Today was spent at the Royal Opera House on their 'Don Carlo Insight Day', an audience education event tied in to the forthcoming and eagerly awaited new production of Don Carlo (already nearly sold out) which will star Rolando Villazón.
A couple of hundred of us sat on the butt-numbing benches of a rehearsal studio and listened as a succession of guests explored the background to this production and to the opera itself. The whole thing was filmed, and I expect some of it will turn up either as DVD extras in the fullness of time, or hopefully a bit earlier on the ROH website.
The absolute highlight was a half hour slot with Antonio Pappano, who went through a little of the music at the piano, explaining the purpose, the orchestration and the context. He only had half an hour, so he only covered a tiny proportion, but every moment was riveting. I could happily have spent all day listening to him, but it was not to be.
Of perhaps more immediate interest is the look of the production. The designer, Bob Crowley, came along to talk, and brought his set models and slides and a few costumes with him. With Nicholas Hytner directing, and the production shared with the Met, it's probably no surprise to find out it's not set on the Planet of the Apes or anything like that. And while it doesn't approach Zeffirelli-like verisimilitude, it's not going to scare anyone either.
The key design element is black, and lots of it. A few touches of red here and there give an oddly '80's or constructivist feel, at least to the models. There's no fuss, no frills, no furniture. The look is sparse and stark, rather architectural, not minimalist, but definitely minimal.
Interior sets mostly have a single feature - a desk for Philip's study, a tomb (which will slide across the stage) for the monastery. The opening scene (being the 5 act Italian version, this is a forest) is a few white branches (like designer not-quite-xmas trees) set against the black. The monastery garden is a single red wall punctured by a giant cross. In between the more individual sets, a simple black portcullis-like lattice will descend, signifying imprisonment or entrapment. The look was strongly inspired by Bob Crowley's research visit to Philip II's grim and foreboding royal monastery of El Escorial. The most spectacular set will be seen in the auto-da-fé scene. A giant jeebus-face scrim will shield red stepladders on which the victims are mounted.
The models, it has to be said, did seem rather crude and basic. But as Bob underlined, lighting will make a huge difference to how things look on stage, so I reserve judgement totally.
The costumes are as sombre as the sets, with a solid, weighty look. Lots of velvet and suede and brocade, thick fabrics and deep colours, a clever use of texture to break up the dark expanses. The style is recognisably 16th century Spanish, but reduced to its most basic elements.
So what will Rolando be wearing? The answer is a black suede doublet and hose (which we were able to inspect close up), authentically slashed to show a black silky underlayer, and a white ruff collar. A certain physical comparison which has been made in the past will undoubtedly be trotted out again. But Rolando will be considerably more chic than his comedy counterpart.
And what of the production itself? The final hour of the day was spent in a panel discussion featuring Pappano, Hytner and Simon Keenlyside, who will play Posa.
Hytner gave nearly nothing away, though he did say he saw the opera as pessimistic, the futile struggles of individuals who are doomed from the outset to battle their miserable destinies. And he saddened me by claiming his own view of life is similarly pessimistic (I guess no more Magic Flutes then?).
He compared Philip II with Stalin, though he didn't expand on the theme of imprisonment in the design. Both are ideas which also surfaced in Kasper Bech Holten's recent Copenhagen production, but it seems Hytner won't be treating them with a similar heavy-handed literalism.
Roll on 6 June.