Don Carlos in Paris
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In Review > International

Don Carlos

Opéra National de Paris

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Krzysztof Warlikowski's production of Don Carlos at Opéra National de Paris
© Agathe Poupeney
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Ildar Abdrazakov and Elīna Garanča, Philippe II and Eboli
© Agathe Poupeney
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Jonas Kaufmann in the title role of Krzysztof Warlikowski's production
© Agathe Poupeney

THE OPÉRA NATIONAL DE PARIS celebrated Verdi’s birthday on the October 10 with a much–heralded new production of Don Carlos by Krzysztof Warlikowski at the Bastille. Philippe Jordan conducted an all-star cast, singing in French. Stéphane Lissner, director of the Opéra National de Paris, has a special affinity with Verdi’s opera: one of the great successes of his term as general manager of the Théâtre du Châtelet was Luc Bondy’s 1996 staging of the French version of Don Carlos with a cast led by Roberto Alagna, José van Dam and Karita Mattila. 

The new Warlikowski production will be back next season, sung in its Italian version, but the edition used here was exactly as Verdi presented the score to the Opéra in 1866, before any cuts were considered, and before the ballet music was composed. The burgeoning love between Don Carlos and Élisabeth de Valois in the Fontainebleau act brings an added depth to the relationship, and the scene in which the queen and Eboli exchange clothes helps explain Don Carlos’s mix-up of their identities in the garden scene. 

Warlikowski’s previous productions at the Opéra—among them Iphigénie en Tauride (2006), Parsifal (2008) and King Roger (2009)—have caused some controversy, but there was little in his Don Carlos to raise an eyebrow. The director eschewed spectacle: against the background of Malgorzata Szcęśniak’s functional 1950s-style designs, he concentrated on achieving a deep psychological exploration of the character of Don Carlos, an unstable and diffident man as seen through flickering cinema and video projections. Presenting the prince as anti-hero was grist to the dramatic talents of Jonas Kaufmann, who moved from agile immaturity to poignant collapse in a wire cage, where this broken man was imprisoned like a wounded bird. The tenor was in cautious vocal form on opening night, but met all the challenges of the role and brought some glorious soft singing and intimate phrasing to the role. There were moments when tenorial brilliance was lacking: the Act III entrance in the garden surely needs more heady swagger than Kaufmann's hangdog vocal approach. 

Kaufmann’s relationship with Ludovic Tézier’s Rodrigue seemed more political than brotherly, but the French baritone’s urbane stage presence did not help, despite his delivery of the death scene with robust tone and thrilling old school legato, which earned him the most applause of the evening. Tézier’s success was matched by that of Elīna Garanča, who was singing her first Eboli. In Warlikowski’s only controversial staging moment of the evening, the princess was discovered in the veil song scene nervously chain smoking as part of a ladies’ fencing group—this was not a girl to be messed with. Fortunately Garanča’s sword work encouraged equally pointed precision in her perfect coloratura. Any thoughts that “O Don fatal” might stretch Garanča’s resources were confounded by the way she shaped the aria: a lightweight, but sensitive, first half, was followed by confident full-toned climax. The only downside was Garanča’s mushy French diction; swallowed consonants made titles a necessity. 

The same could be said of Ildar Abdrazakov’s Philippe II. The king was discovered in his office, seeing off a scantily clad Eboli. Despite a finely phrased “Elle ne m’aime pas,” and a claustrophobic encounter with Dmitry Belosselskiy’s chilling Grand Inquisiteur, Abdrazakov never made enough of the text. (The only artist who was exemplary in this respect was French tenor Julien Dran, who sang the Comte de Lerme.) 

The king’s sterile relationship with his queen was well captured as they sat side by side in frozen formality during the auto-da-fé scene. In her role debut, Sonya Yoncheva phrased Élisabeth’s last act aria with a grand line and a keen sense of text, although the role needs more sculpted power than the soprano demonstrated on opening night, when a few high–flying phrases sounded discolored. But the Bulgarian soprano’s dramatic intensity was never in question.

Jordan’s orchestra and chorus were in top form, but illuminating orchestral detail and great playing were undermined by a staid, Teutonic approach to the score. Little sense of Italianate warmth or rubato and some rather mannered pauses in the arias made this sound like a studious, chilly performance by a master musician, whose careful analysis of the score seemed to lack an emotional core.  —Stephen J. Mudge 

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