Since October the 10th, the Paris Opera has been setting Don Carlos by Verdi in its French version in 5 acts of 1866, with a promising cast: Sonya Yoncheva, Jonas Kaufmann, Ludovic Tézier, Elīna Garanča and Ildar Abdrazakov.
It all begins with an arranged marriage: Elisabeth de Valois is promised to the infant of Spain, in order to make peace reign over their countries, at war for decades. Never having seen his fiancée, Don Carlos leaves for France to meet her in secret, pretending to be a member of the Spanish ambassador’s delegation.
It is in the forest of Fontainebleau that he meets her, riding a horse while wearing a wedding dress. It’s immediately love at first sight and when Carlos reveals his true identity, Elizabeth is pleasantly surprised. Both rejoice at their engagement, but the idyll is soon interrupted by the news that Elizabeth’s future husband will not be Carlos, but his father Philip II.
The female sacrifice and the threat of death
The people of France get on stage to complain about their harsh living conditions (« When will your cold, dark winter come to an end! Alas! When will the war end? ») and implore Elizabeth to marry the king, in order to put an end to the war.
Moral blackmail is carried out on the young woman who, feeling a sense of guilt, accepts an imposed destiny: « O princess, accept Philip as a husband! Peace! We suffer so much, have mercy on us! ».
As in Le Cheval et la Mariée by Niki de Saint Phalle, the imaginary fairy tale is overturned and the playful fiancée finds herself trapped in a forced marriage. Upset by this unexpected change, the two lovers surrend to despair, which the presence of the crowd only accentuates.
Therefore, yet another woman is sacrificed for the common good, like a bargaining counter, a commodity or an object belonging to someone. « To King Philip II Henry gave you ! » says Thibault , »She belongs to him, my goodness! I lost her! » says Carlos later.
In Le corps d’une reine, Sylvène Edouard writes: »Elisabeth was an object of negotiation and later, a body handed over as a guarantee and the incarnation of the new agreement ». It may be said that her body is an idea, and that she will remain for posterity a « queen of peace », but for her it’s only a death sentence : »Rather than being queen and carrying this chain, I want to go down to the tomb », just as for Carlos: »The fatal hour is sounded! ».
The threat of death creeps in, to stay all along the opera: Rodrigue sacrifices himself to save his friend Carlos, Elisabeth takes some poison, Carlos disappears with the ghost of Charles V, Eboli buries herself in a convent and the king becomes nothing more than a puppet in the hands of the Church.
A hypocritical religion rising above temporal power
A prisoner is dragged violently on stage. Powerless, the man is sentenced to death and ends up at the stake, devoured by the flames. This is how Warlikowski reminds us that we are in the midst of the Inquisition, where people were judged and murdered in the name of God.
Far from the very graphic violence of Philippe Himmelmann’s Don Carlo, which caused a scandal in Berlin because of the bodies hanging from the ceiling, we find here the same state of mind, underlining the horrors of this dark age of history.
It is the ruthless Great Inquisitor who incarnates here the absolute Evil, like Saturn devouring his children.
Sitting quietly on stage, this character with the air of a mobster governs the lives of the common folk but also those of the rulers. He won’t hesitate to incite the king to kill his son (« The peace of the world is worth the blood of a rebellious son. God, to save us all, sacrificed his own. ») and manipulate him to eliminate Rodrigo, who threatens his power (« A man dares to undermine the divine edifice. The spirit of the innovators is already penetrating! […] Do your duty! …] Give us the Marquis of Posa! »)
The power of the church prevails over the king’s, and the weak Philip II « bows down and remains silent while faith speaks » and faces his limitations: « If royalty would give us the power to read in the depths of the hearts, where God alone can see everything! »
Fascinating visual aesthetics
Although the invasive and superfluous video projections could have been avoided, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging is inventive and refreshing: the « pleasant place » is revisited as a fencing class, the procession on the steps of the church before the auto-da-fé becomes a veritable inquisition court and the king’s cabinet looks like a home cinema.
As the five acts go on, the whole scene is exploited, in a set of interconnected elements. The solid wood panelling contrasts with the light grilling fences, the large surfaces give way to smaller spaces, and Felice Ross’s lights add a new dynamism to the minimalist scenery by Małgorzata Szczęśniak.
The choir’s garments in the third act are very well imagined: there are women wrapped in elegant fabrics with hats on their heads, men in military uniforms, clergy and nuns in their costumes, all in a beautiful array of colours, which contrasts with the cruelty of the massacre of the « heretics ».
On the personregie side we notice the elegance of the pages, the ladies-in-waiting and the servants and the interesting frame within a frame in the fourth act, where a woman and a man become the indifferent audience of the king’s sorrow, one sitting on the resting bed, smoking, and the other standing behind her.
A dream cast that doesn’t disappoint
Under the direction of Philippe Jordan, the Paris Opera Orchestra performs Verdi’s « French » score in an intense and eloquent manner, emphasizing both the inner dramas and plot twists, causing us to shiver, as during the beautiful trio of Act 3.
The choir is just as striking, especially in the scene where the Flemish deputies ask their king for peace and their heartfelt plea for peace is joined by the whole choir in a striking climax.
Sonya Yoncheva delights us with her soft yet powerful voice, and interprets an assured Elizabeth, which contrasts with the quiet and introspective Don Carlos by Jonas Kaufmann. The touching musicality of the German tenor, with his incomparable dark timbre, guides us through the story: his character evolves and his voice blossoms. From a carefree and fragile young heir, collapsing on the ground at every dramatic moment, he becomes a committed and brave man, who fights for the Flemish cause and defies his father several times: »O king of murder and horror! See who will wear your bloody crown when your last hour is up! »
Ludovic Tézier is an extraordinary Marquis de Posa. His vocal qualities are at the same level as his stage presence, with his irreproachable technique, a fluid and bewitching legato, and a natural and eloquent play, particularly in the tender duet with Kaufmann « In the name of a dear friend… »
Dressed in black among the white fencers, Elīna Garanča unfolds her beautiful dark and brilliant voice in the famous song of the veil. Femme fatale with ambiguous sexuality, her Eboli dominates the stage. Even when exiled, she is not defeated and asserts herself one last time by kissing the king in front of everyone. The sovereign is embodied in a very credible way by Ildar Abdrazakov. The great musicality of the bass and the sincerity of his interpretation give this violent, hypocritical and coward king a moving appeal.
If Eve-Maud Hubeaux is a successful Thibault, the real surprise is the grand inquisitor by Dmitry Belosselskiy, whose voice of unbelievable depth leaves us speechless.