Milans La Scala launched its opera season on Thursday with a new production of Giuseppe Verdis Don Carlo. Riccardo Chailly conducted a star cast in a drama that reflects the composer’s mastery of late maturity, including Rene Pape, Anna Netrebko, Francesco Meli, Elina Garanca, and Luca Salsi.
The opera is based on a play by German writer Friedrich Schiller, a revolutionary and political activist in the 1790s. It depicts the tragic conflict between a king, his son, and his lover. The story also illustrates the clash between personal passions and societal responsibilities. The drama ends with a chilling scene of the auto-da-fe, in which Protestants are burned at the stake.
Verdi was a fervent admirer of Schiller’s play, loosely based on the real life of Philip II, the 16th-century king of Spain. The king had made a remarkable contribution to the growth of Spanish culture in literature, music, and art. However, His son Don Carlos was a rebellious youth who wished to marry his father’s daughter, Elisabeth of Valois. This serious breach of royal protocol created a political and emotional crisis for the king and his son.
This is a drama of palace intrigue, jealousy, suspicion, and betrayal, with human emotions at their most raw. It can move the audience with its sweeping music, awe-inspiring scale, and inspiration. It is Verdi’s longest and most ambitious work.
Among the many elements in this work, there is a beautiful moment of happiness when Carlo and his beloved are together in the forest of Fontainebleau. Unfortunately, it is cut from most modern productions of this work because the drama needs a sense of closure. Even in this trimmed version, the work runs over four hours.
As usual, the gala night to mark the start of the season was a magnet for celebrities from politics and business who were seated in the royal box. The audience showered the opera with 13 minutes of applause and roses. Veteran opera tenor Placido Domingo, singing as Rodrigo, got the loudest ovations for his portrayal of a stout man who sacrifices his passion for loyalty to family and country. Italian baritone Luca Salsi, playing the Spanish king, received the second most applause for his performance.
Off stage, the drama matched that of the music, as political and labor unions fought over who would occupy the institutional seats in the house. And, in keeping with La Scala tradition, the row over the house’s choice of the person to chair the opening night sparked a pre-performance kerfuffle. Italy’s president and prime minister skipped the event this year, marking a change in the longstanding practice of attending. The evening comes on the heels of UNESCO naming Italian lyric opera as one of the world’s intangible cultural treasures. The prestigious recognition was to be celebrated at the opening-night performance of Don Carlos.