Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Carousel and Domestic Violence

I need to write about this for this issue has bothered me ever since I attended a performance of the Rogers and Hammerstein “Carousel” at Union Ave. Opera at the end of July.  I am not going to talk about the production (much).  Frankly, I felt there were lots of problems with it but particular production is not really relevant to my concern.  The issue is deeply embedded in the “book.”

First preliminary comment: I love the musical.  I was in it as a child as one of the bratty “Snow” children.  I have very, very happy memories of that show.  My dad was in it – in the chorus and he was the police officer in the crucial scene where Billy and Jigger’s plan goes awry.  So, I got to do this with my dad and it was really fun.  And then there was Longwood Gardens outside of Philadelphia that is a wonderful place.  And then there was the incredible carousel itself used most prominently in the opening prologue. And I got to ride on it!  And then there is the music.  I can hardly get through any production of Carousel without crying during some of the songs – “If I Loved You,” “When You Walk Through A Storm,” “When I Marry Mr. Snow,” “When the Children Are Asleep!”  Wonderful songs all of them and the instrumental prologue and ballet sequences are musically brilliant – perhaps among Roger’s best compositions!

Second preliminary comment: I work as a Lutheran Pastor in a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and I have been a Pastor for 30+ years.  In my role as pastor I often – far too often - encounter women (and children at times) who have been or who are the subject of domestic abuse.  Sometimes this takes the form of verbal or emotional abuse; sometimes neglect and sometimes actual physical abuse.  I have seen the effect it has.  How it destroys everyone who is involved, but especially the victim.  I have absolutely no sympathy for abusers.  It is wrong!  It is evil!  You have no right to abuse your wife or children in any way!  Marriage must be based on respect and trust.  There can be no respect and trust when there is any kind of abuse. Period!  Sometimes an abused wife will ask me: “But what about my vows before God?”  The first time he hit you – the first time he verbally abused you, put you down, called you names - HE broke HIS vows and broke the bonds of trust and respect! A woman who is abused needs to get out.  And getting out is simply accepting the break that has already occurred through HIS action. And to that end I support any number of shelters and agencies for women who need a safe place.

To the issue at hand – the “book” of Carousel: 
Louise Bigelow: But is it possible, Mother, for someone to hit you hard like that - real loud and hard, and it not hurt you at all?
Julie Jordan: It is possible dear, for someone to hit youhit you hard, and it not hurt at all. (See Footnote #1)
 Julie is wrong - NO it is not possible! Love never makes abuse ok!  Julie spends all of her married life as an abused woman.  No matter what his issues, or whether we might want to agree with Carrie and Julie’s other friends that Billy is bad news and that she shouldn’t have married him and she ought to leave him, nevertheless, the heart wants what the heart wants and Julie loves Billy.  But he treats her like crap! And by the middle of the first act everyone knows that Billy’s verbal and emotional abuse has turned to physical abuse. 
Starcatcher: … So then why did you beat her?
Billy: I didn’t beat her.  I hit her once!
Typical excuse.  “I only hit her once.  It wasn’t hard.  She deserved it.  She was nagging me!” Billy has lots of excuses. He actually admits at one point that he gets angry because Julie is right!  But none of those excuses hold a drop of water.  He hit her! He is guilty of physical abuse!  And physical abuse is never ok!  But I find the act 2 exchange between the 16-year-old troubled Louise and her mother Julie to be the most troubling in the musical. Julie, in this exchange, is passing on her victimhood to her daughter Louise. Julie’s answer sets up her young daughter to continue the cycle of abuse into the next generation and beyond. This is what I find so disturbing about this “book.” (See footnote number #2)
(Footnote #1 – To be fair, Hammerstein essentially lifted this exchange from Molnár’s play “Lilliom” – in the play Louise tells her mother that the man (the dead Lillion, her father she never met) hit her hard and it felt like a kiss.  Is that possible?  Julie responds that yes it is possible.  The play is from 1909.)
 (Footnote #2 - By the way, in case you are not familiar with the plot - Louise is the daughter with whom Julie is pregnant at the end of act 1 and to whom Billy has come back from the dead to visit – the visit doesn’t go well, he scares her and he gets angry and hits her! – The role of Louise, by the way, was shared and beautifully performed at UAO by dancer Emma Gassett and actor Caylee McGlasson)  

So what is the answer? I am not advocating the shelving of this beautiful musical.  Not in the least!  I believe that is the wrong thing to do. Do I think that Oscar Hammerstein or Richard Rogers for that matter were somehow glorifying domestic abuse? Actually, I don’t. I think Hammerstein in particular was a very astute and keen observer of culture and frankly the domestic abuse is an essential part of the story, which he takes almost directly from Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár’s “Lilliom” (Except for the ending). There is simply no way to excise it from the show. But, bear in mind that Rogers and Hammerstein were not afraid to deal with controversial subject matter – for example, racism in “South Pacific,” or cultural imperialism in “King and I.”

A couple years ago I attended a performance of “King and I” at the Lincoln Center Theater. They did not shy away from the issues of cultural imperialism, but rather they addressed these issues in an upfront and proactive manner. This is, I believe at least one solution.  When a company chooses to mount the musical “Carousel” I believe they should take it upon themselves to address this issue in the same manner. Don’t ignore it, or treat it like it is, well, unremarkable, just a part of the show.  The director or company manager or conductor could write an article for the program addressing the issue.  Or the company could raise funds for a local shelter, sponsor discussions at intermission or before the show about the serious epidemic of domestic abuse.  Now, I’m don’t mean to single out Union Ave Opera, who generally do great productions, because, frankly, I attended a beautiful production of this “Carousel” at Lyric Opera of Chicago a couple years ago and they didn’t do anything either.  In both cases these were missed opportunities to perhaps save someone from the cycle of abuse, and maybe even to save a life. 

In closing, great art like opera, theater, musicals address the experience of being human in all its beauty and ugliness.  Maybe it is time for companies to be just a little more proactive in confronting some of these serious issues.

If you know someone who is being abused or if you need help:
Crisis Hotline Numbers in Southern Illinois:
St. Clair County – 618-235-0892
Monroe County – 618-939-8114
East St. Louis – 618-875-7970

Randolph County – 618-826-5959

Monday, August 21, 2017

Union Avenue Opera's Final Production of 2017: Hansel und Gretel

Union Ave. Opera of St. Louis completes their 2017 season with an excellent production of Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, sung in German and seen on opening night, Friday, August 18. The performance got off to a slow start due to a technical problem, but within 15 minutes they had it resolved and the opera was able to proceed.  It was on the whole a beautiful performance and an effective production.

The cast was uniformly excellent. Hansel and Gretel, played by Emma Sorenson and Julie Tabash Kelscheimer, certainly seemed to be in touch with their inner child. They danced and played like a couple of small children throughout, but their singing was nuanced and beautiful.  Their ensemble singing was as good as I have ever heard in this opera.  These two artists created a magical moment with their famous prayer at the end of act 1, which would have probably transported us all the way to intermission if it had not been for a boorish audience member who alone insisted on clapping wildly immediately following the prayer but before the music came to a stop.  Meghan Kasanders gave us a troubled and weary mother who convincingly chased after the children following Peter’s warning about the Knusperhexe. The Peter of Jacob Lassetter was effective in his tipsy teasing of his wife and intense in his description of the perils of the woods.  Both sang with style and artistry that beautifully conveyed the emotion and situations in which they find themselves.  Melisa Bonetti as the Witch was both funny and terrifying all at the same time.  Fine performances of the small roles of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy by Emily Moses and Gina Malone rounded out this excellent cast.

I have to say that as excellent as this cast is across the board, the stand out performance for me was Julie Tabash Kelscheimer as Gretel.  Her performance was truly remarkable.  Vocally she has a gorgeous voice that she is able to color and shape to express the music.  She is perfectly capable of letting loose with a wonderful large but focused sound, but she can also sing gently conveying the emotion of the moment and then she molds her voice in the ensembles to perfectly blend with whoever she is singing.  Hers was a magnificent vocal performance.  But that’s not all! Her acting is simply outstanding.  She completely embodied this little girl, from her wonderful dancing and playing with Emma Sorenson’s excellent Hansel where she has to cajole and pester him into joining her, to the fear of the shadows in the woods, to her courage in the face of the wicked witch hers was a captivating performance.  And, I repeat, this is in the context of an excellent cast.

The other stand out performance in my view is the production itself by the excellent stage director Karen Coe Miller.  Using what are obviously limited resources at the Union Avenue Christian Church she was nevertheless able to create the fantasy world for this fairy tale very effectively.  From the poor hut of Peter’s family with bare cupboards, to the threatening woods, to the Witch’s candy house the set was very effective as was the lighting.  I appreciated in particular her interpretation of the Angel Ballet at the end of act 1.  Taking perhaps some inspiration from the Met’s current hunger focused production this production adds the need for love and security that are so essential for young children.  With nary a Fishhead Waiter in sight nevertheless this ballet brings the children into an embrace of love and plenty that I found both moving and effective.  I will confess that I didn’t quite get the point of the “Charlie Chaplin” Sandman or the Rockette Dew Fairy, still it all worked beautifully. 

There were a few opening night issues with the set, and the oven door in particular.  And I’m sorry to say that I felt the orchestra seemed under rehearsed.  The overture was sloppy and there were moments throughout the opera of sloppiness and compromised intonation.  I suspect that will improve with repetition.  I understand that the company needs to use a reduced orchestration but I really wish these orchestrations would not remove so much of the low brass.  The tuba was particularly missed in places and in general the orchestration needs more bottom in the sound.  The conductor, Kostis Proropapis did an excellent job pacing the opera.  The children’s choir was lovely, especially after they opened their eyes.

I was surprised that this opening night performance was not sold out.  I don’t quite understand why and I certainly hope the opera lovers in St. Louis who support the other excellent companies will come out in droves next weekend to see this excellent production.  Union Ave Opera does a terrific job and we are lucky to have this company offering these great performances!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Union Ave. Opera: Albert Herring

Seems to be a bit of a Britten summer - "Billy Budd" (at Des Moines Metro Opera) and now "Albert Herring" at St. Louis' Union Avenue Opera.  Last night I had the opportunity to experience this infrequently performed Britten opera for the first time.  And I really enjoyed this opera and, not only that but it was beautifully performed. The company were simply outstanding in my view. Christine Brewer was terrific as Lady Billows, the very assertive matriarch of the town of Loxford. And tenor David Walton was wonderful as Albert. A beautiful voice and a great actor as the hen-pecked Albert who finally (with a little help from the rum) finds the courage to break the apron strings. But opera requires an excellent ensemble cast and the ensemble was also excellent. Nathaniel Buttram and Holly Janz as the conspirators Sid and Nancy were terrific; David Dillard as the up tight Vicar, Mr. Gedge, who preaches sermons on virtue (maybe I would borrow a title); It was so nice to finally experience tenor Anthony Heinemann in a role that allowed him to open up and really sing, and it was beautiful and his portrayal of the Mayor, Mr. Upfold, was excellent; Bass Mark Freiman as the rather stuffy Constable Budd (How about that two Britten operas and both with a character named Budd!!!); I particularly enjoyed Debra Hillabrand as Florence Pike, Lady Billow's equally uptight housekeeper - she was so funny especially in that first scene; Leann Schuering as the school teacher and finally an outstanding Janara Kellerman as Albert's mother. I have to mention that I loved the kids - Gina Malone, Victoria Botero and Seth Drake (an actual kid actually) played Emmie, Cis and Harry and at times just about stole the show. In general the company acted the opera very well and were very committed.  In this theater one is close enough to see facial expressions and they were often very funny - especially Albert's.

I have at times been a bit critical of the conductor Scott Schoonover, but I have to say he was excellent in this. He paced this work very well and the orchestra was equally outstanding in what sounded to me like a rather challenging score. But the star of the production I think is the stage director Tim Ocel and scenic designer Kyra Bishop. The costumes and lighting were also great. Sorry to gush, but frankly it was a great night at the opera. The piece is profoundly silly though I suspect some of the humor may be lost on an American audience as I get the sense that the plot is profoundly British (echoes of "The Importance of Being Earnest" and many period Britcoms). Even so, it was delightful. The conceit of a young man tied to his mother's apron strings and unable to begin to live his own life is I suspect universal and we certainly have our fair share of judgmental, holier-than-thou types who would like to impose their morality on everyone else. If you are near St. Louis, you should catch this lovely production.

Here are some photos - the set and curtain calls:

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Julius Caesar and Literalism

It is inevitable: someone will post an article or a promotion about a controversial opera production in one of the European houses and the negativity usually starts immediately.  “It disrespects the composer!” Or “It doesn’t follow the libretto!”  And then the production is dismissed as “Euro-tr—h” and the commenter moves on.  Well the production is not trash, and the use of the E word is insulting and ignorant.  I have no patience with it.  Do we really need to call names and insult an entire continent in order to feel superior?  Additionally there are plenty of American stage directors who are just a creative.  In other words, the phenomenon of “Regie-Theater” is not confined to Europe.

But the bigger issue to me is this claim that somehow we are disrespecting the composer.  How do we know this when the composer has been dead for a couple hundred years?  Well, “it’s all in the libretto.”  Is it?  It seems to me that these folks who look at opera libretti as holy writ neither know nor understand the libretto. Is the essence of “Tosca” in making sure that the opera is set for two of its three acts in the actual Castel Sant'Angelo?  Is the essence of the libretto to be found in the stage directions that instruct Tosca to enter here and Spoletta to exit there?  I think that is missing the point.  This is just literalism plain and simple.  And literalism limits our vision; it disables our ability to enter into the deeper meaning of a text or a story; literalism keeps us on the surface and denies us the profundity of the depth of meaning that these texts, literature, art and music contain.  In my view literalism is anti-art; it is anti-human growth because it never challenges.  It just confirms our own worldview and allows us to avoid the deeper meaning and implications of a work.  And this is true whether that work is the Bible or Tosca or Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar!"

There has been a lot of hubbub about Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar.”  Specifically, a production of the play is being performed in Central Park which updates the action to our present time and some of the characters seem to bear some resemblance to current political figures.  Since the title character (supposedly played to be similar to our current president) is assassinated this has caused upset.  Some of these folks have even been threatening violence themselves. Both Delta Airlines and the Bank of America pulled their support.  Folks angry about this interpretation have crashed performances and even threatened summer Shakespeare companies who are not even performing Julius Caesar (you do know that William wrote a lot of plays, right?  The most pathetic is the company who has received numerous threats of violence for performing... wait for it.... "The Merry Wives of Windsor!").  The problem for me in all of this, at least initially, is that it would seem from what I have read that not one of those who are upset with this play (or production) and are throwing around these cowardly threats and taking back their money have seen it.  In fact, it appears to me that many of them have not even read the play.

So for those who are feeling upset and especially for the good but uninformed and rather ignorant people at Delta and Bank of America – here is "Julius Caesar 101": First of all, we have to start by understanding that the story (based on historical facts, but not limited to them! – that is important by the way) began quite a long time before the play opens.  Shakespeare’s audience would have been quite familiar with the story of Caesar the brilliant general who conquers most of Europe, and the Caesar who “crossed the Rubicon.”  Caesar was not only a brilliant military strategist but an equally brilliant politician who knew how to capitalize on his military popularity to become a populist leader and move the Roman Empire (which he actually pretty much created single handed) from being a democratic republic to a authoritarian empire.  This is where the play starts.  Senators such as Cassius, Casca and Brutus are alarmed at Caesar’s political moves to undermine the republic and come to the conclusion that the only way to stop him is to assassinate him.  Their end goal is to protect the republic, but they choose to do this with violence. The personal dimension is provided by the fact that Caesar considers Brutus to be his dear, close friend.  So the issues of personal betrayal ("E tu Brute?), the struggle between private vs. public good all are a part of this play - which is one of the things that makes it a masterpiece!  

And so, on the Ides of March, after being warned to stay away from the Senate, Caesar arrives to begin the day's deliberations. Just as the affairs of state are beginning, Casca strikes the first blow with his knife and the other conspirators follow suit.  They then bath their hands in the dead Caesar’s blood and head out to the marketplace.  They are assuming that Rome will rally to them. After all they had saved Rome from an authoritarian dictator.  But they (Brutus in particular) make two major mistakes in judgment. First, his speech justifying the action is ineffective and unconvincing.  The blood on his hands unnerves him and the crowds in the square. And while the speech gets initial lukewarm acceptance it is ultimately ineffective.  The second mistake is allowing Caesar’s great friend Mark Anthony to speak.  The speech is amazing.  The conspirators had underestimated Mark Anthony’s rhetorical ability and as the speech builds he begins to rally the people to his side.  By the end the conspirators have fled and the tide has turned.

(Mark Anthony’s speech is one of the greatest of Shakespeare’s creations.  Here are two performances: Charlton Heston in the film from 1970 is first.  I think this is one of his best roles.  And the other is Damian Lewis.

But, violence begets violence.  The poet Cinna is mistaken for the Senator and conspirator Lucius Cinna and is brutally killed in the streets.  Rioting and burning engulfs the city of Rome and Mark Anthony, the General Lepidus and eventually Caesar’s heir the young, but equally brilliant and exceptionally power hungry Octavius Caesar (eventually to be known as the Emperor Augustus) consolidate their power by executing anyone they deem as disloyal (historically this included the great Roman orator and lawyer Cicero).  Then they raise and lead an army against the conspirators.  All the combatants meet at Philippi and the forces under the command of Octavius and Mark Anthony are victorious, the last of the conspirators are killed or commit suicide. 

One of the great points of this play is that the violence of the initial assassination unleashes a power those who resorted to violence cannot control and that ultimately the violence destroys them all.  In other words: violence does not work!  Period!  Those who resort to violence, no matter how noble the goal, are ultimately destroyed along with many, many innocents with them.  Violence does not work!  This is one of the major points of the play!

And it seems to be a point that was missed by both the protestors and the poorly informed folks at Delta and Bank of America.  This play does not advocate violence – on the contrary, it decries it!  It condemns it.  And anyone who suggests or threatens violence in relation to this play is aligning themselves with the conspirators, who are destroyed in the end.

I have not seen this production.  It is obviously updated, but there is nothing wrong with that.  Of all the productions of this play I have seen most of them have been updated, including a magnificent RSC production set in Africa.  But can we not look past the setting and allow the stage director and the actors to lead us into the depth of the meaning of this incredible play and then take to heart one of the main points of the play: Violence. Does. Not. Work.  Violence is evil, it is seductive and violence will destroy those who rely upon it.

This brings to mind another great Shakespeare play – "Macbeth."  There is no noble motivation in "Macbeth."  Personal advancement provides the impetus for Macbeth and his wife to begin their murderous careers.  But once they start they can’t stop.  “What is done cannot be undone” and the insecurity and fear which preys upon them as a result eventually destroys them. In other words the motivation is irrelevant.  Violence. Does. Not. Work!  This is at the heart of both plays.  So rather than protesting and getting all upset and making cowardly threats and taking our money and going home and all of that maybe we might take a little time and read the play and understand what it is that Shakespeare wants us to understand.  And, really, remember, Shakespeare is truly objective in regard to 21st century American politics.  He truly “doesn’t have an iron in the fire” as they say.

Finally, one of the great betrayals of this country has been going on now for a number of years – so we can’t blame 45 for this exclusively, though he isn’t helping -  That is insidious the idea that the arts and the humanities are somehow unimportant and should be cut from school curriculums.  Wrong! The arts and the humanities teach us how to think.  They teach us how to be good citizens.  They teach us how to be great and help us to measure ourselves.  America can never be great without a comprehensive education system.  And this has got to include the arts and humanities.  The Ancient Greeks and Romans understood this, and we ignore it to our peril.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Verdi's "Don Carlos" and History - Opera and Biography in Conversation

From time to time someone will ask me to name my favorite opera.  I suppose the assumption is that since I am an opera fan the surely I must have A (one) favorite opera.  I find the question not so easy to answer though.  It depends on my mood and what I can see at any given time.   The fact is that I love a lot of operas – Cenerentola, Cosi, Don Giovanni, Aida, Wagner's Ring - and I am hard pressed to whittle it down to one.  But even so, there is one opera that I would put in the top of any list I would create and that opera is Verdi’s Don Carlos.  This is, in my view, a terrific opera and I never tire of it.  It is always interesting and exciting to see a production.  This is partly because Verdi himself was never pleased with it and he kept tinkering with it.  So there is at least about 5 hours of music that has been composed for this work.  A traditional production of this opera however usually clocks in at around 3 to 3 and a half hours. And then there is the French version, which has even more different music composed for it.  Don Carlo is a great treasure that has so much depth that one will never be able to exhaust the riches of this work.

I have seen it only once live, and that was at the Met with a wonderful cast (Furlanetto as Philip II, also with Lee as Carlos, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Posa, Frittoli as Elizabeth) but I have seen many productions online or on disk. I hope in the years to come to have the opportunity to see this opera live on many more occasions. (La Scala is doing a 5 hour version of the opera next season and Paris is doing BOTH the French and Italian versions of the opera in alteration – wouldn’t I love to see both of those productions!) 

The opera is based on a play of the same name by Schiller, which was based on a novel by César de Saint-Réal, which was based on several tracts written during Philip’s lifetime by men who were his enemies, the most notable is an “Apology” by Prince William of Orange (who led the Dutch rebellion against Philip and was eventually assassinated, on Philip’s orders). The plot of the opera is convoluted, but I will attempt to lay it out simply (note that the play is even more complex). 
The Plot of the Opera:
• PROLOGUE: Carlo has been betrothed to Elizabeth of Valois and he accompanies the guards sent to meet her and escort her to Spain.  He slips away, as does Elizabeth from her train and they meet accidentally and without her knowing who he is at first they fall in love.  Then the message comes that Philip has changed his mind and will marry Elizabeth himself.  After listening to the pleadings of the French peasant women for her to accept and bring peace to their land she accepts the offer of Philip’s hand with a heavy heart.  Carlo is crushed.  This is the famous Fontainebleu scene which in the past was often cut.  It is a great scene and IMHO should never be cut.
• ACT I, SCENE 1 - Several years has passed.  Elizabeth and Philip are married.  They are not happy.  Carlo haunts the monastery where his grandfather Carlo V is buried and often his elaborate tomb is a part of the set.  He meets an old monk (who may be Carlo V himself).  Suddenly Carlo is interrupted by his friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa.  Rodrigo is particularly concerned about Spanish oppression in Flanders and asks Carlo to join him in trying to help the people of Flanders.  Carlo hesitates and Rodrigo is able to get Carlo to admit his love for Elizabeth – his step-mother, the Queen!  Rodrigo is horrified, but they sing a famous duet committing themselves to each other as friends. This duet is interrupted by the King and Queen who have come to pray at the tomb.  The scene ends with a reprise of the famous and glorious duet between Posa and Carlo – BFF for ever!
• ACT II - The Queen is attended by her ladies. The Princess of Eboli sings a Spanish song to amuse them. Rodrigo arrives and passes a secret letter to the Queen from Carlo asking for an audience.  Posa is able to distract the nosey Eboli and the Queen meets Carlo with great dignity.  He, however, is a wreck.  He begs her to run away with him.  She finally looses her cool and suggests that what he is suggesting is that he murder his father the King and take his step-mother to bed.  Would that make him happy?  Carlo runs away terrified just as the King enters.  Philip is unhappy that the Queen has been left alone and dismisses one of her ladies for neglect.  This prompts a beautiful aria by Elizabeth, expressing her sorrow, remorse and humiliation.  Posa arrives as the ladies leave and the King asks Posa to ask for a reward, suggesting that his faithful service has deserved a reward from the King.  Posa responds that he wants nothing for himself, but for others…  “Others?” Asks the King.  Yes, the people of Flanders.  The King is uncomfortable with this suggestion and Posa gets so worked up that he forgets himself and suggests that Philip’s legacy will to be remembered as a tyrant, like Nero.  Philip forgives the indiscretion and changes the subject.  Would the Marquis act as a spy for me on Elizabeth and Carlo?  Philip suspects something.  Posa is amused by this but agrees.  “But,” cautions the King, “Beware the Grand Inquisitor!”  Ti guarda!

• ACT III, SCENE 1 - Carlo thinks he will have a midnight rendezvous with the Queen at which he intends to tell her he is going away.  But the Queen doesn’t show.  It is Eboli who loves Carlo but who Carlo doesn’t recognize in the dark.  After pouring his heart out he realizes his mistake.  It is too late, Eboli has put it together and swears to be revenged on Carlo and the Queen.  Posa arrives and is ready to run Eboli through with his sword but is restrained by Carlo.  After Eboli leaves Posa demands that Carlo turn over any incriminating papers.  “To you, the King’s confidant?” Says Carlo.  Posa is hurt and stunned to be distrusted, but Carlo finally agrees.

• ACT III, SCENE 2 - The day of the great Auto-da-Fé.  The crowds have assembled, the heretics are marched to the stake. The King and Queen arrive with much pomp.  Suddenly Carlo bursts in accompanied by ambassadors from Flanders.  They interrupt the proceedings and plead for justice and mercy.  The King is about the order their arrest when Carlo asks to be made Regent of Flanders.  Philip refuses and Carlo, incensed draws his sword on the King.  Everyone is shocked until finally the Marquis of Posa steps forward and disarms the Prince.  As a reward the King on the spot gives Posa the title of Duke while Carlo is arrested and the fires are lit to burn the heretics.  A voice from heaven floats down promising salvation for the so-called heretics. (It has always been unclear to me if the cast and crowds on stage can actually hear this voice, or if it is just for us the audience.)
• ACT IV, SCENE 1 - Philip is alone in his study.  He has the Queen’s chest of jewelry open in front of him.  Inside he has found a portrait of Carlo.  He is despondent and sings one of the great bass arias in all opera:
Ella giammai m'amo - Met Feruccio Furlanetto
He is interrupted by the entrance of the Grand Inquisitor (and this is my favorite scene in all of opera – this dramatic scene between these two basses is tremendous).  Philip tells the GI that he has arrested his son and feels that Carlo needs to be executed for the sake of the realm.  Would he, the GI, offer him absolution if he condemns his son the death.  He never gets an answer for this question from the GI.  Instead the GI asks the King to give him Posa for his work in support of the Flemish rebels.  No, jamais – No, Never! Shouts the King.  "Don’t think that just because you are King that I can’t pull you before the tribunal," thunders the GI.  Finally, Philip asks that there may be peace between them.  “Perhaps,” says the GI.
No sooner has he left the room than Elizabeth bursts in angry and demanding the King’s justice for the theft of her Jewels.  “Is this what you are looking for?” Asks the King.  Elizabeth is stunned and further embarrassed when the King demands to know why she has a portrait of Carlo.  The Queen tries to explain that there is nothing between them but the King accuses her of being unfaithful at which point she swoons.  Eboli enters as the King leaves with Posa.  Eboli is mortified that he anger has caused all of this heartbreak.  It was she, she tells the Queen, who stole her box and gave it to the King.  And not only that but she is the King’s mistress.  Elizabeth, hurt and betrayed, softly asks for the gift back she had given to Eboli and gives her a choice of exile or life in a convent. As she leaves the Queen tells Eboli she has 24 hours to be gone.  Eboli sings her great area “O Don Fatale” at the close of which she sees the warrant for Carlo’s death on the King’s death.  She resolves to save Carlo before she leaves the court.  (This 4th act is perhaps one of Verdi’s greatest achievements.  It is great music, exceptionally dramatic and brilliantly structured.
• ACT IV, SCENE 2 -  In the prison cell where Carlo is being held Posa comes to visit and tells Carlo that he has implicated himself for Carlo’s sake and is expecting to be arrested that day.  He has come to say goodbye.  Suddenly a shot rings out.  The Inquisition has assassinated Posa.  As he dies he begs Carlo to “Save Flanders!”  The King enters and tells Carlo he is pardoned and free, but Carlo turns on his father and accuses him of Posa’s death.  Philip denies it but at that moment there is a commotion.  A band of peasants is besieging the castle.  The GI appears and orders them to kneel before their King.
• In the monastary again.  Elizabeth has come to say goodbye to Carlo who is leaving to help the people of Flanders. She sings an aria and they sing a duet.  They are then interrupted by the King and GI who orders their arrest.  Suddenly the voice of Carlo V rings out proclaiming the innocence of his grandson and Elizabeth as both of them disappear inside the tomb. 
(Frankly the weakest act of the opera dramatically is the very last scene.  In my opinion it is very unsatisfying after everything that went before.  And this is a scene that no two stage directors do the same.  The live production at the Met I saw had Carlo fighting with the guards and being killed.  I have never seen a production that I thought made sense of the last scene.  And frankly, the Schiller is not much better.  I should get the novel and see how he ends the story).

So how does the opera stack up to the history of Spain and King Philip II?  I recently finished reading The Imprudent King – A New Life of Philip II  by Geoffrey Bush.  It is an excellent and detailed account of the life of this great monarch who’s legacy continues to be felt in our world.  Reading this book it is clear that the Schiller/Verdi version of the story is fiction for the most part.  There are some basic historical truths represented but for the most part the basic plot is completely fiction, beginning with the cast list.  

Elizabeth of Valois was Philip’s third wife (Mary Tudor - "Bloody Mary" was the second), she was never betrothed to Carlo who would have been too young at any rate.  It was discussed for a while that Carlo would marry Anne of Austria, his cousin (the Hapsburgs all married sisters and cousins and aunts!)  Ultimately Carlo’s behavior and incompetency led Philip to break off negotiations and he did eventually marry her himself (she was quite a bit younger so the age difference fits the opera).  However, it is debatable whether Anne ever met Carlo.  He was imprisoned and in solitary confinement by the time Philip married her.  And why was he imprisoned?  It became clear to Carlo that his father was having second thoughts about Carlo’s marriage to Anne.  (It is important to bear in mind that royals at that time contracted marriages as political moves, love and compatibility were irrelevant!) But Carlo had become fixated on her.  He had her portrait and devised a secret plan to escape Spain, travel to Austria and sweep her off her feet.  It was a wholly impractical plan.  But nevertheless he decided he would do it, but needed the help of his Uncle, Don John, the Admiral of the Spanish Navy to assist in the travel part of the plan.  Carlo confided his plan to John who promptly reported it to the King.  Carlo was so incensed that he asked to see his uncle again and this time had planned to murder him.  His astute servants managed to thwart the murder plan and John was bigger, stronger and quicker by far than Carlo and he was easily able to protect himself.  But this was the last straw.  The King had had enough.  Carlo was arrested and confined in solitary until he died.  It seems harsh.  And it is clear that Carlo suffered from some kind of psychological disorder, exacerbated by years of parental neglect and a bad head wound he had sustained.  At any rate, it is highly doubtful that Anne of Austria would have ever even considered accepting a proposal from the Prince, much less carry on a secret love affair with him.  She eventually gave birth (died in childbirth actually) to Philip III.

Everyone’s favorite baritone Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa is a fictional character.  There was a treasury official who corresponded with the King near the end of Philip's life who was the Marquis of Poza, but this man and the baritone character have nothing in common at all.  In the opera, Posa is a heroic man, who sacrifices himself for his friend Carlo and for Flanders.  The only historical character who even comes close is William of Orange.  But he was never a friend of Carlo.  

The Duke of Lerma does not appear as a historical character until Philip III begins to prepare to take over the throne from his father.  Lerma was the best friend of Philip III, who made him a Duke.

Princess of Eboli.  There is a long, sad story involving her.  She gets caught up the murder of Philip’s secretary de Esconbedo, who was her cousin.  She was married to one of Philip’s closest advisors – Ruy Gomez – until his death.  After that she started an affair with another secretary Antonio Perez who is the one who arranges the murder of his friend and colleague de Esconbedo. Despite the fact that Philip himself ordered and approved this assassination Perez is eventually arrested and tried and Eboli is also arrested.  Initially she is confined to her home, but eventually she is moved to a windowless cell where she is kept in solitary confinement until she dies.  She was never the King’s mistress.  She was never in love with Carlo.  She did have the eye patch, but that is about all the similarity there is.

The Grand Inquisitor – there is absolutely no evidence that any Inquisitor of Spain had the kind of power and commanded the kind of fear in Philip that the operatic character does.  The character created by Verdi has more to do with Verdi’s own conflicted and difficult relationship with the church.  If there is a wholly evil character in the opera it is the Grand Inquisitor, but there is no one like that at Philip’s court.  In fact several of the Inquisitor Generals of Spain also served Philip as counselors, often very trusted counselors.  They certainly had influence, but their influence was not to be found in direct confrontation.  But rather indirect subtle “spiritual blackmail” as Parker puts it.

Carlo V did in fact resign and retire to a monastery.  However he only lived there a few years before his death and he died before Carlo was born.

            It’s a wonderful day for an Auto-da-Fé  - Yes Philip attended several of these during his reign.  They were always festival occasions and often would bring his children to watch (how horrid!)  If you can say anything about Philip and his reign it is this: he saw himself in Messianic terms and he took his role as defender of the faith very, very seriously.  His entire foreign policy was based primarily on this foundation.  His wars with the Turks were basically religious; his subjugation of Flanders was prompted by the growth of Protestantism; his attempts to dethrone Elizabeth I, the debacle of the defeat of the Spanish Armada all were an attempt to reestablish Catholicism in England; the wars in France were also prompted by an effort to undermine Protestantism.  Under Philip literally thousands were executed, many by being burned alive at the stake. He was quite proud of this and saw it as an accomplishment.  I think it is disgusting, but I am not living in the 16th century.  He also celebrated the massacre of the French Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s day!  The circumstance of this scene is historical, however, that anyone (especially the Crown Prince) would threaten or challenge the King in public is not historical.

Flanders was a constant problem for Philip for his entire reign.  The issue was primarily Religious freedom, but there were economic issues as well.  Philip had three different taxes imposed that were designed to help pay for the occupation.  Not surprisingly the Dutch were not enthusiastic and many rebellions flared up as a result.  The most serious one was led by Prince William of Orange.  Philip sent the Duke of Alba (who is a character in the Schiller and bears no resemblance whatsoever to the historical Alba) whose philosophy of putting down rebellions was a scorched earth policy.  He was (in Philip’s name) brutal and exacting. The Flemish problem was never resolved in the 40 years of Philip’s reign.

The personality of Philip II is captured pretty well by Verdi and certain singers – like Feruccio Furlanetto – do an excellent job of bringing certain personality quirks out which are in fact historical.  Philip was a micromanager.  He had to do everything himself.  He really did not trust others.  His biggest failure was probably the defeat of the Spanish Armada and this came about because he devised the strategy in his study and would not allow his field commanders either input or deviation from the plan.  Neither of them for their parts thought it would work, and they were right.  Philip was always reading and writing letters.  (Furlanetto incorporates this into his portrayal of the King.)  He preferred to be alone and to deliberate alone. He was an absolute ruler and he ruled absolutely. He could be mistrustful.  But he could also be ruthless and cruel.  He was never noted for his mercy and many times preferred to exact harsh punishment on those who opposed him.  He was not above using deception and lying to accomplish his goals or to entrap someone.  And he did this on several notable occasions.  He was not cowed by anyone, even the Pope.  He was very devout, but while he was always respectful he still never allowed the church to push him around.  He was a complex man.

The fact is that Philip ruled over a Kingdom that extended from the New World to Spain, Portugal, Flanders, parts of Italy and out to the Philippines (named in his honor). It was a huge job and his micromanaging style where he had to do everything himself was too overwhelming.  He was simply not capable of managing it all.  No one could.  But he refused to accept this and would never take no for an answer.  Before the Armada sailed the Admiral he had appointed came down very ill and had to be replaced.  The man tapped to replace him tried for months to get out of this job, but in the end was unable to and despite his recognition that the plan would never succeed had no choice but to do it as best as he could.

The opera is based solely on propaganda devised by Philip's enemies and has little basis in historical fact.  Even so the opera is a brilliant work – one of the greatest works in all of opera.  Several scenes are simply iconic and magnificent, not only musically but also dramatically.  That the historical details don’t match up is really not important in the long run, one should not look to the theater for historical information anyway.  Verdi (and Schiller) capture the basic setting and personality of the King in particular and give us a magnificent study on the issues of power and love and betrayal and loyalty.