Lifelong learning

King Philip

Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip

Isn’t it funny how simple things can make you change your opinion? This time the avalanche of thoughts  started out by me reading reviews and blog posts about the recent premiere of Verdi’s Don Carlos at the ROH.

The first time I saw this opera as a teenager in 1986, it was an ORF television transmission from Salzburg – and I still love this production despite the slightly static acting or the traditional decor. I find the drama and the personal tragedies are quite clear.  The dama by Schiller which forms the base of this opera is historically incorrect and therefore, I think, we’re better off  just taking the characters as they come. – I will come to the point, just bear with me.

Obviously all characters in an opera have to be slightly exaggerated to make a point, but I’m used to seeing them as real people. As a soprano, the character closest to my heart would be Elisabetta. The young daughter of the French king Henry II, being promised to the Spanish heir of the throne – Carlos – but ending up marrying his father King Philip when the latter changes his mind, preferring to marry her instead of his son. So she obeys  – despite the fact that she and Carlos fell in love when they first met – out of duty to her country and to end the war between France and Spain.

In my teenage eyes this didn’t place Philip in a good light – even though I knew this was customary behaviour at this time. I was the same age that Elisabetta and I somehow couldn’t image marrying a man who was 18 years older…

Philips doesn’t improve for me the further the opera goes on:  after destroying the happiness of his son and -now- wife, the lonely man (as he calls himself) finally finds himself a loyal friend whom he later sacrifices (or rather kills) and nearly gets his own son executed. He deeply mistrusts his wife (well, should have thought about this problem before!) although he can’t find a proof for his suspicions, and ends up humiliating her whenever he feels provoked.(Ha, talk about dysfunctional families!) He is absolutely dependent upon the counsel of his confessor which -unfortunately in this case- happens to be the great inquisitor.

I’m presenting him in very one dimensional light, but think you get the point. Even the most beautiful music by Verdi composed for Philip makes it hard to find understanding for this man – surprisingly he gets quite a lot of beautiful music to sing 🙂 As it is highly unlikely I’ll ever perform  this role, I didn’t take too much care in evolving him over the years – until now. Also having had to listen to Philip’s most famous aria (Ella giammai m’amò – she has never loved me) at least 1 million times in auditions and competitions  makes one quite touchy. (In this aria Philip sits alone in his study at the crack of dawn meditating over what happens to him. It comes to him that Elisabetta never loved him (has no love for him). He remembers their first meeting when she contemplated sadly his white hair.Suddenly realising that the day has began and another sleepless night has gone he only sure that he’s going to sleep alone in his regal tomb under the black tomb.)

But in one blog (sorry I would link it, but I can’t find again) someone wrote about exactly this above mentioned aria and how he recently has suffered from insomnia and does now understand how Philip must feel. All your problems become bigger than they actually are. How negativity increases and you think you’re never going to get of it. And suddenly I started to understand Philip. No, that’s not correct I had compassion for him. After years of living with CFIDS I do understand the concept of insomnia quite well, but I never thought about applying this knowledge to this specific character in opera.  I also didn’t think how much CFIDS would actually teach me understanding people (and be it just fictional characters in opera) better and that there is a positive way that one can use illness to make life better.


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