The New York Times, OCT. 11, 2017
Verdi: Don Carlos, Paris, 10. Oktober 2017
Review: A Starry "Don Carlos" Brings Verdi, in French, to Paris
PARIS — What a difference a letter makes.

One of Verdi’s greatest works is best known in its Italian translation as “Don Carlo,” but he originally wrote the opera’s music to a French libretto, “Don Carlos.” While the music remains the same, the mood feels subtly yet completely altered.

In a wrenching duet with Carlos — who was first her fiancé, then, sigh, her stepson — Élisabeth, the miserable queen of Spain, begs him to know her heart is not indifferent, to understand her silence. In Italian the word is “silenzio,” capped with a broad, extroverted “oh” sound. But in French, it’s “silence,” with a soft, gentle “eh” at the end.

Language becomes emotion in the voice of an artist like the soprano Sonya Yoncheva, who sings Élisabeth, for her first time in either language, in a starry yet sober new production of “Don Carlos” that had its premiere at the Opéra Bastille on Tuesday. While Ms. Yoncheva didn’t dwell on that not-quite-syllable at the end of “silence,” she used it — to create a brief aura of melancholy, a puff of dark cloud.

The tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who previously had sung Carlos only in Italian, found here in French a match for his hooded tone. And on Tuesday, French seemed, time and again, more reflective than Italian of the work’s emotional temperature: When the brutal, conflicted King Philippe II (Ildar Abdrazakov) sighs that his wife doesn’t love him, the line “Ella giammai m’amò” is more declamatory — say it out loud — than the veiled, introspective “Elle ne m’aime pas.”

In Italian, it’s a public moment, even as a soliloquy. In French, it’s the murmur of a tortured soul.

The return of “Don Carlos” to the Paris Opéra in its original tongue, for the first time since 1986, brings a masterpiece back to its home. Verdi finished the score in 1867 as part of his play for recognition in Paris, then the grand-opera capital of Europe. Variously snipped and slashed for artistic and logistical reasons — the Paris audience needed to be out in time for the last train back to the suburbs — it was then translated when it traveled to Italy. Now it exists in more versions than any of Verdi’s other works.

Sprawling, meditative and unsettled, “Don Carlos” eventually fell out of favor, and when it returned to the repertoire in the mid-20th century, it was sung almost exclusively in Italian. And almost always, it was missing its crucial first act, depicting Carlos and Élisabeth’s first meeting in France — the moment of happiness which they spend the rest of the opera mourning — and their despair when she is called to Spain to marry his father, Philippe, as part of a peace treaty.

A shadowy, vigorous 1996 production of the five-act French version was a highlight of the impresario Stéphane Lissner’s tenure at the Théâtre du Châtelet here. The director of the Paris Opéra since 2014, Mr. Lissner is now attempting to recreate some of that magic. (This new staging includes material that Verdi cut in the lead-up to the Paris premiere and omits a ballet commonly cut today but de rigueur for 19th-century grand opera.)

Krzysztof Warlikowski, the director, has not created magic, but his production here is restrained and thoughtful, decorous without being chilly. The work has been updated from the 16th century — seemingly to the 1940s or ’50s, the stage wrapped in dark-wood paneling — but gently and without provocation. The aim appears less to distort the libretto than to add touches of old-Hollywood glamour with sets and costumes by Malgorzata Szczesniak and film-noir foreboding.

Cinema, one of the recurring themes in Mr. Warlikowski’s work, is again a key element. Philippe’s study is an Art Deco-luxurious screening room; the opera’s omnipresent nostalgia is echoed in flickering splotches of old celluloid; stage-filling close-up projections capture frozen tears on Élisabeth’s cheeks and Carlos with a gun to his head. (The plot’s locations are projected, too, like intertitles in a silent film.)

The emphasis is on illusion and fantasy: The opera’s characters continually arrive at ideas for saving themselves and others, yet these notions uniformly fail. In Mr. Warlikowski’s staging, even Élisabeth and Carlos’s initial meeting in France is wary, a little detached — so their constant references to it as a kind of lost Eden just feel like invocations of more false memories. Seemingly solid walls open and close; the lighting, by Felice Ross, makes barely noticeable shifts and changes the mood completely; nothing is dependable.

Even gender comes, wittily, into question: We first see Eboli — the princess who falls for Carlos and sleeps with Philippe, betraying almost everyone — as the leader of a court of androgynous ladies-in-waiting in fencing uniforms, before she shifts to slinky femme-fatale gowns and an omnipresent cigarette.

The mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, singing Eboli for the first time, never makes an ugly sound with her smooth, even voice. It wraps adroitly around the sensuous curlicues of the “Veil Song,” soaring at the top but lacking fullness lower down; the effect of her “Ô don fatal” was one of poise and determination rather than scorched-earth power.

Mr. Abdrazakov, also making a role debut, sang with solidity and spirit, but like Ms. Garanca, lacked a certain weight: His unusually youthful Philippe skirted the part’s psychological depths. But Ludovic Tézier, his sound stalwart and stylish and his face oddly pale, captured the strange ambiguity of Rodrigue, who vacillates between loyalty to Carlos and Philippe.

Mr. Kaufmann, so natural at playing outsiders, is, with his gloomy croon, a foil for Ms. Yoncheva’s mix of girlish clarity and haunted vibration, her acute tone piercing his smoky one. Intelligent, reserved and wounded, she seemed inward-wrapped even in her outpouring near the end, “Toi qui sus le néant,” the great aria of resignation.

The chorus, a bare whisper at the start and fearsome in the auto-da-fé scene, was superb. Philippe Jordan, the Paris Opéra’s music director, led a light and agile, brisk but not rushed, performance. It was polished and professional, but also less than inspired. There was little sense of glacial undertow, of mahogany darkness, of velvety richness. Instead, the effect was cool, refined, self-contained.

This, too, was very French.

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