Opéra de Lyon 2017-18 Review – Don Carlos: Even With An Auto-Da-Fé, Christophe Honoré’s Production Never Catches Fire

(Credit: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Don Carlos” or “Don Carlo?” In French or Italian? Four acts or five? Three hours or four? Paris, Naples, Milan or Modena version? Pas de deux or pas de nul? Verdi’s longest opera is so full of revisions, rewrites, authorized or impious corrections, it is impossible to nominate a definitive score. The master music dramatist tinkered with this opera for 20 years and was never entirely happy with the result.

Although the original 1867 Paris version has gained popularity since Antonio Pappano’s (almost) complete recording in 1997, few houses are prepared to stage the work in its unadulterated original form. For one thing, at over four hours of music, it is almost as long as “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”. Secondly, bean-counters in the finance department usually balk at the cost of too many burning heretics let alone adding a whole scene requiring famished bücherons with their miserable wives and frostbitten children. Verdi never saw his original score staged, as due to time constraints, not just large chunks of music, but even entire scenes, were removed before the premiere.

Where are We?

In terms of realized productions, the days of Luchino Visconti’s monumental staging for Covent Garden in 1958 or Franco Zeffirelli’s monastery loads of monks for La Scala in 1992 have disappeared more effectively than the ghost of Charles V. Christophe Honoré’s production for the Opéra de Lyon seemed to follow Krzysztof Warlikowski’s recent crypto-Freudian minimalist staging for l’Opéra de la Bastille. Alban Ho Van’s décor had a stagey feeling about it with hundreds of meters of curtains strung at different angles across the stage proper. Having opted for the original woodcutters’ chorus in the Fontainebleau scene, there was not even a leaf or twig in sight. The war-weary Flanders folk were milling around the grave of a dead child whilst Elisabeth, Thibault, and the Spanish delegation patronizingly looked down from a platform above. It is supposed to be mid-winter but Elisabeth looked like she had just popped out for a morning stroll in Marbella. There was not a fur coat or glove in sight. Carlos’ impassioned “Fontainebleau! Forêt immense et solitaire” was sung to a bare wall. The grill-gated monastery of Saint-Just was an enormous Goya-esque painting of the crucifixion. There were steps beside leading to what could have been an entrance to a Extremadura Metro station. The theatre conceit continued in the fountain scene where ladies of the court carried collapsible chairs onto the bare stage. The only suggestion of a  botanical setting were a few paltry pots of dried geraniums placed on the floor.

After the Paris premiere, Verdi was in two minds about the inclusion of the “Pérégrina” ballet although his original description of “Don Carlos” to his Italian publisher Ricordi in 1866 was: “an opera in five acts with ballet.” It is highly likely that if Verdi had seen Ashley Wright’s nugatory homoerotic choreography of gyrating heretics under a cascading torrent of water, this lengthy passage of music would have hit the shredder faster than a Rossini roulade. There was no form, structure or meaning  – just an aquatic Cirque du Soleil series of gymnastic grapplings and gropings with bare-chested male choristers doing an improvised line-dance behind.

The huge square in front of the cathedral of Valladolid for the auto-da-fé was restricted to triple-tiered bleachers from which the protagonists and hangers-on could watch the fun. There was no procession at all – just a rather small, drab crowd already in the stands. Peasants were on ground level, royals in the mezzanine and privileged prelates at the top. The space was so narrow it was barely two people deep. The six Flemish deputies were squeezed so tightly together it was understandable they were wailing “Pitié, pitié.” There was no room for the king’s bodyguards. This meant that when Philippe orders “Gardes! Désarmez l’infant” after Carlos throws a patricidal hissy fit and draws his sword, there was no one to ignore the King’s command. Four heretics were hanged before being barbequed.

There must have been major budget cuts at the Escorial because King Philippe’s study was not much more than a bare room. Instead of being “comme en un rêve,” the maudlin monarch was given pain killer injections, which was remarkable considering Francis Rynd didn’t invent the syringe until 200 years later. Elisabeth’s jewelry casket was a cheap wooden box and had the number “18” painted prominently on one side as if it was a piece of evidence in a homicide trial. The return to the monastery of Saint-Just in the final tableau showed the same Goya crucifixion, but this time there was a huge canvass of a tearful Madonna unfurled directly opposite. The Extremadura Metro station again came into play, this time with Don Carlos following his immortal grandfather down the steps at the dénouement, carrying a small child in his arms.

Pascaline Chavanne’s costumes looked more like cast-off Oxfam than baroque Balenciaga. Philippe wore an Order of the Golden Fleece but without the grandiose jeweled collar. The crucifix which Lerma demands back from Eboli on behalf of the Queen resembled a street-side souvenir from the Vatican.

The only favorable aspect of this otherwise importunate production was the lighting by Dominique Bruguière. Most scenes were correctly dark and gloomy with some excellent shadow effects.

Role Debuts

Carlo Maria Giulini once remarked: “It is easy to cast ‘Don Carlos.’ You just need the five best singers in the world.”

That wasn’t quite what the Opéra de Lyon provided, but interestingly all the principal singers were making their role debuts.

The mysterious monk was sung by Patrick Bolleire was vocally more convincing than dramatically plausible with a low sustained F sharp on “Dieu seul est grand” having round resonance.

As the ignominious Grand Inquisitor, Roberto Scandiuzzi was more hooty than harmonious and the voice lacked projection in the dramatic “À genoux” confrontation with the revolting hoi polloi. Like the hanged heretics, the great altercation with Philippe, never really caught fire. Scandiuzzi’s low A and E flats on “Suis-je devant le roi?” and “Sire” needed much more weight. “Livrez-nous le marquis de Posa” is marked an insidious ppp and should not be a declamation, even if intoned by the dux Dominican.

Looking more like a prostitute than a princess, Eve-Maud Hubeaux was a feisty Eboli, albeit more Santuzza screechy than mellifluous Massenet Hérodiade. “Au palais des fées,” with its seductive Moorish semiquaver roulades, was more successful than “O don fatal,” although there were some chocolaty low C-flat chest notes on “beauté.” For some reason there was no da capo. Longer phrases on “adieu, reine, victime pure” were well-molded but the top B-flat strident. The restored “L’affreux remords, enfer” duet with Elisabeth gave Hubeaux the opportunity for less abrasive phrasing.

Most Impressive Debutant

The most impressive singing of the evening came from Stéphane Degout as  Flanders’ Best Friend, the Marquis de Posa. Even if the famous “Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes” duet was not quite stirring, Degout deftly avoided verismo excess. Similarly, the supremely lyrical “Ah, je meurs, l’âme joyeuse” eschewed histrionics for a firm legato and beautifully phrased melodic line. “L’infant Carlos, notre espérance” rising to a pristine top F sharp was impeccably phrased with an optimal cantilena. Degout’s French diction was also outstanding.

Regality Gone Missing

Like Mrs. Robinson, cutely coiffed Sally Matthews looked seductive enough to tempt any stepson or toyboy, but regrettably the attraction stopped there. There was far too little measured Verdian phrasing and far too much vibrato. The voice was unfocussed in the lower tessitura and had a tendency to turn metallic above the stave. The emotional “Toi qui sus le néant” scena lacked dramatic sincerity or vocal assurance. Matthew’s French diction would not have won any accolades from the Academie Française either.

Michele Pertusi was a rather undignified ruler of half the world with a tendency towards temper tantrums and chair throwing. The two octave drop at the conclusion of Philippe’s interview with the Grand Inquisitor was more faible than fort and the low C on “Gardez-vous de mon inquisiteur” lacked menace. The famous “Elle ne m’aime pas” aria needed more low G naturals gravitas and less excessive fulmination.

A Winning Prince

In the title role, Sergey Romanovsky was a lyrical Carlos more in the style of Bergonzi than the meatier Domingo or Kaufmann. There was slight hesitancy in “Je l’ai vue,” but the impassioned declaration of his illicit love for Elisabeth climbing to a solid B flat on “fils maudit” was fine singing indeed. Romanovsky was especially impressive in the ensemble passages and duets. “De quels transports poignants et doux” was off to a good start and “Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes” more cantabile than clarion. “Au revoir dans un monde où la vie est meilleure” was close to celestial – at least in the tenor line. The restored “Qui me rendra ce mort” duet with Philippe made dramaturgical and musical sense, although hearing the more familiar “Lacrimosa” from the “Messa da Requiem” in its original secular context was a little disconcerting.

The Choeurs de L’Opéra de Lyon was especially impressive, and the inclusion of the “L’hiver est long, la vie est dure!” opening chorus was a vocal highlight. “Charles-Quint, l’auguste empereur” displayed some particularly fine singing from the tenors, and “Ce jour heureux est plein d’allégresse” had plenty of oomph.

L’Opéra de Lyon’s musical director Daniele Rustioni received considerable éclat for his earlier performances of “Attila” and “Macbeth” but this incursion into late-Verdi suggested the gifted maestro’s reading of “Don Carlos” is still a work in progress. The broad palate of orchestral colorings tended to the pastel side and the majestic sweep of the score was somewhat subdued. That said, there was  consistently biting string marcati exemplified by the crisp acciaccature in the allegro mosso measures before Carlos’ “Ah quelle ombre charmante.” Winds tended to be generally more impressive, especially the morose oboe obliggato before Elisabeth’s garden rendezvous with Rodrigo and the solo flute accompanying Elisabeth’s post-swoon “Où suis-je? Hélas” was plaintively tender. The cello introduction to “Elle ne m’aime pas” was appropriately pained. The cheeky syncopated clarinet and flute solos in the restored “La Pérégrina” ballet were the highlights of 15 minutes of music, which was hardly Verdi orchestration at its finest. Rustioni conjured some rousing playing in the allegro assai opening to the auto-da-fé but the murderous low strings, contrabassoon and trombone accompaniment to the Grand Inquisitor’s entry was surprisingly restrained.

This was a disappointing performance of Verdi’s grandest of grand operas due to uneven casting and the whims of director Christophe Honoré. The majesty of 16th century Madrid, the political subtext of freedom and liberty which was always so important to Verdi, the unholy power of the Church and Schiller’s fascinating cast of characters were all washed away in La Pérégrina’s deluge.

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About the Author

Jonathan Sutherland
Born in Australia, Jonathan Sutherland holds degrees in History and Law from the University of Oxford and diplomas in Music from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Hochschule Mozarteum in Salzburg. He is also an internationally acclaimed concert pianist specializing in the music of the 1930s. Jonathan’s first operatic experience was hearing Maria Callas sing Tosca in Covent Garden and he has since heard performances in all continents of the world including over 60 different productions at the Wiener Staatsoper. He has written for The Australian, Opera Today and The Opera Critic and is a regular contributor to Bachtrack. Jonathan speaks fluent English, French, German and Italian and when not reviewing opera and orchestral concerts, divides his time between the south of France near Nice and Split in Croatia.

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