The Don Carlos of the century! The cast was absolutely amazing, with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, so I could not possibly miss it. Finding the tickets proved to be harder than I thought, so, in the end, after a frantic and panicky half an hour on the internet, the day that the sale opened (the expression “headless chickens running around” comes to mind), my friend Gianluca and I managed to get two seats in rows 28 and 29, at the Opéra Bastille. The theater is gigantic, it holds 2800 people, and it was packed full. We were honestly a bit too far away, but the acoustics proved to be better than we thought, and we heard everything fine. The strapountin seats were pretty uncomfortable for a 5 hour ordeal, though, but let’s not complain. We got tickets, so many people were desperately looking for a last minute sales outside the theater…
It was truly an event, in the lyrical world, and it would have deserved a much better production. The production, by Krzysztof Warlikowski, was, probably, the ugliest I have ever seen, closely tied by La Favorite in Munich last season. The plot, in Don Carlos, is strictly embedded in history: the characters are Philip II of Spain, his son Don Carlos, his wife Elisabeth of Valois, daughter of the King of France. The plot is of course fictional, but the characters, and the whole surrounding atmosphere, is deeply set in late XVI century Spain: the war against France, the struggle against the Protestants, the Inquisition. And instead, guess what? But of course! The original, bold, imaginative director (/sarcasm) moved the action in another historical period! It’s not completely clear which period: the costumes of the Royalty reminded me of late 1800, Victorian/Habsburg kind of thing. But the common people were dressed more like the 1950s. In any case, a historical period where everything that is happening on stage makes no sense at all.
Psychologically, the action was very much centered on the internal struggle of Don Carlos himself, which is fine, Kaufmann is awesome at portraying the tormented, weak youth (he would be a great Werther, from this point of view), but it’s not a particularly original take. Philip II is depicted as an alcoholic, Eboli smokes non-stop, and the Great Inquisitor looks like Al Capone. (All these things, of course, are completely random and don’t seem to serve any purpose at all.)
The scenes were ugly, I mean, REALLY ugly. It’s rare to witness such ugliness on stage, one must really focus and work hard in order to achieve each scene uglier than the last one for 5 hours straight. The stage (which is gigantic, at the Opéra Bastille) was often empty, with random things lost in it: a fake horse, a table, a single bed. Cages made of a thick net showed up, containing the monks, then containing Kaufmann, when Don Carlos is supposed to be in prison, then containing Elisabeth and the Court when the people are revolting against the King, in act 4.
The scene opening the second act, where Eboli sings the veil song, supposedly in a garden of the royal palace, is in a fencing school, where the “ladies in waiting” are harassed by a dominatrix Eboli showing lesbian preferences, at this time (in between cigarettes). Eboli is also shown, asleep in an armchair, in the King’s bedroom while he sings “Ella giammai m’amò” at the beginning of act 4, swiftly ushered out when Al “The Great Inquisitor” Capone shows up.
Also, we had really annoying videos projected on stage: a vintage “movie noise” superimposed over several scenes (the granularity and particles typical of old movies), and then videos of close-ups of the character singing on stage, with very intense expressions; maybe a way to represent their emotions, because apparently Verdi was not good enough at doing that.
Nothing made sense, nothing added anything to the experience, nothing was even pretty to look at. A complete failure. On the bright side: nothing interfered with the musical experience, and this is the best we can hope for, these days, from opera directors.
Now I want to talk about the music, because it was INCREDIBLE. The orchestra was powerful and masterfully led by Philippe Jordan, who managed to drive without ever losing intensity. He had great communication with the singers. A bit boisterous maybe, but it is Verdi after all. They presented the French version, and I have to say that Verdi in French does not sound exactly the same. The French language just doesn’t fit with the music that well.
Jonas Kaufmann is in splendid form: beautiful high notes, great projection, a thoughtful, intense interpretation. And his signature diminuendos, his wonderful pianissimi, absolutely perfect. Don Carlos fits his voice like a glove, and with experience, during the years, he has fine-tuned all the accents, the slight trembling in the voice, the weakness, the outburst of pride against his father, the heart-breaking sorrow at Posa’s death. His Don Carlos came out as the most believable, the most human and real of all the characters.
Posa was Ludovic Tézier, who I heard live for the first time and I was flabbergasted! His voice has a velvety, profoundly noble color: he walks on stage, opens his mouth, and you know this is a man you can love and trust. He communicates strength, honorable feelings and deep loyalty, more with the kind of voice he has than with his acting. (It would be very interesting to hear him as a bad guy (Iago, for instance, or even Macbeth) and see how he pulls it off.) His performance was a perfect crescendo, which culminated in an amazing death scene, where he NEVER took a breath. I mean never. At each end of phrase you think “now he’s going to catch his breath” and he doesn’t. If you read me you know that I am obsessed with breathing, and this man is one of the top dogs. His extremely long phrases, which still contained shaping, and dynamics, and interpretation, just pierced my heart. It felt like music was flowing through him, more than him producing it.
And we come to Elīna Garanča as Eboli, who I had heard in La Favorite in Munich (she is either very unlucky, or somehow attracts horrible productions), and, although I had admired her voice very much, I had found her a bit cold and not committed enough. Boy she turned this around last night! Her interpretation was so intense, so committed, and so emotional, that it really blew me away. Also her performance (like Tézier’s) was an incredible crescendo, from a veil song where I really enjoyed her trills and roulades, to the fierce trio when Don Carlos rejects her, to an amazing “Don fatale”. The initial outburst was powerful in its desperation, her curses terrifying and full of horror. When the more melancholic part comes, where she invokes the Queen, and laments having lost her friendship and trust, her flawless, unstoppable legato overflowed from the stage on us all, with a flood of emotions. The explosion of cheers and howling of the audience at the end of this aria crowned her as (probably) the winner of the evening, first among peers.
Philip II was Ildar Abdrazakov, who I had already heard in this role in Milan. Last night he confirmed his status as probably the best Philip II alive today. His voice is absolutely beautiful, deep, well supported with wonderful technique. His interpretation was believable and intense, he also has the physique du rôle, for an alcoholic abuser who tries to strangle his wife. His “Ella giammai m’amò” was moving and emotional, and the confrontation with the Great Inquisitor impressive.
The Great Inquisitor himself, Dmitry Belosselskiy, convinced with a deep bass, even if his interpretation (due also to the Al Capone kind of look) lacked the mixture of fragility and authority which we are used to associate with this character. The voice was good though.
And we come to Sonya Yoncheva as Elisabeth, who, alas, was not at the same level as her colleagues. My friend Gianluca was even harsher than me, on Yoncheva, but I also have to admit that she was not up to the task, not with a rest of the cast of this level. Her high notes were often strained, the effort was obvious. Her resolution of the high passaggio was not sufficient. She was not “bad”, in any way, it’s just that, in our opinion, Elisabeth of Valois is probably not a role which suits her. She did some wonderful things, like the final duet with Don Carlos, where both her and Kaufmann came up with an absolutely stunning pianissimo, it was absolutely perfect. It’s more in the sfogato parts that she comes short.
All of the “minor” roles were enjoyable and adequate, with honorable mention for Silga Tīruma, who sang the Voice from Heaven with heavenly timbre and remarkable size and projection.
And the last word goes to the Parisian audience, may the devil drag them all to hell in a basket, them, and their cough. I’ve never heard any audience cough the half of what they did last night, it was CONSTANT. I have some experience of coughing audiences, and I can tell you that these were not the unstoppable coughing fits which, alas, can happen to anybody. These were the 1, 2 deliberate coughing sounds that one makes when he’s bored, and has no clue that he should not bother anybody else. There were people loudly clearing their voice, for chrissake, what are you clearing your voice for?? Do you have to talk? NO! So why the heck are you clearing your voice?!? I hated them, I would have stuffed the program in their mouth. Cough now, knucklehead.