Bringing to the stage Verdi’s Don Carlo is a demanding task at all levels: it requires five outstanding singers and a director able to manage the psychological developments of the main characters in an intricate plot within the framework of the Grand-Opéra style.
The current production at the Opéra Bastille of this opera (based on an important play by Friedrich Schiller) is a revival of the 2017 one under the direction of Krzysztof Warlikowski, and uses the version readapted by Verdi for Modena in 1886, sung in Italian and including the Fontainebleau scene. This opening sequence is functionally important if one is to understand the motivations that bring Elisabetta to give up her love for Don Carlo and marry his father, Philip II of Spain. The director in this first act projects a kind of old film effect onto the stage, giving the impression of a story told in flashback from the current events.
Warlikowski manages to give a coherent interpretation of this masterpiece, which resonates with a contemporary audience without distorting Verdi’s ideas. He translates the settings from 16th century Spain to a modern monarchy and focuses on the corruptive and hypocritical aspects of the political and religious institutions: behind the glittering façade we can glimpse the misery and poverty. Philip II, outstandingly interpreted by Renė Pape, is a weak man, a victim of his many addictions, easily aroused to jealousy, unable to control his temper, manipulated by the Inquisitor or the countess Eboli and at the same time cruel towards his wife and son. The opera pivots so much on him to the point that the scene of the auto da fé, normally parading the power of the church, here shows a drunk king abusing his wife while at the back the crowd glorify him. Later on, the famous aria Ella giammai m’amò becomes an act of self-deprecation rather than self-analysis.
The difficult relationship between father and son is a recurring theme in Verdi: here Philip appears totally disconnected from his son Carlo, who is portrayed as a naïve and unstable character consumed by the passion for his stepmother Elisabetta. On the opening night, Carlo was beautifully sung by Roberto Alagna who, despite being ill, didn’t spare himself in the first two acts. Unfortunately, his substitute Sergio Escobar, who had to take over midway through the performance, lowered the level of an otherwise, outstanding production.
Étienne Dupuis interprets, seductively and with a perfect legato, the role of Rodrigo, a rational man capable of persuading the king to his cause and of taming Carlo’s outbursts. His liberal ideas clash with the absolutist vision of the Grand Inquisitor, who is portrayed by Vitalij Kowaljow not traditionally as an irascible old monk but as a man of power with an uncanny ability to move his pawns.
Aleksandra Kurzak in the difficult role of Elisabetta perfectly captures the psychology of the queen: her sense of duty and repressed feelings makes her aloof in the beginning, but in the final act her passion erupts in the moving aria Tu che le vanità and in the duet with her beloved Carlo, even though vocally the role is outside her comfort zone.
The countess of Eboli mesmerises the audience. Anita Rachvelishvili portrays Eboli convincingly as a polysexual scheming woman who repents in the final act. It is her dark pitched voice with an equal power in all the registers that charges the character with so much that, despite some occasional lack of finesse, listening to her is an electrifying experience.
Finally, Fabio Luisi and the orchestra have done meticulous work with the refined orchestration of this opera chiselling every passage and the result is elegant phrasing with effective use of rubato.
This is a memorable performance of a great opera.
- You can also read Krzysztof Warlikowski in conversation with Rivka Jacobson (2016).
- Music by Giuseppe Verdi
- Libretto: Achille de Lauzières and Angelo Zanardini
- Conductor: Fabio Luisi
- Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski
- Orchestra and choir of the Opéra national de Paris
- Cast includes: Renė Pape, Roberto Alagna, Étienne Dupuis, Vitalij Kowaljow, Aleksandra Kurzak, Anita Rachvelishvili
- Opera Bastille, Paris
- Until: 23rd November 2019