Verdi stripped bare

Don Carlos at the Opéra Bastille

By Oriane Jeancourt-Galignani 07 November 2017

© Eléna Bauer / OnP

Verdi stripped bare

Don Carlos in French, in its full-length version, is a red-letter event at the Opéra Bastille. With Philippe Jordan conducting, Krzysztof Warlikowski directing and a superb cast including Jonas Kauffmann as Don Carlos, a new Verdi is decidedly emerging.

Don Carlos: an Italian opera? Things will never be as simple as that again... On the stage of the Bastille, you will and you won't see Don Carlos. What is being performed there, against a shifting backdrop of dark red and browns, has not been seen since the 19th century: a Don Carlos in French, in five acts, lasting over four hours. A Don Carlos that is less courtly than existential; an opera that opens with the love of two young people, Carlos and Elisabeth, which is then methodically, sadistically crushed by the millstone of tragedy. Verdi produced this version for the Paris Opera in 1866. The celebrated composer of La Traviata was then living in France, but closely following the unification of Italy, with all its chaos, lust for power, revolutionary force and fresh, young, heroic and ultimately sacrificial figures. Like Rossini and Wagner, he aspired to create a giant of a work that broke new musical ground, at the dawn of a dramatic new era, and composed this vision of a man trapped in the torment of myths – of a myth trapped in the torment of humanity. Why Don Carlos? Because he admired Schiller's play and its political significance? Don Carlos is brilliantly refined and skilfully constructed. A perfect drama, played out around a central tragedy: a father and a son who love the same woman, one of whom will have to die. To this Oedipal issue, Schiller added the historical curse of the Habsburgs: Philip and Carlos are the son and grandson of Charles V – is it possible for them to follow on after the master of Europe? They are the artisans of the decline of the Christian empire, while the older monarch was the architect of its all-embracing power. Crucial figures in its fall, they are fated to be devoured, so that a new world can arise. In a production full of glass screens and rooms gliding over the stage, Warlikowski brings this devouring process to life. The man who last year, in Les Français, reinterpreted Proust through the prism of cruelty and historical terror, constructs face-to-face scenes encircled by shadows, with choirs erupting onto the stage, and a ghost: that of Charles V, reminiscent of Hamlet's father on the ramparts of Elsinore. Don Carlos is Hamlet and Othello rolled into a single play: a drama of father and son, vengeance and jealousy. As with Shakespeare, a monster holds sway in the midst of the tragedy – here, the melancholic King Philip: the unhappy ogre. And on the screens, human beings are endlessly swallowed up by a giant's mouth… Images designed to set off Verdi's sweeping music, whose every nuance is given full weight by Philippe Jordan. On the day I went to see a rehearsal, the conductor had only one word for the chorus and singers on stage: "whisper". And we discovered just how magnificent Verdi can be when whispered. Because this Don Carlos was also a very sensitive matter for Verdi, involving a father exposed to the hatred of his son: a painful and obsessive subject for the Italian composer. "Can I, as a Christian, sacrifice my son to the world?" asks Philip. "God sacrificed his own, to save us all," is the Grand Inquisitor's reply.
© Eléna Bauer / OnP

Verdi booed

On 21 March 1867, the opera was performed at the Paris Opera for the first time – already shorn of several scenes to give Paris audiences time to get home at "a decent hour". Verdi was expecting a triumph; he was booed. Nobody found in it the music and charm of Rigoletto's creator. Even the composer Berlioz did not realise the importance of what was taking place before his eyes. Verdi, deeply wounded, sent an insulting letter to the Opera and abandoned his work, recasting it later in another shorter version in Italian: the now-famous Don Carlo. So was that the end of the story? Yes and no. Nothing happened for a century and a half, but in 1979, Verdi's dream rose from the ashes under Luc Bondy, but not in its complete version. So we can believe that under Jordan's baton, the cast – not only the eagerly awaited Jonas Kauffmann, but also the impressive Ildar Abdrazakov (Philip), Pavel Černoch (Don Carlos, alternating with Kauffmann), Ludovic Tézier (Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa) and Sonya Yoncheva (Elisabeth) – are getting to work on something completely new. This accounts for the intense way Krzysztof Warlikowski talks about his work this October afternoon, sitting in the terrace of a café a week before the first night: "In fact, we don't know what Don Carlos is really like. We are all discovering it – including myself, despite having staged it in Italian 17 years ago, and all the singers who have come to rehearse it today. They are realising that the music and scope of the characters are not the same. In the shorter Italian version, Carlos is another man. He is more like Hamlet, weaker and closer to the historical figure of Don Carlos, who was an epileptic. I don't want to portray him as a chivalrous knight, sword in hand. He doesn't have the drive of a political animal; he doesn't have the strength Posa tries to give him. I want people to understand the human disaster he represents. Philip, the terrible father, is far more complex in this version as well. He says, "I am a man," not only a king. He turns to Posa seeking a friend, because, as he says, "he is too alone."

Warlikowski is determined to highlight the complexity of these characters, as well as the opera in its entirety: "It's a work that needs to be stripped bare. I'm trying to move past the world of masks and show the characters in all their humanity, not in their royal capacity, which no longer means anything to us." If the director sees himself as uncompromisingly loyal to the work, and if, unlike the way he approached Parsifal ten years ago (also at the Bastille), he brooks no digression in terms of staging, it is because he feels a hitherto-unsuspected Verdian truth in this neglected work: "There are finished, well-put together pieces – and then there are others that go beyond perfection, and are really looking for something. This opera is one of those."

Warlikowski recently staged an opera by Schreker in Munich: a major occasion, because the half-Jewish Schreker had been banned by the Nazis during the 1930s, and had been completely forgotten for fifty years. This was the first time one of his works had graced the stage in Munich since 1921. "In a way, Don Carlos suffered the same fate; it didn't exist until today." Warlikowski has rarely shown himself in such a dark and political register. "What this opera recounts is a nightmare. Philip goes down into hell, and takes everybody with him," as he puts it. Hell is certainly full of grandeur this autumn.    

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