Paris has a close connection with Verdi’s most ambitious and – in the five-act version now at the Bastille Opera – longest work. A French-language version of Don Carlo was first performed in the city in March 1867, with an Italian version coming out later the same year.
Set in the 16th-century royal courts of France and Spain, the opera is Verdi’s most wide-ranging meditation on political intrigue and his most sustained musical idiom. Based on the story of French princess Elisabeth of Valois’s marriage to King Philip II of Spain after she had originally been engaged to Philip’s son Don Carlos, Verdi manages to chart the turbulent history of the time, including Spain’s role in governing and suppressing the Flemish, the memory of Philip’s dead father Charles V (who reappears in the form of a ghostly monk in the opera), Grand Inquisitors, and Don Carlos’s eventual condemnation to death by his own father.
Tenor Roberto Alagna returns to perform in Italian the title role that he first sang (in its French incarnation) in Paris 23 years ago, leading an all-star cast in a visually striking production by Polish director Krzystof Warlikowski, whose version of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was reviewed here earlier this year.
I was lucky to attend one of the later performances, as a flu-ridden Alagna was forced to abandon the premiere after the second act, replaced by an understudy. An occasional rough-edged tone, especially in the middle range of his voice, showed that he was still recovering from his illness, but he gave a passionately committed and believably youthful performance of a role that has played such a part in his long career.
In spite of its title, Don Carlo concerns much more than the one protagonist. In fact, the numerous main characters (especially in the later acts) take center-stage more often than the eponymous hero.
Aleksandra Kurzak as Elisabetta gives a nuanced and impassioned performance as the new queen of Spain, caught in the middle of so many political intrigues as she tries to put duty before love. In the role of Filippo II, the great Wagnerian bass-baritone, René Pape, in this production portrayed as beset by doubts and relying on alcohol to find the courage to make momentous decisions, is superb, not least in the very real distress that he conveys during his great aria “Ella giammai m’amò.”
Perhaps the most eye- and ear-catching performance of the night, however, was that of mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as La Principessa Eboli. This is a peach of a part, as it combines vulgarity, passionate love (for Don Carlos), raw vengefulness (after being scorned by him) and then remorse. Rachvelishvili displays an astonishing vocal range, lending a fiery and committed authenticity to the role.
Fabio Luisi’s direction of the excellent orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris shows a deep knowledge of the variety and nuance of the musical score. If you want to hear Verdi at his mature best and if you are ready for a marathon evening of high-quality music-making (with two intermissions, it weighs in at over four-and-a-half hours), this is the opera for you.