Despite Milanese reports reassuring the public that the sacredness of La Scala's season-opening jamboree on the night of Sant'Ambrogio (7 December) was untarnished, the full-house standing ovation for this Don Carlo performance three nights earlier might tell a different story. The line-up was the same as that for the official first-night, and so was the staging and everything else. Why, then, this preview of the premiere? It was an experiment sponsored by the theatre itself, and was a special performance for under-26s only. No matter where you were sitting, each ticket cost just €10 (about £8).
The version used was the four-act one, as revised in 1882/1883 and first performed in this same theatre in 1884. The mise en scène, by young Stephane Braunschweig, is imposing in its geometric harshness: a series of huge, sharp-angled gravestones dominate, framed by a lintel structure that will remain throughout the performance. I say gravestones, because this is what the audience is led to believe as they witness a procession of black and white clothed monks, that fill the stage in geometrical unison with the mise en scène. Yet, at the sounding of a ghostly church bell, the monks turn towards the gravestones and exit through them: they are doors, not tombs. Apt enough, as evocation of death is a leitmotif in Don Carlo: l'avel, the grave, is a recurrent grim refrain in the protagonists' lines.
Don Carlo is an opera about lack and impossibility. Each character faces insoluble problems. Filippo II is the paradigmatic example: he feels acutely the burden of religious interference over his throne; at the same time, he is aware that he has never been loved by his queen. In this rendition, Ferruccio Furlanetto (singing Filippo only a few months ago after his triumph in the role at the Royal Opera) perfectly inhabits the role of a monarch whom the burden of power has isolated; the paradoxical situation in which his rival in love is his son adds to his pain. Equally impossible is Princess Eboli's love for Carlo: played by an outstanding Dolora Zajick, was with Filippo the character who most painfully expressed the loneliness of her condition. And there is the complementary tragedy of Don Carlo (Giuseppe Filianoti) and Elisabetta di Valois (Fiorenza Cedolins), trapped by the fact that they are lovers who must call themselves son and mother.
The impossibility staged in Don Carlo is also one of attaining freedom while fulfilling one's duties (libertà and dover are two other recurrent words). But in this new La Scala production, what emerges is in many ways a masculine opera: performers show their toughest sides, and the vocal interpretations all betraying a certain ferocity. Fiorenza Cedolins was particularly impressive in the way she dominated the scene, taming all those who surrounded her, and even the orchestra, through her acting and her voice.
I said every character exposed a masculine side, but actually it's every character except one. The missing person is Don Carlo himself. Giuseppe Filianoti's vocal interpretation was crystalline (perhaps at times even too bright), and this led a homoerotic thread emerging between Carlo and Rodrigo (Dalibor Jenis): fought over between Filippo and his son, Rodrigo seemed to act as metonymic love object for Carlo, whose feelings for Elisabetta can never be fulfilled. Indeed, Carlo and Rodrigo sing duets together more often and more intensely than Carlo and his beloved do; and in Rodrigo's death scene, the couple's bodily interaction was so passionate that one almost expected an adieu kiss.
Inevitably when compared with the regal qualities of Filippo, the title character is particularly hard to make consistent. Only a few months ago, Andrew Clements, commenting on the Royal Opera production, wrote in the Guardian that 'Villazón reduces the character of Carlo to little more than a stroppy, lovesick adolescent' (9 June 2008). Even among La Scala's youthful spectators, it was the bad guys, Filippo and Eboli, who most caught the audience sympathy.
On the architectural side, the staging was effective in giving shape to the sharpness and hopelessness of human relations. An Arcadian setting during Eboli's Veil Song discouraged any idea of an exotic Spain but reinforced the sense of innocence and purity that Elisabetta then evokes in her soliloquies to herself and God - religion is bad only if organized; it can be a consolation when characters confront their inner tragedy. And the visual aspect was equally impressive in the choral scenes, in which the atmosphere assumed Velasquez-like undertones.
What is more, the use of a black panel in the background had an enthralling effect. I am not sure of the director's intentions but the dark rectangle seemed to hint at a cinema screen. Such a reading is reinforced by an opera that brings to the stage a present that is sprinkled with memories of a happier past: one that lasted, according to the Carlo and Elisabetta, only one day ('quest'eternità un giorno sol durò'). At moments when the singers direct their thoughts to memories of previous experience (Rodrigo's and Carlo's earlier friendship, Carlo's and Elisabetta's vows of love), children dressed identically to the grown-ups pantomime stories on the black screen. In some of the scenes, the children even interact with the characters; but in most, they just stay just out of reach. The adults can only watch the enactment of the past they are evoking, just like film viewers observe a projection of their wishes and fears when staring at a cinema screen.