Verdi’s Palace Intrigue Eerily Reminiscent of Trump White House

LA Opera and the Grand Inquisitor are back on Grand Avenue, kicking off the 2018/19 season with a spectacular production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo. This extravaganza is set during the 16th century court of King Philip II of Spain (Italian Ferruccio Furlanetto through Sept. 29, alternating with Russian Alexander Vinogradov Oct. 4-14), when Madrid was the world’s reigning superpower. Not only did the Spanish crown rule much of the “New World,” but parts of Europe, particularly the Low Countries.


Of course, conquest, colonialism and occupation often require brutal militarism, and Philip’s own son, the titular Don Carlo (Mexican Ramon Vargas) beseeches his father to end the vicious suppression of Spanish forces at Flanders (no, not Homer Simpson’s animated neighbor Ned, but the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium). The Spanish Crown Prince’s anti-cruelty quest is backed by his true blue pal Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa (legendary Plácido Domingo, singing here as a baritone), and the “two amigos” sing a stellar duet affirming the bonds of their friendship.


So what we see is that inside of the corridors of power (which are brilliantly evoked by scenery designer John Gunter) members of the court are countering the king’s autocratic, despotic rule. Just as, according to the “anonymous” (a word which, for some mysterious reason, the usually glib Trump garbled, repeatedly mispronouncing it at a public harangue during one of his would-be Nuremberg rallies) author of a letter to the N.Y. Times, alleging there are insider participants in the “resistance” inside Don the Con’s White House. The enemy within!


Further compounding the whole faction-fight-within-the-elite storyline is the Act III appearance after the intermission of the Grand Inquisitor (Atlanta-born bass Morris Robinson), who also is also at odds with His Majesty. Although in Verdi’s opera this Grand Inquisitor versus King battle pits the church against the state within the context of 16th century Spain, this conflict seems to symbolize the collision course Trump is on with the Department of Justice, FBI and other elements of the so-called “Deep State’s” law enforcement/judicial/intelligence apparatus. (You know, those agencies, et al, who under our constitutional system of law and governance are supposed to hold criminals like Don the Con accountable - although I’d warn people not to make heroes out of this republic’s often most reprehensible renegades, who act out of their own motives.)


According to Vanessa Flores Waite, LA Opera’s Director of Communications, LA Opera “had discussed doing Don Carlo for a while, but the decision was finalized in December of last year.” This was well after Trump’s firing of ex-FBI Director James “Loose-Lips-Sink-Ships” Comey, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions’ recusal of himself from the probe of alleged Trump camp collusion with Russia, Rod Rosenstein’s appointment as the 37th (that is, in U.S. history - not just during Don the Con’s chaotic reign, although sometimes it feels like that) Deputy Attorney General, the launching of the Robert Mueller inquisition - uh, I mean “investigation” - and so on.


These head spinning machinations and their chronological order, et al, are difficult to keep track of, but one doesn’t have to be Carl Gustav Jung to conclude that the collective unconscious - if not “conscious” - of LAO’s decision makers chose Don Carlo at this time because, at least in part, while Verdi’s opera may have premiered in Paris in 1867, it perfectly mirrors the ongoing infighting inside of the Trump regime and America’s elite that has only intensified since the decision to mount Don Carlo was made about nine months ago. (BTW, as Oliver Stone pointed out to me, Trump should be more worried over the “Secret State” than the “Deep State.” See: JFK.)


In this epic production LA Opera returns to the recurring theme that can be summed up as the so-called “clash of civilizations. In 2011 and 2017, LAO mounted productions of 1814’s The Turk in Italy by Gioachino Rossini and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 1782 The Abduction from the Seraglio. Through these 19th and 18th century works LA Opera explored the whole Islam versus the West struggle that has dominated the narrative of 21st century current (and recurring) events, and it returns to the scene of the crime in Don Carlo.


Towards the end of Act II and before the curtain dropped for intermission, an auto-da-fé - with brilliant mise-en-scène of a mass spectacle, including a gigantic crucifix with a wooden Christ affixed to it - is expertly staged by director Louisa Muller. These public punishments lynched so-called “heretics” and “apostates” during the despicable Spanish Inquisition, often with execution by immolation - burnings at the stake - and drowning (extreme water boarding). (Interestingly, in 2017 LA opera presented another auto-da-fé in its production of Leonard Bernstein/Lillian Hellman’s Candide, based on Voltaire’s Enlightenment era novella.)


If astute opera goers look closely at the infidels held captive on the Dorothy Chandler’s stage during Don Carlo’s inquisition scene, they’ll see some Black performers among them, which could be a sly reference to Moors and other Muslims being persecuted by their more “enlightened” European brethren. Interestingly, in a bit of clever casting Don Carlo’s Grand Inquisitor is played by the African American singer Robinson, who last year portrayed the Islamic extremist character of Osmin, the overzealous supervisor of the pasha’s harem in The Abduction from the Seraglio. Some may find this head scratching, as one is a Muslim and the other a Christian, but both share something in common: religious fanaticism.


(BTW, can somebody in the so-called “religious right” and evangelical movement who support Trump kindly explain to this benighted heathen what is remotely “Christ-like” about Don the Con, who seems to have broken almost every commandment God could conjure up at Mt. Sinai? Please explain to this backsliding pagan what your concept of Jesus is? I’m no Biblical scholar, but the only portions of the New Testament wherein Trump seems to be Christly are in the Book of Revelations, the Jesus of the End Times. I mean, could you so-called “Christians” really imagine Don the Con delivering the Sermon on the Mount? I’m just saying…)


Meanwhile, back at the opera review:


In addition to being dexterously directed by the talented Muller (not to be confused with Mueller!), Don Carlo’s moving sets designed by Gunter are also outstanding, and in part covered with rather bloody murals. According to Ms. Waite: “The mural painting on the far right of the stage (from the audience’s point of view) is a recreation of Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. The mural painting that’s generally on the left side of the stage (the set pieces move around a bit) is Caravaggio’s The Flagellation of Christ. The others are all either Caravaggio or in the style of Caravaggio paintings too.” ¡Ay, caramba! These colossal period paintings that literally hang above the onstage action insightfully evoke the opera’s dark themes.


As protesters besiege Capitol Hill, its onstage action includes a great scene of mass uprising in Act III, as the people act. Of course, there’s much more to this work, with its libretto by Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle (which was translated from the French into Italian). But even the subtext of illicit romance, adultery and sexual politics is provocative: As Princess Eboli, Muscovite Anna Smirnova gives voice to that old saying from a play by William Congreve: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Considering the troubles she triggers, it’s fitting that her moniker is the same as a plague’s.


The eponymous Don Carlo lusts after his father’s French wife Elisabeth de Valli (Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez, a perennial LA Opera favorite who previously starred in La Boheme, La Traviata, Madame Butterfly, Carmen, etc., and has quite a set of pipes). In other words, Spain’s crown prince is hot to trot for his own stepmother - which is a bit like Eric or Don Junior incestuously yearning after Melania.


(The creepiest part of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 details Trump’s sexually inappropriate touching of and comments about Ivanka - you know, the daughter of the wretch the “Christian” right backs so he can choose dubious candidates for the Supreme Court accused of sexual assault, while eschewing the same “extreme vetting” Trump is obsessed with for would-be refugees fleeing misery. Don’t get me started!)


Meanwhile, back at the opera review:


In baritone mode, our beloved Plácido acquits himself masterfully in the role of the loyal Rodrigo, the man anyone would be proud and lucky to call a “friend.” Rather remarkably, Domingo convincingly portrays a character who is around half his actual age, which portends well for the Broad General Director and his ability to continue enthralling us all on the boards.


Of course, viewers can just take Don Carlo on face value if they prefer, and enjoy the sonorous music and sumptuous stage, with beautiful period costumes by Tim Goodchild. But considering that Verdi’s opera is based on poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller’s original 1787 play of the same name, looking at these universal themes through the lens of today will actually sharpen and heighten one’s enjoyment of this opera. After all, Schiller was a leading humanist who wrote the words Beethoven later used for his immortal “Ode to Joy” in “The Choral” of his peerless “9th Symphony,” celebrating the kind of brotherhood of man that is now anathema to Trump troglodytes.


This stunningly impressive production weighs in at almost three and a half hours - it’s about an hour and 50 minutes before the single intermission. And while major construction takes place at the Music Center ticket buyers should plan ahead and give themselves extra time in order to get into their seats before the curtain rises and maestro James Conlon waves his magic baton, as he does so wonderfully during this exhilarating operatic experience. With its stellar, superb Don Carlo, LA Opera’s new season starts with a bang.


Don Carlo will be performed Thursdays, Oct. 4 and 11 at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 7 and 14 2:00 p.m. at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. See:


L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting a screening of “Neruda” plus a poetry reading with Irene Sanchez and Matt Sedillo 7:00 p.m., Sept. 27 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019 ( The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” co-authored by Rampell is now available at: .