo and the Grand Inquisitor, carry the weight of the work, that weight is created in the central public scene of the auto-da-fe, in which somehow Verdi succeeds in transfiguring the horrific. It is one of the most distressing scenes in all of art, yet oddly uplifting, as if the artist insisted that there must be a good outcome in the afterlife, contrary to all appearances.
Great voices are needed, but also good acting, and the production is critical. I’m not quite sure why Nicolas Hytner’s production doesn’t work for me, given its clear theatrical strengths.
For example, I hadn’t quite appreciated how indebted this work is to Scribe’s notions of a well-made play, in which every aspect contributes to the plot. Eboli’s song of the veil foreshadows her pretence in the garden, and so on. Hyntner is very good at this, but elsewhere presenting the opera as a grand old historical drama is detrimental, the costumes and pageantry a distraction.
Antonio Pappano has made this work something of a speciality, performing several different versions, and he and his orchestra endow the piece with beautiful, resonant tone. So I’m also not sure why I felt that both the conclusion of the auto-da-fe scene and the ending of the whole opera didn’t catch fire as in previous performances (pardon the pun).
The production also exaggerates Carlo’s role, with many scenes ending with him alone facing the grim façade of Filippo’s Escorial palace.
The voices were wonderful, being generally capable of both beauty and thrills. Unfortunately the acting was broad and conventional, a flaw also of the production.