The hotly anticipated production of Verdi’s five-act grand opera “Don Carlos” opened at the Opéra National de Paris on 10 October to a mixed reception. The outstanding cast comprised of German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, French baritone Ludovic Tézier as Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, Russian basses Ildar Abdrazakov and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Philippe II and the Grand Inquisitor respectively, Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Princess Elisabeth de Valois, and Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča as Princess Eboli received rapturous lengthy applause. The new staging of Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, a noteworthy figure of the theatrical vanguard, was met with greater skepticism, some members of the audience feeling the need to boo.
It was nonetheless a night to remember, which was made exceptional by the outstanding vocal and orchestral performances, but also by the use of the complete original large-scale French version specifically composed by Verdi for the Paris Opera in 1866. This version is heard very rarely and to this day only a single recording made in 1976 at the Royal Opera House in London exists. It is long – it consists of three hours and 45 minutes of music – so much so that Verdi made various cuts before the opening night on March 11, 1867 to allow the staff living outside of Paris to catch the last train departing at midnight. The opera is much more popular in its revised Italian variety or in the abridged French version, which gradually emerged after the 1867 premiere.
Verdi’s “Don Carlos” has a complicated round-about plot wrapped up in a climatic ending. The story is based on the play “Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien (Don Carlos, Infante of Spain)” by Friedrich Schiller, which ha, in turn, used a 1672 French novel as a source.
The characters, all of whom are deeply troubled, find themselves entangled in a complex web of power struggles, sex relationships, and political and religious tensions, the only solution to which is physical annihilation.
The opera tells the sad story of the 16th century Infante Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias, and Elisabeth of Valois, initially betrothed to one another. However, what promises to be a happy union, quickly takes on tragic connotations as a new peace treaty ending the war between the royal houses of Spain (the Habsburgs) and France (the Valois) demanded that the French princess wed Carlos’s own father, King Philip II of Spain.
Don Carlos, desperate over this new political alliance that turns his beloved into his stepmother, confides in his friend Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. Phillip II, whose jealousy is provoked by his own insecurities and is inflamed by the vindictive Princess Eboli, who is also secretly in love with the prince. The king begins to have suspicions towards his wife and his son, who confronts him violently. Posa, who has returned to court to plead the case of the Flanders, a protestant province suffering terribly under catholic oppression, remains loyal to the crown and takes the side of the king. In his confusion, the king turns for advice to the Grand Inquisitor, which sets in motion a machine of death and destruction: Posa is killed, Eboli retires to a convent, and Don Carlos, under threat and temporarily imprisoned, disappears mysteriously led to the grave by the ghost of his grandfather, the great Charles V.
Jonas Kaufmann, who has played in the Italian version of Don Carlos for 10 years, had admitted during rehearsals to some difficulties in getting to the core of the French part. These were to be detected at the start of last night’s performance which was perhaps a little timid. As the action developed, the German tenor’s delivery evolved in a more asserted way which was nonetheless delivered with nuanced sensitivity and subtle musicality.
Carlos’s splendid opening aria “Je l’ai vue,” where he declares his love for Elisabeth, whom he has seen and with whom he has fallen in love instantly, took the spectator to the emotional heart of the story. Elisabeth (a splendid Sonia Yoncheva) appeared dressed as a bride and joined him in a falling-in-love duet, full of tenderness and devoid of any high-drama histrionics.
Kaufmann’s magnificent interpretation reached a climax in the farewell duet with Elisabeth “Au revoir dans un monde où la vie est meilleure,” in which the lovers pledged to each other to meet in heaven. The tenor’s whispered pianissimi were particularly moving.
Diction to Die For
Last night saw Sonya Yoncheva’s debut as Elisabeth of Valois and it will most certainly mark a new stage in the Bulgarian soprano’s ascending career. It is a demanding role, in which Yoncheva delivered beautifully. A diction to die for and a vocal precision addressing the score’s most elaborate appoggiaturas were coupled with an impressive projection, resounding lows and magnificent messa di voce in the high notes. Her commanding presence, highlighted by the costumes (which some found tasteless) of the 1950s-inspired femininity and brightness, which emphasized Yoncheva’s beauty, made her the production’s focal point. Elisabeth’s final aria in Act five “Toi qui sus le néant des grandeurs de ce monde,” in which the tragic princess expresses her longing for death, was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the evening.
French baritone Ludovic Tézier was an interesting Rodrigo, brilliant in his ambiguity as a faithful friend and ambitious politician. The fireworks began with the famous duet “Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes” in Act two between Don Carlos and the Marquis of Posa, in which the two men swear their eternal friendship. The tenor and baritone sang in close harmony, Tézier rising with apparent ease to the tenor range until the voices met on a single note in a musical metaphor of loyalty and unity. The masterful performance culminated in the great scene in Act IV “Carlos, écoute… Ah! Je meurs l’âme joyeuse,” the rendition of which remained sober and moving, entirely devoid of caricatured pathos.
It was a big evening for Elīna Garanča, for whom Eboli was the first major Verdi role (she has done minor Verdi roles earlier in her career). The Latvian mezzo-soprano’s voice was brilliant in the higher range displaying certain frailty in the lower tones. The interpretation, which was particularly seductive and openly sensual, was remarkable nonetheless providing several high points.
The Song Of The Veil in Act two, “Au palais des fées,” a whimsical piece of distinctly Spanish inspiration, was sung with a great precision and provided a much-needed light-hearted interlude. It was made even more arresting by the fact that the beautiful Garanča was dressed in full fencing gear using the protective headpiece as the veil described in the song. The image was made even more unusual by the fact that the equipment was entirely black, contrasting with the traditional whites worn by the other ladies-in-waiting similarly engaged in the sporting activity.
Garanča’s “Ô don fatal” in Act four was a watershed moment of fury paired with irresistible sensuality.
Not Quite There
Faced with this formidable quartet, the king, as interpreted by Ildar Abdrazakov, appeared unusually collected. It could be a musical hesitation but a new reading of the character seems more likely. Abdrazakov’s Philippe II was perhaps less regal but much more fragile and moving.
Dmitry Belosselskiy was a suitably terrifying Grand Inquisitor, although the dark glasses hiding eyes heavily lined in red, were on the verge of the ridiculous.
An essential element of this great theatrical and musical success was the performance of the orchestra – Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris – galvanized by the sharp direction of Philippe Jordan. The variations in textures and colors between the strings and woodwinds as well as the lightning effects of the brass were delivered in an ornamental, yet refined, way without undue solemnity and excessive theatricality.
Watching Jordan conduct is just as interesting as following the action on stage, the fluid yet precise gestures and expressive face as mesmerizing.
A Black-and-White Act of Faith
The staging, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, appeared to be the point of contention. The largely empty stage, the walls of which were covered in dark wood panels, was perhaps not modern enough. It was possibly too devoid of catholic splendor. Or on the contrary, the ladies-in-waiting training in a fencing school and the king meeting the Great Inquisitor in what appeared to be a home cinema were too modern. Or maybe some found the idea of a sink in Don Carlos’ 16th-century prison cell unbearable.
In any case, the stage work, which was never unnecessarily show-off and did not go against the music, provided the singers plenty of physical and emotional space.
The use of video, especially of special effects imitating old films and the projection of the main protagonists’ faces close-ups, created an eerie atmosphere in which recollections, reality, and ghostly appearance merged.
The scene of the auto-da-fé, the public act of faith consisting of burning condemned heretics, in Act three was of particular interest since it can easily slip into fake grandeur. The chorus was seated in a high wooden amphitheater which slowly advanced towards the front of the stage. Representatives of various classes of Spanish society, including monks and nuns, but also noble ladies in elaborate hats and simple folk in simpler apparel, were seated on the amphitheater’s benching periodically rising as the king was being celebrated whilst promising the people to protect them with fire and sword. The Flemish envoys, whom Don Carlos had brought in front of the king, pleaded with him for their country’s freedom. A monk fired the woodpile, and as black and white flames rose on a screen descending on the amphitheater, a Goya-like head of an angry god devouring his sons engulfed the stage.
All in all, it was an evening of rare vocal perfection and artistic intensity. It was also a moment of innovative interpretations, such as the suggested adulterous relationship between the king and Eboli in Act four, who was lying on a sofa, her high-slit dress in disarray while he was confessing to his distress caused by the lack of love of his wife (“Elle ne m’aime pas”), confirmed by a kiss. The idea of a manipulative Rodrigo provided also an unusual reading. In any case, the premiere of the season rose up to the occasion and will no doubt remain in opera history as a night to remember.