Classical Voice North America
|By Susan Brodie
Verdi: Don Carlos, Paris, 10. Oktober 2017
Kaufmann Excels In Problematic Paris Don Carlos
The hottest ticket of the Paris Opera’s fall season was the “original” 1866 version of Verdi’s Don Carlos. A starry cast with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role delivered a thrillingly sung, provocative, and substantial evening.
Verdi’s third opera for Paris, after Les Vêpres siciliennes and Jérusalem,
was of course in French, with the score submitted before Verdi had written
the inevitable ballet music — any work given at the Paris Opera was expected
to contain five acts and a ballet. At the dress rehearsal for the 1867
premiere, it was decided to cut enough music to have time for the ballet and
still get suburbanites home at a decent hour. Later the work was translated
into Italian for performance in Naples; in the 1880s Verdi cut the original
Act I, set in the Forest of Fontainebleau, and extensively reworked the
score for Milan, though he reintroduced the Fontainebleau act for Modena.
Since then the later Italian version — with or without the Fontainebleau act
— has became far more common in performance. There’s a dramatic immediacy to
the Italian version, especially the non-stop revelations of the fourth act.
But the French version, with the stateliness of the language and the
formality of the extended sections, provides a sense of the grandeur and
formality of the Spanish court.
For this production, the original
cuts were opened up, reinserting music lost before the work’s premiere,
while the ballet was deemed dispensable. The result gave an altered sense of
the work: extended formal ensembles were more reflective of the strictures
of life in the Spanish court, and the structure of the language conveyed a
more ritual quality. Counting ovations, it was a five-hour evening.
In his sixth production for the Paris Opera, Polish director Krzysztof
(“SHE-shoff”) Warlikowski downplayed many of his usual visual tropes.
Instead of an identifiable movie reference, he projected static-spattered
blank film over the crowd scenes to create distance, with faces of
individual characters overlaying large public moments to underline their
private emotions. The experienced Warlikowski watcher could recognize
self-referential directorial touches like non-speaking actors, settings
suggestive of a 20th-century hotel lobby, entire scenes played in boxes that
slide on and off stage, even a token bathroom sink (sets and costumes by his
long-time collaborator, Małgorzata Szczęśniak, lighting by Felice Ross,
video by Denis Guéguin). But for the most part the director followed
Schiller’s original scenario of individuals at the mercy of larger social
forces. At the first and second performance curtain calls, Warlikowski was
vigorously booed, but that’s become a familiar ritual at the Paris Opera.
Despite my own waning enthusiasm for this director’s style, I found the
production true to the opera and full of interesting but coherent twists.
The second-act garden scene, for example, with its verbal sparring, is set
instead in a fencing salle, where actual rapier parries underscore the
politely expressed power plays. The fourth act takes place not in the king’s
chamber, but in a private movie screening room, underlining these
characters’ constant need to project an image in contrast to the intimate
confrontations of that act.
One of the production’s biggest draws was
the appearance of superstar tenor Kaufmann, taking on his second big Verdi
role since Otello at Covent Garden last summer. I’m happy to report that he
seems to be in prime form. As a character, the weak and moody son of
Philippe suits Kaufmann’s interior style of acting, and the role is vocally
more in his means than the Moorish captain. A brighter timbre might be more
appropriate to Carlos’ youth, but Kaufmann’s recognizable baritonal sound
reinforced the Infante’s inner gloom.
His opening romance in the
Fontainebleau act, “Je l’ai vue,” was fine, but his work later in the opera,
after he had warmed up, was even better. Kaufmann sounded more assured than
in last winter’s Lohengrin, and his French was nearly as clear as that of
Ludovic Tézier, the cast’s only native Francophone.
A wag on Twitter
observed, “Ah, how divinely Ludovic Tézier sings when he dies, it almost
makes you want to die yourself.” The French baritone initially seemed
reticent in the role of Rodrigue, Marquis of Posa, whose friendships with
both Carlos and Philippe were secondary to his revolutionary ambitions. But
in his fourth–act death scene, “Ah! Je meurs,” he sang with poignancy and
endless breath, earning a long ovation mid-act.
Ildar Abdrazakov as
Philippe II was more lost soul than aging tyrant, crushed by the weight of
his rank and responsibilities and leaning on alcohol to handle the stress.
Warlikowski’s resort to a favorite directorial device, the weak male, made
Philippe less persuasive in his fourth-act monologue, “Elle ne m’aime pas,”
especially played as a whiskey-fueled rant after his tryst with Eboli. But
Dmitry Belosselskiy, moving for the first time from the role of Philippe to
the Grand Inquisitor, was solid but not yet terrifying. He was costumed like
a James Bond arch-villain, which conveyed a secular sense of the real power
behind the throne but not of the church’s history. He needs to develop a
more cavernous-sounding bottom register for this role.
male-dominated drama, it was the ladies who enjoyed the greater triumph.
Sonya Yoncheva made a strong role debut as Elisabetta, the French princess
originally betrothed to Carlos, who was instead married off to her fiance’s
father, Philippe II. Costumed in stiffly constructed 1950s fashions, she was
a dutiful and even affectionate consort, supporting her husband and
suppressing the love for Carlos born when they met in the forest of
Fontainebleau. Wearing a soigné chignon, sunglasses, and heels, she exuded
aristocratic dignity, but with her hair down and glasses off she was the
picture of the mater dolorosa. The libretto and Warlikowski’s conception
made her little more than a dutiful princess willing to conform to
expectations, suffering in patient silence, and thus a little bland. But she
sounded ravishing, spinning gleaming, powerful lines with exquisite high
pianissimi. We have a good chance of many years of wonderful performances
from this still-young soprano.
But bad girls typically have more fun,
and it was Elīna Garanča who stole the show in her role debut as the
ambitious and alluring Princesse d’Eboli, the least constrained by custom of
any of the characters. Warlikowski emphasized with costuming her character’s
relative freedom from the conventions of court and religion and her role in
shaking up court life. In the second act, the princess was the black-clad
lesbian mistress of the ladies’ fencing class; in the next act, wearing a
glamorous but comfortable-looking red party dress, she attempted to seduce
Carlos, then threatened havoc on recognizing that he loved the queen. In her
final aria, “Ô don fatal et détesté,” her dusky mezzo flashed glints of
steel as she cursed the beauty that led to her exile — and it must be said
that Garanča’s own beauty made the words all the more credible.
director Philippe Jordan may not be a natural Verdian, but he mustered
thrillingly grand ensembles and effectively paced the work’s Wagnerian
proportions. In the more intimate moments, the excellent singers carried the
day, but occasionally they encountered tempi lacking in suppleness.
Secondary roles were performed without weakness, and the excellent Paris
Opera chorus earned the enthusiastic applause they received.