Financial Times, 11 Oct 2017
by Shirley Apthorp
Verdi: Don Carlos, Paris, 10. Oktober 2017
Don Carlos in Paris — an opera that lives up to the hype
Jonas Kaufmann’s Don Carlos is a broken man, blood seeping through the bandages around his wrists as the opera begins. This is not the hero who would die for Flanders. His greatest battles are with himself, fuelled by his flawed relationship with his regal father.

A bust of Charles V stands watch over several acts, not because the absent king has supernatural powers, but because families are doomed eternally to repeat their own fatal patterns.

After almost five hours, the Paris Opera’s new Don Carlos receives tumultuous applause, with storms of boos for director Krzysztof Warlikowski. The applause is understandable. This rare outing of the original French version of Verdi’s greatest opera has a dream cast, and an intensity that does not let up throughout the evening.

And so the boos are not justified, because Warlikowski’s meticulous psychological thriller is part of what keeps us on the edge of our seats all night.

The other part is Philippe Jordan’s conducting. He makes us hear the link between Meyerbeer, who set the standards for grand opera in Paris to which Verdi was aspiring with this opera, and Wagner, who was not the first to take the concept further. What he does with the piece is neither delicate nor subtle, but it is packed with surprises and utterly compelling. He conducts as if it really matters, when, too often, his colleagues do not.

Kaufmann, singing the role in French for the first time, takes a vocally careful approach, sounding strained in the upper register at the beginning, easing into the task as the evening progresses. It is the women who bring the house down: Sonya Yoncheva, with her ability to convey both the fragility and the strength of Elisabeth with a sound that is open, warm and generous; Elīna Garanča’s extraordinary depth and complexity as Eboli, so much more than the usual sultry seductress.

Not that the men in the cast are bad. Ildar Abdrazakov’s Philippe II is a tormented figure, trapped in his own rigidity yet ultimately weak; Dmitry Belosselskiy’s Grand Inquisiteur is a consummate politician, understated but dangerous. There are countless moments of beauty as ensembles find points of melting consonance, as singers navigate their parts with superlative artistry, as Jordan draws dramatic effects from the orchestra.

Warlikowski’s team places the action some time in the mid-20th century; his Philippe has touches of Franco and Mussolini. Nothing is heavy-handed, and everything is musical. Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s designs echo the music’s dark monumentalism, while Denis Guéguin’s videos add a note of remembered trauma. The whole is unfussy, less neurotic than many of the director’s earlier productions, with most of the focus on the detailed humanity of these fatally interconnected relationships.

For once, this is an opera evening that lives up to the hype, a production that makes you want to start again at the beginning the moment the final notes have sounded.

 back top