Don Carlo commits suicide at the end? Not on your life! The Washington National Opera’s otherwise brilliant production of Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” after three-plus hours of magnificent singing and acting on the singular theme of an heroic striving to bring freedom to the oppressed against the machinations of an evil king and even more evil Grand Inquisitor, ends up dumping on all that in its final seconds.
With a downright blasphemous intervention into Verdi’s heroic intent based on Schiller’s heroic play, production director Tim Albery twisted the non-verbal end of the operatic drama into an act of selfish suicidal self-destruction.
Having loved the performance to that point, I was singularly and suddenly repulsed. That “twist” undid the point of the whole production so cruelly that I was stunned, and my optimism for the coming season of the WNO was suddenly shattered into doubt and skepticism.
Philip Kennicott, the critic who wrote the Washington Post’s review, “Pared Down and Dumbed Down, ‘Don Carlo’ Still Dazzles at the Kennedy Center,” had it right in his final paragraph when he concluded, “Director Tim Albery has decided to make Don Carlo commit suicide at the end, rather than escape into a darkened tomb (as in the Verdi) or be handed over to the authorities (as in the Schiller). So it ends with neither mystery nor cynical fatalism, but a narcissistic act. The narcissism, of course, is the director’s.”
Now, Kennicott did not comment on how the suicide was so contrary to the driving force of the opera, but indeed, it was. Can a director be so egotistically intent on writing his feeble little mark onto a great work that he cannot even see how what he did was so completely contrary to the very soul of the work?
Verdi was a proud and dedicated force in Italy in the 19th century in the name of the nation’s unification on constitutionally republican principles. He chose Schiller’s “Don Carlo” because that was set in the early days of the Enlightenment when horrid tyrannies like Philip II and the Inquisition were being challenged by a young and idealistic new generation that grew into the American and succession of European revolutions. The opera has as its persisting and intoxicating theme the bond between Carlo and Rodrigo sworn in their first act duet, “Dieu, tu seman dans nos ames.”
Critic David Salazar of Operawire.com is right to draw parallels between the opera’s subject matter and the current political environment in the U.S., when a new and young generation of strident activists has begun to arise against the tyrannies of the president, the NRA and its corrupt evangelical supporters.
So, in that spirit, are today’s rising young activists supposed to emulate Don Carlo and fall in their swords when the going gets tough, as this current “Don Carlo” production suggests?
Or, maybe the order to turn Don Carlo suicidal in the current production was ordered from higher authorities. Someone knows, I don’t.
There seems to be an epidemic of self-destructive solutions to conflict these days. Last year, I penned a letter to the editor in the respected Gay and Lesbian Review when it published an article last year by the brilliant American University instructor who writes under the pen name, Andrew Holleran. In a piece on an aspect of playwright Tennessee Williams’ career, Holleran injected a passing comment to the effect that Williams “probably committed suicide” when he died at age 71 in 1983.
There is no evidence of that, whatsoever, while an autopsy report at the time concluded that Williams accidentally swallowed a cap of a pill bottle that got caught in his throat. Otherwise, Williams had his chronic issues, but was continuing to live his life full of, as they say, piss and vinegar.
Only in this era has a much-removed, depressed point of view begun to revise history and conclude that it was suicide.
Preposterous! It’s not my place here to propose why this is, but I am eager to report that a spirit of new life in the past year’s rising women’s and youth movements is in the process of sweeping away all that morbid fixation on self-destruction.
The “Don Carlo” production continues at the Kennedy Center through this weekend.