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Lingvistov Discussion Club: Don Carlos by Verdi

don_carlos_verdi_entertainVerdi probably wrote more music for the various versions of Don Carlos than for any of his other operas – it is one of the most ambitious, emotionally abundant works in Verdi’s catalogue. Although the Paris Opera ignored the work for almost a century, this five-act masterpiece was recently revived at the Chatelet Theatre in the production that received ecstatic reviews when it was premiered. Like the Schiller play on which it is based, Don Carlos is a multilayered romantic tragedy set in the gloomy court of Philippe II of Spain. Some of the characters are historical, but this is not history. It’s a set of interlocking emotional triangles complicated by notions of political and personal freedom. The Maestro lavished some of his most poignant and lyrical music on the score, which contains show-stopping arias and duets galore, but also huge choruses as in the auto-da-f? scene.
The difficulties and obstacles surrounding the staging of Don Carlos are such that they inevitably push this work beyond the reach of regional opera companies. First, even the most important opera houses must draw upon all their energies once they decide to produce this opera. This is indeed the typical fate of any French grand op?ra, a genre to which Don Carlos belongs by birth. No wealth of means and luxury are superfluous to stage Don Carlos. The new staging avoided historical references for the most part, the sets were an anonymous arrangement of space with nature kept outside the scene of action and perceived only vaguely through the occasional picture window.
Second, it’s not conceivable to stage Don Carlos without a first class cast, as it requires five very first rate singers. The soprano, the mezzo-soprano, the tenor, the baritone, and the bass voices skilfully combined celebrate the gorgeous feast of sounds not frequently found even with Verdi himself. This time the Chatelet production (sung in the original French) has a superb cast who not only sing beautifully but act very convincingly as well. At last someone is able to give an effective rendition of this masterpiece!  
The protagonist, Roberto Alagna, is a young tenor with a powerful timbre rich in overtones. He is the ideal Carlos, with his pop-star looks and Hamlet-like attitude. The passionately tremulous voice he possesses suitsthe title role admirably and he gave a suitably neurotic intensity to the unbalanced prince. Don Carlos tessitura is not particularly high-lying and the deeper voices predominate – that’s the reason of this work primarily belonging to the basses, the baritone and the mezzo-soprano. Nevertheless practically every note above the staff in the Don Carlos part turned out to be sharp-focused and keenly pitched thanks to Alagna’s thrilling, colourful, truly elegant singing. The role of Carlos calls for a light, fresh tenor voice that can sing heavy music. It needs to be forceful, tender, and emotionally vulnerable, qualities that he maintained with stamina right from the first aria to the final scene, nearly five hours later.
Jos? Van Dam distinguishes himself as King Philippe II creating his moving stylistic nonpareil of an anguished monarch. He is joined by a black-voiced Eric Halfvarson, as the extremely aged and blind Grand Inquisitor (the symbolism is intentional) in their great all-bass confrontation that practically freezes the listener’s blood. Many years of singing have taken their toll, but their impeccable style, clean diction and above all their refined technique allow them to defy and defeat time.
The shining lyric soprano Karita Mattila is in her prime, gorgeous to behold, wondrous to hear. She makes a ravishingly lovely Elisabeth in her red, white, or black tight-waisted dresses. She is, besides, a fine singing actress. Watch those delicate hand gestures or her mournful, longing backward looks… As for singing, she really made the most of the restrained beauty of her duets with Alagna. In Karita Mattila we are probably looking at the greatest woman singer of the next decade. Utterly free of self-importance, she is a diva without drawbacks.
Waltraud Meier is absolutely on fire as Princess Eboli: first a spoiled girl, then a revengeful Fury and finally a mature repented person. Her mezzo-soprano is one of the most powerful instruments of its kind to be heard these days. Whether in the bantering Veil Song, in confused attempts to woo Carlos for herself, or in the all-remorse of “O don fatale”, she got reactions of wild enthusiasm from the audience.
The five stars of this production are all wonder, but Thomas Hampson really stands apart. As Marquis Posa he is literally glowing with passionate tenderness for his friend that comes home to every listener’s heart. His voice blends beautifully with Alagna’s and the performance he gives is all excitement and delight.One would never know how mellow and thrillingly dramatic a baritone could be unless one heard him. His ability to fill the long, arching lines of Rodrigo’s music with an effortless stream of beautiful tone is probably unequalled today. How could an artist of such remarkable musicianship sing Rodrigo otherwise than wonderfully? He did, in fact, show the great vocal extension and variety of timbres together with the heart-rending acting and penetrating insight into his part. A perfectbody language, a very good technique and a very colourful voice made one believe that he actually felt the fear, the pain that the character felt.
The extraordinary impact of this production depends largely on the emotional chemistry between Mattila, Van Dam, Hampson, Meier, and Alagna. This wonderful-looking and somewhat more youthful-than-usual cast works miracles – a Verdi opera has never been peopled by such convincing physical types. And, of course, there is that great ingredient – Verdi’s music that is always so imposingly dramatic and emotionally suggestive.
Let’s analyse the heart-breaking final of the fourth act: Rodrigo’s murder and the following lament. This episode renders well Carlos’ hysterical frustration over his friend’s bloody corpse and Philippe’s solemn lamentation that presents a striking contrast to the tenor’s part. The shrill of fierce unbearable anguish from the bereaved prince comes against the low staccato of the chorus. The tenor damages the whole melodious harmony with his plaintive reiterations (each time in a different and higher key and always out of the background tune): Oh, mon ami! Oh, mon ami! His screeches, that are the emotional equivalent of the heartbreak the character experiences, graze upon the ear and touch upon every latent sensibility the listener possesses. The visual and acoustic effect is that of a wounded bird collapsing in convulsions over its butchered mate and keening in an eerie wail. The previous scene when Posa is shot as a traitor and dies in Carlos’ arms is one of the most touching in all opera, and is beautifully staged. Hampson’s ringing, golden, shining sound brings a lovely lustre to Rodrigo’s parting aria. He possesses a fabulous breath control and smooth legato singing – no annoying gasps or strangulated noises here! It is an intimate tragedy, observed in powerfully human terms.
This opera, in short, deserves to be as well known as the so-called “Trilogia Popolare” (Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata) as it contains so many memorable tunes and ensembles. Hopefully, with this production we will be able to appreciate the large, magnificent canvas that Verdi has translated into a most human story of private love and public duty. Stinging singing, heart-warming acting, fraught situations and glorious tunes… who could want more?
1. Transcribe the following words:
premiere: triangle; duet; superfluous; flamboyant; anonymous; neurotic; nonpareil; staff; tessitura; impeccable; mournful; diva; ingredient; staccato; acoustic; eerie; intimate; ensemble; maestro; latent.
2. Find the English equivalents to:
добавить постановке зрелищности; в отличной певческой форме; выразительность телодвижений/пластичность; безупречный стиль, четкая дикция, утонченная техника исполнения; вложить в партитуру самые пронзительные лиричные мелодии; бешеные аплодисменты зрителей; разрушать гармоничность напева; выразительный тембр, богатый полутонами; ставить выше уровня досягаемости; музыкант выдающегося дарования; придавать блеск; звездный состав; в расцвете своего творчества; бархатистый и драматически выразительный; страстно трепетный голос; эмоциональная связь партнеров; петь в полную силу; масштабные хоры; регистр не особенно высок; одно из самых грандиозных, эмоционально насыщенных творений; устроить пиршество звучания; прекрасная оперная актриса; глубокое проникновение в сущность роли; противостояние двух басов; плавный поток прекрасной мелодии; органически принадлежать; переплетающиеся любовные треугольники; пронзительная и отчетливо спетая; низкая, отрывистая хоровая тема; памятные мелодии; собрать воедино все силы; эффектная трактовка шедевра; проявить огромную широту диапазона и богатство тембра; безупречная примадонна; получить восторженную прессу; «держать» высокие ноты; необыкновенное впечатление; блистательное лирическое сопрано; в изобилии; схематичные декорации; трогать за живое каждого зрителя; касаться скрытых струн в душе; избегать историзма.
3. Paraphrase:
-       loud, unrestrained cheers
-       the all-star cast
-       to lend the production some theatrical flair
-       a soft voice that produces strong emotions
-       a voice characterised by ardent tremolo
-       the smooth manner of singing when one note glides directly into another
-       expressiveness of movement
-       to pull all the forces together
-       to make the staging impossible for
-       to be in good voice
-       an outstanding musician
-       to affect the deep-lying emotions
-       the average range of the part isn’t very high
-       the abrupt manner of chorus singing
-       an impressive interpretation of this masterpiece
-       catchy melodies
-       a flawless primadonna
-       to show the great vocal range and the diversity of pitch.
4. Give the definitions of:
- score
- chorus
- rendition
- lyric soprano
- mezzo-soprano
- tenor
- baritone
- bass
- overtone
- singing actress
5. Say whether the following statements are true or false and find in the text the sentences that can prove your opinion.
1. “Don Carlos” has always been popular with the Paris Opera.
2. Not every opera company can stage “Don Carlos”.
3. The costumes and scenery of the new production of “Don Carlos” are very historical.
4. Roberto Alagna is especially effective in the role of Carlos because he has always been fond of Schiller’s play.
5. In “Don Carlos” low voices predominate.
6. The running time of “Don Carlos” is more than four hours.
7. The confrontation of the Grand Inquisitor and King Philip II is the most horrifying scene in the opera.
8. Karita Mattila has a ravishing mezzo-soprano.
9. Thomas Hampson sings beautifully but he cannot act as convincingly.
10. Most of the cast are everybody’s idea of what the characters of “Don Carlos” should look like.
11. In the scene of lament Carlos and the chorus sing in unison.
12. “Don Carlos” is as famous as the so-called “Trilogia Popolare”
6. Answer the following questions.
1. Why was “Don Carlos” neglected by the Paris Opera for almost a century?
2. What is the plot of the opera?
3. What difficulties did the production team face?
4. Why is Roberto Alagna an ideal Carlos?
5. What qualities are required in a singer for the part of Carlos?
6. Why was Karita Mattila called a fine singing actress. Speak about her voice and her acting.
7. Why did Waltraud Meier get reactions of wild enthusiasm from the audience?
8. Why does Thomas Hampson stand apart from other cast?
9. What does the impact of this production depend on?
10. Why is the scene of Rodrigo’s murder called one of the most touching in all opera?

7. The plot of the opera is a “set of interlocking emotional triangles”. Look at the scheme below and try to guess what relationships unite the characters in every triangle and why they are called “triangles”. Predict the outcome of the conflict in every case.
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8. Imagine that you are a composer. Make a plan of your future opera based on Don Carlos: think what musical forms will be employed for the major plot developments (arias, duets, trios, quartets, choruses).