Kaufmann Excels In Problematic Paris ‘Don Carlos’

Don Carlos (Jonas Kaufmann) draws his sword on his father, Philippe II (Ildar Abdrazakov), in the Paris Opera
staging of the French version of Verdi’s ‘Don Carlos.’ (Production photos by Agathe Poupeney)
By Susan Brodie

PARIS — 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.

Jonas Kaufmann is in prime form as the moody Carlos.

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.

[The Oct. 16 performance will be broadcast on France Musique (radio and online) on Oct. 29 at 11:30 p.m. CET.]

Director Krzysztof Warlikowski: vigorously booed. (Bartek Warzecha)

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.

Rodrigue (Ludovic Tézier), Philippe II (Ildar Abdrazakov), and Eboli (Elīna Garanča).

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 fourthact 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.

Eboli (Elīna Garanča) tries to seduce Carlos (Jonas Kaufmann).

In this 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.

Music 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.

Don Carlos continues through Nov. 11, with a second cast giving four performances beginning Oct. 31. For tickets, go here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!