Made in Paris
BRIAN KELLOW speaks with Will Crutchfield, Caramoor's director of opera, about how, more than mere translation, Verdi's Don Carlos amounts to a French opera in its own right.
© Michael Cooper 2005
This summer, the Caramoor International Music Festival pays tribute to Verdi's years at the Paris Opera when it presents concert versions of Les Vêpres Siciliennes and the four-act version of Don Carlos — all performed in French. BRIAN KELLOW speaks to Caramoor's director of opera, Will Crutchfield, about Don Carlos's complex performance history.
OPERA NEWS: What do you think are some of the greatest surprises in the French version?
Don Carlos is Verdi's most modern opera. But the qualities that we love in it now were not necessarily the qualities that people were looking for in a Verdi opera back then. The age that has already assimilated Janáček and mature Strauss and Wozzeck and other psychologically intimate and detailed operas is more prepared to see those qualities in Verdi. One of the most striking things about Don Carlos is that Verdi tries to make climactic scenes out of what are in effect political and philosophical arguments. They proceed through the issues point by point, with a lot of arm-wrestling and a lot of nuance and a lot of indirect reference. And the two scenes I'm thinking about in particular here are the duet of Rodrigue and Philippe — the finale of the first act in the four-act version — and the scene of Philippe and the Inquisitor. So here's the striking thing — neither one of those scenes was indicated in the draft libretto he was first presented with, and he insisted that they be put into the opera. You could tell the basic story of Don Carlos without them, but that's what was firing his imagination — how to write these two scenes that Italian opera, and for that matter, Parisian opera, was not accustomed to handling. So the two most forward-looking scenes in the opera were scenes he put in that he didn't have to.
ON: Do you have thoughts on why Don Carlos's initial reception wasn't so enthusiastic?
WC: My guess is that people tended to expect different things, and they tend to hear what they expect. Ernest Newman wrote a review, when Don Carlos turned up briefly at Covent Garden in the 1930s, that was mostly about how Verdi wandered into the wilderness repeating his old formulas, realizing they didn't work anymore, and then in his old age wrote Otello and Falstaff. And if someone like Ernest Newman can fail to hear the score's worth, I think it's expectation playing a role.
ON: I'm always puzzled when people want to hear Don Carlo without the Fontainebleau scene. I love that scene.
WC: Well, I'm going to go in for a bit of devil's advocacy. I really prefer it without the Fontainebleau scene.
ON: Tell me why.
WC: I think that Verdi was responding to a profound instinct when he followed Michael Costa [producer and conductor of the first Italian version] in removing it. As you know, it doesn't appear in the Schiller play at all. Here's why in my opinion it was a bit of a mistake to put it in, even though I love some of the music of that act: the actual love duet, the encounter of Carlos and Elisabeth, is not so convincing. Don Carlos seems more like a normal, average tenor lover-boy, and the Queen doesn't really seem personally involved in what happens between them, so I think it is more true. After all, what is this relationship in the opera? It is something that is not to be, and something that made Carlos lose whatever bit of balance he had, and it's a fantasy. It exists in his mind as something of cosmic significance, but it was all of five minutes long, and a normal person needs to be able to get over something like that instead of having his whole life becoming an act of mourning over something that lasted for five minutes.
ON: He's a little like Werther.
WC: Yes, exactly. I think it serves better that we see their relationship only as the tortured non-relationship that is. I don't think the Fontainebleau scene adds to that, and I like very much the frame of the opera beginning and ending at the monastery. I like very much meeting Don Carlos from the first as this tortured guy clinging to something that didn't exist. He's somebody waiting to go crazy. It's not like Charlotte created Werther's disorder; she just happened to be there. So we are in fact doing the last version that Verdi himself worked on, the four-act version. This is one thing — the confusion about this is almost infinite and understandable. Many people think that the four-act version was done in Italian, but it was not. He reworked the score and had new French verses written for the things he wanted to change, and the entire thing is a French opera in all of it derivations. It's important to get that across. The translation of Don Carlos — unlike the Italian translation of Vêpres, which I think is one of the worst ever made — is not so bad, but the worth of it was to perform it in Italy for people who understand the Italian. It has the compromises you get with any translation, which is that sometimes, in order to fit fairly well with the music, people are not saying what they are supposed to be saying. One example — the last line of the duet between Philip and the Inquisitor: "L'orgueil du roi fléchit devant l'orgueil du prêtre." An affirmative statement. "The pride of the king bows before the pride of the priest." He's giving the Inquisitor the answer he has been demanding — you can have Posa. In Italian, he says "Dunque il trono piegar dovrà sempre all'altare" — the throne must always bend to the altar. That sounds like he's just making a protest. But he's saying, "Goddammit — we always have to listen to the priest!" I think that it makes it all the more chilling and leaves Philip with a little more strength that he says, your cards are on the table, I have to put mine on the table — yes, the pride of the king bows before the pride of the priest. He's being more decisive by saying it that way. He's taking a stand, and he's also making a comment about his yielding. My heart and your pride. Don Carlos is full of moments where the precise thing they're saying actually matters, more than it matters in Aida. In Aida, you have the big situations, and the exact detail of how someone expresses himself is not necessarily so crucial. Philip's first line — "Why is the Queen alone?" — could be addressed to the whole assembled group. But in French, he says, "Pourquoi seule madame?" He's addressing her specifically and saying, "What are you up to?" It doesn't wreck the opera to have these things in it, but my feeling about doing it in French rather than Italian is not that there's something about the sound of the French language that has to be there — it's that the opera goes into sharper focus. It's dramaturgical.
ON: In the Caramoor performance, are you taking any cuts in the score?
WC: No cuts at all. I hate any cuts in Don Carlos. The cuts Verdi made are not cuts — he recomposed to make his own convincing musical statement of the shorter material. We're doing the shortest version, but every note of it.
ON: One of the most problematic details in the opera is the trio in the Garden. If the ballet is cut, we don't see why Eboli is dressed like the Queen. Every production I've ever seen trips over that point.
WC: In ours, it is not solved. The only way to solve it is to restore the exchange of the masks, and I thought about doing that. I thought about doing the pure four-act version without the ballet, but with the exchange of the masks, just to allow that clarification and to allow that to play dramatically. I think you could fairly criticize Verdi for letting that go. What I thought then was I would rather not jump in and tamper with it, when I think that if Verdi had kept that, he would have composed something fantastic for it to lead to the existing trio without the ballet. If we did it and then jumped, I'm not so sure that would be good.
ON: What exactly does that scene consist of?
WC: It is a whole atmosphere — offstage choruses, a fairly long solo for Eboli, and there is a little dialogue between Eboli and the Queen, and a good deal about how excited she is about Carlos, and it's woven in with the offstage choruses. It's probably six or seven minutes. It happens that that would be enough to throw us into a second unit of overtime.
ON: Do you think there are any parts of the opera that lag?
WC: I don't think any of it lags. We're going to keep it all.
When Rudolf Bing brought the opera to the Met in the 1950s, it was extremely cut. It's always a snip here and there — only one verse of Rodrigo's aria in the first act, and only one verse of the farewell to the Countess of Aremberg. And the most heavenly part of the interview between Carlos and Elisabeth — snips here and there. If music is well proportioned, and you cut it, it sounds longer than it did before. I assume that most operagoers have heard it both in the four-act and five-act versions. Maybe that's not true in New York, because they've done in the five-act version. Since Levine has done it, it's always been the five-act, but not always uncut. I think the worst thing of all is to do the Fontainebleau scene and not do that winter chorus, because you see the people's loyalty to Elisabeth. Otherwise, it seems like the chorus shows up out of nowhere and they're saying, "Please say yes!"
ON: I've never seen a production of the opera when the scene between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor didn't chill me to the bone.
WC: That's Verdi's genius in refining ideas, and I think it comes straight out of the duet between Sparafucile and Rigoletto. Same rhythm and idea of the melody in the bass, and these two voices doing parlando on the top of it. You don't think of it so much, because when he does something like that he makes it completely new. But in a way, it's a great, moving example of how composers deepen as they get older. They take the same idea and realize, Oh, now I know more about life, and orchestrations," and they take their old idea and make it completely new.
ON: I'd love to know the story behind the casting of the principals in Caramoor's production.
WC: Philippe is the most complex role in the opera, and here I got really lucky. I had never heard of Christophoros Stamboglis when his agent recommended him. Since then, he has made a Met debut — but I realized on the spot I had found the Philippe I wanted. He has a big voice, but he uses it elegantly. He admires the great French bass Pol Plançon, whose name most singers don't even know. He has long experience singing the role in Italian in Athens. And he actually grew up in France and speaks like a native.
I've worked only once before with Jennifer Larmore, but it didn't take long to see what a great colleague she is, and she has a long track record in French music. So when I heard she was branching into Verdi, I immediately thought this would be perfect. Eboli is high and brilliant, so it relates logically to the Rossini roles that made Jennie famous, but it goes beyond them in Verdian sweep and dramatic accent — like Lady Macbeth, which she has recently been doing with great success.
James Valenti did a Traviata with me early in his career. He was still green, but it was already clear that he had a basically lyrical voice that was capable of extra volume for the big moments, and that is exactly what Carlos needs. I've wanted for a long time to invite Stephen Powell at Caramoor, and Rodrigue is just right for him. I had heard Jennifer Check some years ago when she was singing lighter repertory and was very pleasantly surprised to learn that she has moved into things like Norma, Trovatore and Macbeth without straining her voice. Again — an essentially lyric voice, but capable of the necessary volume. That's what we need across the board to give this amazing score the right color in its true language.
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.