Carlota, an Opera in two acts

Posted on admin on March 20, 2015

“Carlota“ follows the story of an Empress who ruled Mexico for a short time in the late 1800’s.

 David Gonzales / Special to El Observador

On April 10, 1864, after urging from conservative Mexicans opposed to the liberal government of Benito Juárez, and a willing Napoleon III of France eager to extend the French empire,  Archduke Maximilian of Austria was crowned Emperor of Mexico, his rule enforced by thousands of French troops. Maximilian’s wife Charlotte was now Mexico’s Empress and thereafter used the Spanish translation of her name.

“Carlota,” a stirring and absorbing new opera in two acts by Paul Davies, who composed both the music and wrote the libretto, saw its world premiere at the Mexican Heritage Plaza on February 15. The opera explores this extraordinary chapter in Mexican history, when, from 1864 to 1867, Mexico was ruled by a foreign power. Carlota’s grand ambition and her ensuing anguish provide the tragic crux of the opera.

“Carlota” opens in the year 1927 in Carlota’s eighty-sixth year, her mind clouded by dementia, living in a castle in Brussels, Belgium, her home for the past 60 years. Her reign as Empress of Mexico remains cemented in her memory, an obsession that imprisons all those around her as well.


The title role of Carlota is forcefully played and sung by Susan Gundunas, who summons the right amount of caustic bite and conviction to reflect Carlota’s unyielding ambition, but also gains our pity as her dreams are destroyed. Maximilian, artfully played by Stephen Guggenheim, gains our sympathy as well, a puppet on the stage of history.

The music of “Carlota” is composed in a post-modern mode, and traverses a variety of musical styles. Parts of the opera are atonal, the musical shards flowing and ebbing in waves of dissonance; other parts of the opera bask in splendid tonality, often reflecting Carlota’s self-confidence and the promise of things to come, as heard throughout Act 1.

The repetitive, static nature of minimalism, employed by such modern composers as John Adams and Philip Glass, is heard in the opening of scene two, which features Maximilian and Carlota aboard the ship Novara, heading towards Mexico. There are beautiful arias as well, such as sung by Carlota’s handmaiden Sara, played skillfully by Kayleigh Decker.

It is also on the Novara where we see that it is Carlota who views their destiny in Mexico, her voice strident and strong, while her husband is hesitant to leave the safe confines of Austria, but ultimately bends to Carlota’s all-encompassing vision.

One of the most powerful scenes takes place on the Terrace of Chapultepec, the emperor’s castle, when Maximilian scolds Archbishop Labastida of the powerful Catholic Church for mistreating the people and taking their lands, which Maximilian wants to distribute back to the people.

The seeds of Carlota’s madness are planted when Napoleon III capitulates to American demands that the French leave Mexico. Carlota goes to France to beg Napoleon III not to abandon them, but her cries are not heard, and Napoleon III withdraws the French troops.

Maximilian is captured and then, despite letters asking for clemency from the American president Andrew Johnson and a number of European heads of state, the order is given by Juárez to execute Maximilian by firing squad, which took place on June 19, 1867. Carlota never saw her husband or Mexico again.

Carlota lives out the rest of her days in isolation and madness, the fierce, atonal music mirroring her decayed mind, the arpeggios splintered between different instruments, as her mind is also splintered.

The opera’s composer, Paul Davies PhD, is a music professor at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. Davies has composed a number of works which have been performed throughout the United States and internationally. His “Carlota” is a most welcome addition to his oeuvre.

The 10-piece chamber orchestra was conducted by the accomplished Barbara Day Turner, the musicians playing the demanding score with precision and verve. The opera was directed by Daniel Helfgot and the choreography, which featured modern dancing at times, was staged by Jeannine Charles.

The last scene of “Carlota” takes place where it began, in the castle in Brussels, Carlota’s sanity non-existent, her time in Mexico still vivid in the recesses of her mind. “Carlota” is a tragedy that Professor Davies treats with admirable insight and musical dexterity.