Thursday 26 October 2017

Verdi - Don Carlos (Paris, 2017)

Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlos

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2017

Philippe Jordan, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Jonas Kaufmann, Elina Garanča, Sonya Yoncheva, Ludovic Tézier, Dmitry Belosselskiy, Ildar Abdrazakov, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Julien Dran, Krzysztof Baczyk, Hyun-Jong Roh

Opéra Bastille - 22nd October 2017

For anyone used to the more familiar Italian version, the rarely performed original French version of Verdi's Don Carlo/Don Carlos presented at the Paris Opera could sound rather subdued and lacking the heightened emotional state one expects for this work. Even though we are very much in the domain of the 5-Act grand opera there does however seem to be some merit in adopting a more gentle approach for the French language version. If Philippe Jordan exercises restraint in the Paris Orchestra and Krzysztof Warlikowski reigns in his usual directorial excesses, the premier league cast assembled here are at least capable of finding the necessary dynamic in the contrasts of character.

One need only read and listen to the more gentle flow of the French language libretto, composed in verse and in rhyming couplets, to see that it requires a different approach from the language of the the Italian text, which in Verdi can tend towards bombastic. Don Carlos and indeed Don Carlo should never be bombastic, since the nature of Schiller's treatment of the historical drama is more reflective and interiorised conflict, exuding an air of dark melancholy and sometimes even a bleak outlook on the nature of man.

That tone is established right from the outset in Warlikowsi's production, with Jonas Kaufmann's Carlos wandering onto a bare wood-panelled set in a state of suicidal despair, his bleeding wrists wrapped in bandages. That's not how we usually see the Fontainebleau scene in the 5-Act version of the opera - with Elisabeth already in her wedding dress alongside a white horse - but it appears that the director wants to visualise this vital but usually truncated Act as a fevered dream flashback, combining Carlos's Act II gloomy meditations on death at the tomb of Charles V in the cloister of the Convent of Saint-Just, with his disappointment over the outcome of his expected engagement to Elisabeth.

Aside from a rather more abstract-modern presentation of the scenes in the locations and costumes, Krzysztof Warlikowski and dramaturgist Christian Longchamp don't apply any other real conceptual twists on the subject. The sets are elegant and economic with the space of the Bastille stage, but yet they can be suitably grand when the occasion demands. The auto-da-fé scene for example manages to get a sense of the horror with an overlay of a silent-era film projection of a giant devouring a man. It's simple and impressive, without having to fall back on clichéd imagery or mannerisms (or indeed Warlikowski-isms) that nearly always fails to effectively represent this scene in the opera.

On the other hand, Warlikowski's usual mannerisms are missed here, or at least his ability to bring focus and draw attention to the complex levels of a work like Don Carlos is lacking. The intention is to lay bare the Oedipal and Hamlet-like Shakespearean side of Verdi's reading of Schiller, with all of its character contradictions and relationship complications, but it never really gets to the heart of the work, much less find any way of overcoming the opera's dramatic and structural weaknesses. The inclusion of the indispensable Act I Fontainebleau scene and the exclusion of the dispensable ballet scene go some way towards making the work flow better, and greater emphasis is well placed on the dominant father aspect of the work by focussing on Charles V, but the roles of Rodrigo and Eboli add other dimensions that aren't as fully explored. At least, not in the dramatic context.

In terms of singing it's another matter, and ironically the performances of Posa and Eboli by Ludovic Tézier and Elina Garanča are so good that they balance out (and almost overshadow) the focus of the production on the patriarchal power play by restoring some measure of importance on the work's consideration of love, friendship, jealousy and rejection that their characters provide. The weight of those aspects of the work are almost all expected to be covered here by Philippe II, and Ildar Abdrazakov does give an outstanding performance, but it neglects the riches that can be found in the different nuances provided by Eboli and Rodrigue.

Perhaps however the strength of those performances, in conjunction with Philippe Jordan's subtle handling of musical dynamic, are enough to convey everything that is required. It certainly felt like it. Ludovic Tézier's smooth baritone is full of heartfelt expression that suggests a warm and loyal friendship with Carlos, but with an edge that revealed some of his personal conflict in his duty to the King and his belief in the Flemish cause. His performance of Rodrigue's death scene was loudly applauded and it seemed to me that he deservedly got the longest and most enthusiastic acclaim at the curtain call too. Elina Garanča wasn't far behind him though. With great stage presence and tremendous delivery, her Eboli carried force of conviction and yet tenderness and regret. Her 'O don fatale', summing up her predicament, was pretty much devastating.

That kind of conviction and delivery carried through to the back of the hall to those of us in the cheaper seats, and that was the case also for Ildar Abdrazakov. Without underestimating the greater challenges that the roles of Carlos and Elisabeth carry however, the same can't be said with as much certainty for Jonas Kaufmann and Sonya Yoncheva. Kaufmann's usual strength and force is all there and his delivery impassioned, but he doesn't have the volume to fill a hall the size of the Bastille. The detail of his performance worked much better I found when I subsequently watched scenes from the streamed performance of this Don Carlos on ARTE. Sonya Yoncheva wasn't perfect in her delivery either and felt somewhat detached, but I personally have never heard anyone sing the challenging role of Elisabeth perfectly, and Yoncheva at least is one of the best I can recall.

Such challenges and imperfections are perhaps in the nature of Don Carlos, and may indeed be the very reason for it remaining always such a fascinating work, since Verdi's venture into French grand opera neither fits to the tradition of Meyerbeer, Halévy and Auber, nor is it merely an Italian opera in French guise. Warlikowski and Jordan succeed then in some areas and fail in others, which is perhaps an inevitability with this work. You can't fault a cast as impressive as this either - you really can't do justice to Don Carlos without a cast as stellar as this - and Jordan's French touch does reveal other interesting aspects of the work. With its complicated blend of history, personal drama and the fantastical and that problematic ending that I've only seen Robert Carsen approach in any way half-convincingly (although it required much manipulation in his 2016 Strasbourg production), the perfect or definitive version of Don Carlos still remains elusive.

Links: L'Opéra de Paris, ARTE Concert