Political operas #1: Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra and Gloriana
From the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition to a troubled English queen, three iconic examples.
Opera composers have long been fascinated by political situations – both of their own time and from history – for the simple reason that political tensions make great drama. With several operas in which politics loom large coming up at Covent Garden – in the first of a new series of features – we look at some explicitly ‘political’ operas:
Verdi:Don Carlo (1867, revised 1884 and 1886)
Politics and religion are two of the principal themes of Verdi’s towering masterpiece Don Carlo, which explores the conflict between ideals, romantic desires and political choices. Elizabeth of Valois is forced to renounce her betrothed Don Carlos and marry his father in order to bring peace between France and Spain. Don Carlos is torn between his love for Elizabeth and his desire to heal the troubled Netherlands, held under a Spanish ‘reign of terror’. His friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, has fostered Carlos’s political ambitions and hopes to influence King Philip II to end the persecution in the Netherlands, and to encourage Philip to become a more merciful ruler. King Philip is moved by Posa’s idealism and courage, but he himself is not a free man – as Act IV of the opera shows, Philip is very much under the thumb of the dreaded Grand Inquisitor (Duet: ‘Il Grande Inquisitor!’). It is the Inquisitor who has the final say in this opera, forcing Philip to submit to his will and destroy Carlos and Posa. In Don Carlo, the characters’ ideals are no match for the power of Church and State.
Verdi: Simon Boccanegra (1857, revised 1881)
Verdi was always keen to show that his politicians were also human beings. The personal and the public clash to devastating effect in Simon Boccanegra when the eponymous Doge of Genoa is reunited with his long-lost daughter Amelia after 25 years. Their happiness is threatened by Simon’s political opponents – the aristocrats of Genoa (among them Amelia’s lover Gabriele Adorno) and the Doge’s own confidant Paolo. Paolo got Simon into power, and expects favours from the Doge in return – including the hand of Amelia. When Boccanegra refuses, Paolo tries to kidnap Amelia. The plot fails, and Boccanegra pronounces a curse on Amelia’s kidnapper. In revenge, Paolo poisons Boccanegra and organizes a rebellion against him. The rebellion is unsuccessful, largely due to the heroism of Adorno, who becomes the Doge’s ally when he learns that he is Amelia’s father. But Paolo’s poisoning plot works; the Doge dies at the hands of the wily man who got him into power in the first place. Simon proves himself a successful politician to the last, however, and with his dying breath brings peace to his city by naming Gabriele Adorno as the new Doge (Final ensemble: ‘Gran Dio, li benedici’).
Britten: Gloriana (1953)
Britten chose to explore the final days of an iconic British monarch in this commission to mark the coronation of Elizabeth II. Queen Elizabeth I is drawn to the dashing and impulsive Earl of Essex, who becomes one of her ‘favourites’. Although she knows Essex is impetuous and overly ambitious, she allows him to persuade her to appoint him as military commander in Ireland. When he fails to conquer the rebels there and returns full of excuses and anger, Elizabeth (with some unease) is forced to listen to her advisors and place him under house arrest. Essex, enraged, leads an ill-fated rebellion, and the Queen has no option but to condemn him to death for treason. In a pensive epilogue, the Queen meditates on her reign and her approaching death; snatches of music in the orchestra telling us that her thoughts are still very much with Essex.
Don Carlo runs 4 – 25 May, Simon Boccanegra from 27 June – 16 July and Gloriana from 20 June – 6 July. Tickets are still available for Simon Boccanegra and Gloriana but Don Carlo is limited to Day Tickets and returns only.