Friday, October 3, 2014

Douglas Messerli "Hold My Hand" (on Joseph Méry's, Camille du Locle's, and Giusseppe Verdi's Don Carlo)

hold my hand

Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle (libretto, based on Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien), Giuseppe Verdi (music) Don Carlo / Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast, December 11, 2010

Giuseppe Verdi's great opera Don Carlo premiered in Paris in March 1867, the year Sigmund Freud turned eleven while attending Leopoldstädter Kommunal-Realgymnasium in Vienna. It would be years before Freud would propound his psychological theories gleaned primarily from ancient literary texts; but Verdi's opera might as well be described as a template for many of Freud's ideas about human relationships, in particular those concerning various obstacles to love.

     If there was ever an example of a competitive struggle between son and father for the love of a mother, other than Sophocles Oedipus Rex I can't imagine it being played out more dramatically than in Don Carlo. Promised in marriage to Elisabeth of Valois, daughter to King Henry II, Don Carlo (Roberto Alagna), son of the powerful Philip II of Spain (Ferruccio Furlanetto), has disobediently traveled to France to catch a glimpse of his intended. It is clear that he is somewhat nervous about the impending event, but when he finally sees Elisabeth (Marina Poplavskaya) frolicking in Fontainebleau on a winter hunt, he is overpowered by her beauty and immediately falls in love. When the two meet up, he pretends to be from one of the hunting parties, but as the two continue in conversation, he finally admits who he is. She, equally taken with him, is delighted and they sing of their joy and love.
     Their marriage is to be announced as soon as their fathers sign the peace treaty between the Houses of Habsburg and Valois, but when the messengers arrive to tell her the news that the treaty has been signed, she is made to understand that she shall not be married to the infante, but to the King, Philip, himself! Knowing that the marriage is necessary for her country, Elisabeth has no choice but to painfully accept the proposal; Don Carlo is devastated: 

                                      The fatal hour has sounded!
                                      Cruel destiny
                                      shatters this beautiful dream!
                                      And my soul is filled with regrets;
                                      we shall drag along our chains
                                      until we rest in our tomb.

 Seldom has a first scene in any opera transformed its characters' worlds so suddenly. Don Carlo is now in the painful position of being in love with the woman who is soon be become his mother. Like anyone suffering from the Oedipal complex from here on he will come to hate his father. We recognize that the opera that follows will be centered, in part, on the struggle between the two.
     Yet, in the very next scene Verdi introduces a further sexual wrinkle in Don Carlo's life. Having returned to Spain, he secretly visits the monastery of San Yuste, where, after his abdication in 1516, Carlo' grandfather, Charles V, came to live out the rest of his life before dying of malaria. There he encounters his dear friend Rodrigo, who has obviously come to meet him. Carlo reveals his love of Elisabeth, a fact that shocks Rodrigo, who immediately demands that Carlo join him in saving Protestant Flanders—the birthplace of Charles V—by freeing it from the Spanish rule.
     Rodrigo is a pure idealist, a believer in justice and evidently a fine soldier. As he pleads with Philip a short while later for Flanders cause, he reveals what he sees as the people's condition there:

                                       O King! I have come from Flanders,
                                       that country which was once so lovely!
                                       It is now but an ashen desert,
                                       a place of horror, a tomb!
                                       There the orphan, begging
                                       and weeping on the streets,
                                       falls, as he flees the flames,
                                       on human remains!
                                       Blood reddens the water in the rivers,
                                       they roll on, full of dead bodies …
                                       The air is filled with the cries of widows
                                       over their butchered husbands! …
                                       Ah! Blessed be the hand of God,
                                       which through me brings
                                       the passing-bell of this agony
                                       to the notice of the righteous King!

Philip, the king of a country where at the very moment the trials of the Inquisition are taking place, cannot possibly support the reformers, nor intervene in the French domination of that region, and  rejects Rodrigo's and Don Carlo's pleas to travel to Flanders out of hand.     It is clear that Rodrigo, in even daring to speak of the subject with his King, is committed to his cause. Yet we soon suspect another reason why he is so eager to have Don Carlo join him. Verdi may have  thought of their relationship as being nothing more than a deep brotherly affection, but the bonds they express, their continual embracement of each other, and the vows of love they repeat over and over again in phrases such as "hold my hand" reveal their relationship is perhaps far deeper than simple friendship. They would be "united in love and death" and sing of their fealty as an oath before God. As in a marriage ceremony they cry out for a "brotherly love" that obviously is also a sexual bond. Taking Carlos with him to Flanders may be the only way to protect the young prince from the wiles of Philip's wife and his own undoing. Although Rodrigo is somewhat single-minded in his idealism, jealousy, it is apparent, may have a role in his actions as well.
    Their relationship, despite Don Carlo's inability to join him in Flanders, remains one of committed love up until Rodrigo's last act death. Not only in life do they pledge to remain together, but even in death, at least from Rodrigo's point of view:

                                     We must take our leave!

                                     Don Carlos freezes, looking aghast at Rodrigo.

                                     Yes, Carlos! This is for me the supreme day,
                                     let us say a solemn farewell;
                                     God permits us still to love one another
                                     near him, when we are in heaven.

We can only wonder what Elisabeth, had she been able to consummate her love with Don Carlo, might say to Rodrigro's dying desire.
    We perceive that, like Hamlet, Don Carlo is a confused psychological being, not a man of action like his friend. As Paul Robinson has written in an excellent essay on Don Carlo (in Opera & Ideas: From Mozart to Strauss):

In all of opera there can be no more improbable friendship
than that between Rodrigo and Don Carlo. Just as Rodrigo
is the quintessentially political animal, Carlo is one of those
people who seem incapable of a coherent political thought.
In the course of the opera, admittedly, he gets deeply involved
in affairs of state, beginning with the friendship duet... But
we are never in doubt that it is all pretend politics, and that
he understands nothing of the Flemish cause or the ideological
principles that all but define Rodrigo's existence.

     It is also clear that Philip would have wished a son more like Rodrigo than the one he has. For that reason alone, one suspects, the King confides in Rodrigo and takes him on almost as an advisor. In a world where his rule is threatened by the church, and in which he feels he can trust no one, not even his beloved wife, Philip has no choice but to turn to the handsome man of action, his weakling's son dear friend.
    The tension between Rodrigo's commitment to the political and his love for Don Carlo comes to a head when the Inquisition prepares to torture Flemish rebels. When Philip rejects the pleas of  Flemish representatives to free them, Don Carlo rushes in, a ridiculous hero, sword in hand insisting that he will be their savior. Philip demands that his son be disarmed, and Rodrigo has no choice but to disarm him. Don Carlo, appalled by his actions, sees it as a betrayal of their love, but Rodrigo clearly recognizes it is the only way to save his friend from death.
    So too is Philip made to choose between his role as a ruler and his love of his surrogate son. In the horrifying verbal battle between the bassos, Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, the blind man of the church insists that the King hand over Rodrigo. Once again, the choice is a terrible one, but as a conciliator he knows he must give in to the demand.
    Finally, even the pure and suffering Elisabeth, who has already been forced into the awful choice of marrying Philip or his son, is tortured by the oppositions between the personal and the political. Betrayed by Princess Eboli, jealous of Don Carlo's love for the Queen, Elisabeth is asked to proclaim her innocence before her King/husband, who is convinced that she has been carrying on an affair with his son. The overwhelming tension between these two forces, the domestic and the State, results in her collapse.
Throughout Don Carlo, accordingly, the characters' attempts at love are perverted, torn as they are between their psychological states of being and the State, the political and religious machinations that work against their love for one another. At opera's end all  have fallen from any possibility of grace, as Don Carlo, who finally seems to recognize Rodrigo's righteous view of the world whereupon he renounces his heterosexual lover/mother, is quite literally dragged into the past—and, of course, death—by the ghost of his own Grandfather, Charles V, in what is perhaps also a metaphor of where his political actions would surely have taken him had he attempted to save Flanders. We can only pray that, despite the Church's proclamation, all of his forbidden loves will be permitted into heaven.


Los Angeles, January 30, 2011

Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (January 2011).


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