Verdi - Don Carlos

ONP Bastille, Thursday October 19 2017

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets: Małgorzata Szczęśniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video: Denis Guéguin. Philippe II: Ildar Abdrazakov. Don Carlos: Jonas Kaufmann. Rodrigue: Ludovic Tézier. Le grand inquisiteur: Dmitry Belosselskiy. Élisabeth de Valois: Sonya Yoncheva. La princesse Eboli: Elīna Garanča. Thibault: Eve-Maud Hubeaux. Députés flamands: Tiago Matos, Michal Partyka, Mikhail Timoshenko, Tomasz Kumiega, Andrei Filonczyk, Daniel Giulianini. Une voix d'en haut: Silga Tīruma. Le comte de Lerme: Julien Dran. Un héraut royal: Hyun-Jong Roh. Le moine: Krzysztof Baczyk. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

For various reasons, the Paris Opera's new Don Carlos had the buzz of a special occasion - something you could feel in the air in the lobbies and not just because sponsor Rolex's guests were unusually dressy.

For a start, marking the 150th anniversary of the work's premiere in Paris, the decision was taken to use not only the original French libretto, but also the complete "rehearsal" score, i.e. all the music composed by Verdi before cuts were made, even back then, to allow people to get home at a reasonable hour. All, that is, but the act 3 ballet. This in itself added considerable interest to the evening, the musical differences and "extra treats" being really significant. And seeing the whole thing makes the plot of truncated versions easier to understand.

Second, Krzysztof Warlikowski was brought in to direct: a genius with ideas, still described by journalists as "controversial" and still heartily booed at premieres by those offended at any sign of intelligence in the opera house, but heartily cheered as well by others who don't mind thinking from time to time. On the whole Paris has grown to like him. But, as some of his productions have been truly great, his name raises high expectations, and this was not one of his "chewiest" efforts. It was a relatively simple telling of the story, with a few interesting ideas but less of the sense of a big, unexpected, thought-provoking overall concept he's often capable of supplying.

All the same, as usual with Warlikowski, when the curtain rose there was plenty for us to process. We saw a vast, high, gloomy, dark-panelled hall with a blue velvet divan, trimmed with gold braid, and an enamel washbasin in a stand on the right; a white horse in the middle,;a long table with a bust of Charles V on it; and a cordoned-off area to the rear. It was otherwise fearfully empty (a common directorial error as the Bastille's stage is so huge that the singers, if in the middle or, worse, towards the rear, get swallowed up. Fortunately they weren't back there very often). This dreary set and the prim, liveried, efficient-looking staff lined up at the back evoked the frigid protocol and stifling dullness surrounding modern royalty (I recalled visiting Windsor castle, the middle-class banality of which is stultifying).

Video projections of the pock-marks of old films implied we were seeing something old. Was this a flash-back? Don Carlos staggered in in tears, barefoot, wearing a cricket jumper and with his wrists bandaged. Elisabeth was led in in bridal white while the chorus filed in, in late 40s dress, behind the ropes (“L’hiver est long, le pain est cher…”). Carlos moved to the table to snip photos out of newspapers and paste them up on the wall. Perhaps this was, then, Don Carlos, still suicidal (at the end of the opera, as the very elderly and very be-medalled Charles V tottered out to save him, he would hold a trembling pistol to his head, echoing a video at the rear), about to relive the whole story.

From this point on, as I said, above, the story-telling was fairly straightforward, though directed as usual in great detail. Warlikowski knows the Bastille’s fancy equipment well and made good use of it, sliding big architectural elements silently in and out. The elaborate, red “mashrabiya” latticework that had formed the wall on the left (and sometimes cast pretty shadows on the stage) slid right to reveal a gym lined with wall bars. The ladies of the court were in fencing gear, white for them and black for Eboli, establishing her as quite a toughie and, as she acted out some of the “Veil Song” seduction on a prone lady-in-waiting, sexually bold. For the auto-da-fe scene, a steeply-raked amphitheatre advanced impressively and somehow menacingly from the rear, lined with monks, nuns and dressy society ladies in big hats. For “Elle ne m’aime pas” Philippe, apparently watching (at any rate, it was projected at the back) a grim old black-and-white film of Saturn or some other excessively unattractive personage devouring or possibly spitting out one of his children, lay in his shirt sleeves in an art-deco screening room with big club armchairs, whisky at his elbow, and Eboli draped sleepily over one of the seats. He bustled her out to the side as the Inquisitor entered at the rear. Imprisoned, Carlos bounced a yellow tennis ball in a long wire-walled cage to the left. For the final scenes, we were back to the near-empty stage, now with a crucifix beside the Emperor’s bust and the ancient figure himself sitting in waiting behind the red latticework.

One or two ideas were, to my mind, a bit misjudged. The inquisitor was a cigarette-smoking mobster figure in a suit and dog collar. Behind his dark glasses he had nasty red eyes from which Philippe quite convincingly recoiled in disgust. I found this figure more corny-cum-comical than frightening, and that, to me, took a lot of the menace out of the famous confrontation. And Elisabeth looked more like a peeved and sulky Russian nouveau-riche cheated out of a million than a noble, sympathetic queen tragically deprived of the love of her life. But this was nevertheless a solid, well-directed production and, though booed on the opening night, was also loudly applauded. There was no booing at all the night I was there.

Third (to return to my list), there was the cast: all present as planned and as magnificent in the house as they looked set to be on paper when the schedules came out - not always the case. It seems pretty mean-minded to document any reservations when basically you’ve just had the good fortune to hear one of the best casts currently available, and anyone interested can easily find the video online. So I’ll just list the three most memorable highlights in a performance that was at an exceptionally high level throughout:
  1. If Ludovic Tézier gets any better he’ll go off pop. He sang “Ah! Je meurs l’âme joyeuse car tu vis sauvé par moi” both times without coming up for air. I felt out of breath just hearing him; he didn’t appear to be troubled at all.
  2. Elīna Garanča’s “Je te maudis” will stick in my mind like Deborah Voigt’s parting shot as Chrysothemis in the same house in the early 90s. Garanča’s “Don Fatal” brought the house down, as you can see and hear on the video. It struck me how strange it is that two phenomenal singers producing such widely different sounds as Garanča and Anita Rachvelishvili can both be called the same thing: mezzo-soprano (and then there's Ann Hallenberg... but I digress).
  3. Kaufmann’s husky pianissimo in “Au revoir dans un monde où la vie est meilleure” was (a) at least as daring as Rachvelishvili's recent pianissimo "Printemps qui commence" in the same cavernous house, and (b) deeply moving.
The chorus was on form (though some French internautes have complained that they sang in Javanese). Philippe Jordan also had the orchestra at its peak. His approach isn’t really how I like Verdi. He goes for the great, smooth, symphonic sweep, highly-polished like the bodywork of some hugely luxurious vintage automobile – I thought of Karajan’s recording of the four-act version in Italian. But if Un bonheur, c’est tout le bonheur, at this performance the bonheurs were multiple and it would be silly to appear to moan. So that’s my two penn’orth on this Don Carlos, a version anyone who admires the work should make an effort to see.

Here is one of Maestro Wenarto's various takes on "O Don Fatale".

[Edit one week later.]As this was a super Don Carlos I focused deliberately on what was great. But pushed by someone on another blog to share thoughts on what might have been even better, I eventually spilled the beans. So here, for the record, is what I wrote to him…

'I have this niggling feeling [Sonia Yoncheva]’s punching just slightly above her weight. Sometimes her timbre is a little bit "soubrettish" for the part - a bit green and tart. I'm afraid - for her - she might not be able to keep it up. My other quibbles were that Ildar A. though largely magnificent (velvety in the middle and resounding at the top) was just a little bit weak at the bottom for Philippe. And Belosselskiy wasn't as dark as I'd have liked as the inquisitor. The trouble is that when you write these things down they tend to detract from what was overall an outstanding achievement - so I focused on a few especially memorable moments.'


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