Seeking Peace and Oblivion: Reflections on the Paris “Don Carlos”

“Je cherche en vain la paix et l’oubli du passé: De celle qui me fut ravie l’image erre avec moi dans ce cloître glacé!” / “I seek in vain the peace and oblivion of the past! The image of her whom they have stolen from me remains with me in this dread cloister!”

~Don Carlos, Act II

As “Part Two” of my “Don Carlos Adventure,” I wanted to reflect on the production of the opera that brought my friends and I to make the trip in the first place. (The link to “Part One,” an overall summary of our trip, can be found here.)

As an avid theatre-goer, I am entirely accustomed to modern updates, however seemingly “time-bound” the play–Shakespeare’s history plays, for example. But as an opera, Don Carlo(s)--my favorite opera–has always struck me as one that doesn’t lend itself as easily to any time and setting outside its own. So, when I’d heard that the Carlos I was so looking to was to have an updated setting and a modern ambiance, I was somewhat disappointed. I consoled myself with the thought that I would be hearing the cast of a lifetime in Jonas Kaufmann, Ildar Abdrazakov, Ludovic Tezier, Sonya Yoncheva and Elīna Garanča—conducted by the masterful Philippe Jordan. At worst, I thought, I could close my eyes at times and just revel in the sound, if need be.

I have never been happier to be wrong in my life.

I was haunted and compelled from my first viewing on the night of October 19th during my trip-of-a-lifetime to see this Carlos in person, in Paris. The whole production had a strange, haunting elegance. Leaving the best night of my life, emotionally shipwrecked, I tried to reason with myself: surely, this blissful reaction is just because I am so emotionally overwhelmed at the sheer beauty of Verdi’s music, Jordan’s conducting, and the experience of seeing and hearing so many opera heroes for the first time in person. I must have put on rose-tinted glasses about the production itself…

The “mise-en-scène”

But it continued to haunt me. By the time I watched some of the live-stream (later that same night after we saw it in person) and then went to see it for the second time on the 22nd, I was deeply in love with the production itself, directed by cinema-lover Krzysztof Warlikowski. It is a combination of an impressionistic silent film, whose imagery is neither overwhelming, nor on-the-nose. Nothing is showy and abstract for its own sake, but leaves one with the tragic sadness of this particular vision of Don Carlos. It is a perfect vehicle for this more melancholy, French-language version of Verdi’s great opera, which is so much more widely known in the Italian. On the contrast between the French and Italian, Zachary Woolfe of the New York Times brings up some fantastic points in his review, linked here.

To be, or not to be?

At the opening, a melancholy prince emerges from the shadows before the music begins, wrists bandaged after a recent suicide attempt, leaning over a washbasin. His is a tragic, purposeless existence. Repelled by a father who gives him no credit, he is even wearing what resembles a King’s College cricket jumper, as though he has nothing better to do than play sports and fritter away his time. He is underused, undervalued, disregarded. The bare but elegant stage, the intense focus on the internal state of our hero and the relationships between the characters, is consummately Shakespearean: we’re reminded of the estrangement between the little-regarded Prince Hal and his father the king, or of the tragic Hamlet, “passion’s slave.”

A ghostly bride…

At first, I was mildly puzzled by how the desk and chaise-longue fit into this opening scene in the forest of Fontainebleau, but the impression I was left with is that it is his own retreat—or a kind of exile.

Grace Kelly

Élisabeth enters in a wedding gown—which, as Viv noted, appears to be a direct hommage to Grace Kelly’s wedding gown—in ghostly white, though looking more as though she is going to a funeral. Or, perhaps, as though she has died already. At this point, neither Élisabeth nor Carlos know one another; they only know that their fates are controlled by their fathers, and the cruelty of destiny.

Projected images of the various leads fill the set background at key emotional transitions: Carlos, the ultimate tragic lead, is shown at various times looking as though he is on the brink of a nervous breakdown, sometimes lifting a gun to his head. The shadow passing across the face of Élisabeth’s projected image as she accepts the “offer she cannot refuse” ~ marriage to Philippe ~ is rending.

An elegant cage…

A central image is that of the cage—illustrative of the interior cage that each of the characters carries around with them at all times—and this image appears in various guises throughout the production. The set itself is a kind of elegant cage: we see, alternately, Carlos, Élisabeth, or Eboli behind the red cage that appears at various intervals on either side of the stage. Élisabeth uses sunglasses to cage her eyes from view and hide her tormented emotions. Bars across the fencing studio (the Act II, Scene 2 garden setting with Eboli and the ladies-in-waiting) give the impression of a cage. The cage-like shadows across Philippe and Rodrigue during the “Restez!” scene have an understated power. The room where we see Philippe and Eboli lounging in Act IV is a stifling box of a room. We might go on and on. Ultimately, each character is a solitary prisoner, tormented and alone.

Like Hamlet, Carlos could say: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (II.ii). And indeed, there is a strongly dream-like quality to the production whose atmosphere and motifs echo the world of silent cinema. Flickering shadows fill the stage at various intervals, as though we are seeing images cast by an old film projector ~ a film, perhaps, that hasn’t been yet restored by Criterion ~ of something whose beauty and grandeur has been lost to a dreamlike yesteryear. Did this grandeur ever truly exist as we imagine? It is all the more poignant for its ephemeral quality. To quote Hamlet again, “a dream itself is but a shadow.”

Again, going back to the cage theme: shadows of the cloistral “cage” fall across Carlos in the cloister of Saint Yuste monastery, only dissipated, for the moment, by the entrance of opera hero, Rodrigue, the consummate honorable and faithful friend, sung so exquisitely by the understated baritone Ludovic Tézier.

The lead-up to the beautiful friendship duet is so entirely different in French than in Italian, that previous to this production, it took me some time to grow accustomed to it; since this version, however, it has become for me an immense treasure. The haunting and understated pre-duet is a testament to friendship amidst tragedy. Even the different tone of “Demande à Dieu la force d’un héros!” in the French version, is less a triumphant call to heroism than a plea for suffering resignation. (And really, the very idea that Carlos could be ready for a life of leadership in suffering Flanders, when he is so broken, is another part of the tragedy and poignancy not only of the French Carlos, but very particularly of this production.)

“Thou speakest of times that long have passed away. I, too, have had my visions of a Carlos, whose cheek would fire at freedom’s glorious name, but he, alas! has long been in his grave…those dreams are past!”

~Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos


A white horse stands not quite center stage, for a long period; it is an image that is never entirely clear, and yet, the more I lived with it, the more it felt strangely appropriate, like an image that is part of a “paradise lost”; a future that might have been; childhood; of the moment of happiness at Fontainebleau at the opening; or of nature, and natural emotions, suppressed, cast aside…frozen in time. As to the latter, the production is filled with such indications of natural emotions suppressed or frozen, from the guarded meeting between Élisabeth and Carlos at the opening, to the entrance of Rodrigue, whose affection for Carlos is checked by his sense that they are being watched; and ultimately, to the heartbreaking Act IV arias of Rodrigue, who begs for Carlos to take his hand, and who tries to crawl to his friend as Carlos desperately reaches for him from behind his cage.

The notion of a “lost paradise” haunts our characters: Élisabeth longs for her dear France, and her mother, and then, for the love that might have been with Carlos; Carlos mourns this stolen love, and the peace that eludes him, as well as the shadow of his grandfather who spent his final days in the cloister in reparation for a life of power-seeking, as Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his father. Philippe, in this production especially, has a coherent reason for distancing himself from his son: jealousy. Carlos may be “passion’s slave,” but there is something in him that Philippe lacks: warmth, the capacity for friendship, and the ability to inspire loyalty in such a heart as that of Rodrigue. This is certainly in line, in many ways, with the Schiller original.

Francisco Goya, “Saturn Devouring His Son”

I will just give a brief mention, as well, on the father-son note, to the haunting image that is projected at the end of the auto-da-fe,  reminiscent of the famous Goya painting, “Saturn Devouring His Son.”

Elisabeth, Philippe

Philippe longs for the particular friendship of Rodrigue, and for the authentic love of Élisabeth ~ yet, “elle ne m’aime pas.” Ildar Abdrazakov’s Philippe, a younger, dashing monarch, is also here a tormented alcoholic. Somehow, it works beautifully. Woolfe writes in his New York times review on the contrast between the French and Italian versions of this aria: “In Italian, it’s a public moment, even as a soliloquy. In French, it’s the murmur of a tortured soul.”

Ildar’s commanding tone and slick, intelligent presence make him a powerful adversary. His great Act IV aria, “Elle ne m’aime pas,” left me in tatters.

Eboli, such a crucial character, is often underemphasized, or is overshadowed by the other leads. Not so here. Elīna Garanča is a force to be reckoned with ~ the ultimate femme fatale as she fences her way into the lives of all the tormented leads, herself as solitary and broken as any.

“Je said votre pouvoir…vous ignorez le mien.” / “Your power is known to me…you do not yet know mine.”

~Eboli, Don Carlos III.i

Sonya Yoncheva’s Elisabeth is glamorous, self-possessed, and heartbroken. She sings the role with power, dignity, and restraint.

Tézier’s voice was the one that surprised me the most, as carrying with supreme beauty and power up into the opera house. His Act IV arias were devastatingly beautiful, and the lack of fulfillment of his wish to hold Carlos’ hand to the last, was a surprise. I had to stifle audible sobs at this point…

“Yes, sire, we two were brothers! Bound by nobler bands than nature ties. His whole life’s bright career was love…”

~Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos

Don Carlos, “passion’s slave”

Of course, it is needless to say that I was in tears from the first glorious sound from Jonas Kaufmann. But more than that, his baritonal tenor, his shadowy and emotionally-rich tone are perfect for this haunting version of Verdi’s opera. From the moment he sets foot on stage, he is entirely invested in the role. Of course, Don Carlos must be the emotional center in order for the rest to have its full impact; he fulfills this perfectly.

As a teenager, I was obsessed with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is no wonder, then, that Don Carlo(s) is my favorite opera, for it is certainly the Hamlet of opera. What has surprised me, after the impact of this production, is my reaction to the French-language version. One becomes so accustomed to the “sound” of the Italian, that its less-familiar predecessor sounds off-putting at the outset. I recall my struggles even to find a recording of the 5-act French version. There is the marvelous 1996 recording with Roberto Alagna and Thomas Hampson; there is the Domingo/Raimondi CD, conducted by Claudio Abbado, from the mid-’80s. And that is nearly all one can find. Now, having seen the live production, it will not leave my sleep-deprived and jet-lagged brain. It has given an entirely new dimension to the Don Carlos obsession.

With the Krzysztof Warlikowski Don Carlos, I believe we have one of the additions to the canon of all-time great opera productions–of any opera. The stars have aligned. How marvelous that it has, in a way, “recalled to life” Verdi’s poignant 1867 masterpiece.

Viva Verdi!


16 thoughts on “Seeking Peace and Oblivion: Reflections on the Paris “Don Carlos”

  1. What a magnificent review and analysis. I really learned a lot from your insights. I noted the difference in the overall feel of the opera and thought that there was more emphasis in the French on the interpersonal and less on the political dimensions of the work. But you take that a bit farther and I concur – there is a melancholy, a depression and longing for lost joys and opportunities on just about everyone’s part. It is a magnificent production and I really appreciate your sharing your thoughts. Welcome home! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much Blake!! For your wonderful comments ~ and the welcome home. 😊 Agreed with you 100% on the de-emphasis on the political drama n favor of the interior and interpersonal drama/tragedy. Such a revelation. I think you mentioned before that at certain moments it is almost like listening to a different opera…fascinating how Verdi kept tinkering with it. I think that is another way in which it resembles Hamlet…isn’t it generally thought that Hamlet shows more signs of obsessive revision than Shakespeare’s other works? I know Verdi’s multiple versions bother some folks…to me, it just adds to the fascination 😃👍

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Absolutely BRILLIANT!!!!!!!! I LOVED your wonderful review dearest mio fratello!!!! Like Blake, I also love learning from you so much and I love your Shakespearean references to Opera, specially of Hamlet to Don Carlos! ❤ It is always a huge joy and delight for me to read your wonderful and very erudite comments and I love to learn from you dearest mio fratello! (Y) Don Carlos is also very special for me and with this new amazing experience I felt watching something new and special and I started to love it! ❤ I loved this version because of the psychological moments for all characters and I also loved your excellent references of the silent films and Goya’s painting of “Saturn Devouring His Son”! This Don Carlos is definitely to remember in the future decades!!! Reading your excellent blog is always a huge pleasure dearest mio fratello and I am so happy that you shared your review, your excellent thoughts and analysis! (Y) Your review for Don Carlos and also from Otello are the best reviews that I have ever read in this wonderful year of 2017!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so, so much dear mio fratello Gaby!!! I really appreciate it. I feel like I could ponder and write about it forever! Thanks with all my heart for reading, and I’m so happy you enjoyed it and that maybe it added to the conversation! ❤ Vivremo insiem! (Slipping into the Italian! 😉 )

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My goodness you have thought long and hard about this production and opera. I have to say I am surprised you calling it your favourite opera, as I can think of so many others I prefer. Of Verdis operas it is a favourite, but then for me Wagner outstrips him in the genius league, and has far more memorable melodies than does dear Joe Greens! But in spite of having read your wonderfully detailed review of the production I have to say that my heart still wins over any intellectual arguments for what I found for the most part incompréhensible mise en scène. Not even that cast would drag me back to see it again. The same goes for the Bastille Lohengrin, shared with La Scala Milan, another production where the director seems not to have read the libretto. I’d happily go back to see the Berlin production, but no way another at the Bastille. With Don Carlo my emotions were engaged only by the music and the superb singing performances. But no production should have any audience member asking themselves quite so many questions about what is going on on stage. It should pull you in and carry you effortlessly along. This just didn’t for me.
    But a five star effort for your work Rachel!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Paul, I really, really appreciate your comments, especially as I know this production isn’t your cup of tea. I honestly didn’t think it would be mine either, except for the music itself, and the cast. I really can’t explain why I can’t get it out of my head ~ it is like a ghost that keeps haunting me. Anyway, often that seems to be my way with my favorite things…it is partly the immediate impression, but even more when it stealthily grows on you and won’t let go. At least, that was my experience 🙂


  4. Bravo mio Rodrigo, I feel like getting up and giving you as big a standing ovation as your counterpart received at Bastille last week! This is not just because I concur with everything you have written, but also because of the thoughtfulness and intelligence that informs your analysis.
    I’m not sure I can remember a production that has got into my head so much, and I can’t stop thinking about it (and watching it!). Reading your account has helped to settle some of the thoughts I have had about it.
    You are so right in how the French version seems to lend itself to a more intimate, character led interpretation.
    This production was everything that I thought Keith Warner’s recent ROH Otello wasn’t. The way that production tried to show the alienation of its protagonist I felt failed, whereas Warlikowski got it so right here. The visual metaphors and symbolism were dealt lightly, and if that occasionally caused the audience to question things, so be it. I didn’t understand some of the reactions to the white horse; like you, I felt it just fitted into the mindset of the production, it wasn’t as if it was giant penguin for heaven’s sake, neither was it the obvious symbolism of the Lion of St Mark that Warner’s Otello beat us over the head with.
    The cage/box metaphor which you mention has been used many times, but none so well as here. I was reminded of the paintings of Francis Bacon, whose work was all about alienation. I particularly liked how a minor character was often placed outside of the main set, which not only enhanced the sense of estrangement/separation, but also of the cinematic – we the audience were voyeurs, having an intimate view of these lives as they unravelled before us.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love this comment so much, Carlo mio! Thank you so much for taking the time with this thoughtful response…

      I love this: “we the audience were voyeurs, having an intimate view of these lives as they unravelled before us”! Exactly. Sometimes so intimate as to be almost stifling…in an intentional way. It is as though we’re also bounded in a nutshell…

      And the end reminds me so much more of the ending of Hamlet than other productions of Carlo(s)…tragedy everywhere.

      I do see what you’re saying about the Otello, moreso now, seeing the contrast in terms of something truly Shakepsperean. I did like the Otello production quite a bit, but it had nothing like the impact on me that Carlos has had…the really haunting poignancy and tragedy. And of course, the cast across the board in this one was unbeatable.

      Can we just relive that amazing week, as tired as we were after?? 😃


  5. Thank you ! I completely agree with you ! It produced a similar effect on me, and you wonderfully expressed some elements of analysis I had in my mind. It kind of haunts me too. For me it was, in its entirety, a powerful production I will never forget.
    I’m glad to have read a review so close to my own feelings and understanding, after having come across so much negative reviews that destroy the staging, including in the two renowned musical periodicals my father buys each month, and by Alain Duault, the director of ‘Viva l’Opera !’ who made possible the transmission in our UGC cinemas. I photocopy the few good positive reviews I find, and yours was particularly fine. 🙂 P.S.: Sorry if I don’t express myself perfectly in English, I’m a Belgian XD

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dear Rachel,
    I found your blog while searching for photos of the Bastille’s “Don Carlos”, for the review I was writing about it. I couldn’t stop reading your deep and very well written review of the show. I was in the Bastille for the performance of October 13th and I must say I had a broken heart throughout it. Unlike you, I think the political dimension plays as strong a part as the interior drama in this mise-en-scène. I think Warlikowski excellently depicts the poetics of the melodrama, where the individual embodies the misfortunes of the collectivity. We’re facing hard times worldwide and there is no better way to depict the longing for human rights (for freedom, mostly) than the way it’s done here, in a dark, hopeless way. And how Kaufmann’s voice embodies the abyss of the world and the soul!
    Moreover, I have to say I loved your history regarding the discovery of the opera world and how you got to Paris and approached Jonas Kaufmann. I am a Brazilian girl who was passing by Paris coming from a silent cinema “giornate” in Italy that week. I could get the ticket at the last minute (how I cheered!…). I had already had the chance of listening (and briefly talking) to Jonas in São Paulo last year, I loved the program he chose to present us (mainly the Petrarch’s sonnets) but I wasn’t prepared to the thrill that was seeing him playing this role (not to tell of all the wonderful cast that was involved in it). Well, it’s great to meet you and share dreams. As Shakespeare brilliantly puts, we are made of the same substance as dreams. I, unfortunately, wrote the review in Portuguese, but just the same I invite you to take I look at it: It would be fun if we could keep chatting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Danielle, what a pleasure to read your beautiful and thoughtful comment! I agree completelt that there is something truly reflective of the times in this production. The hopelessness, the search for peace. Like some of the best artists, the director and singers don’t hit us over the head with any answers, but they provoke the questions…

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting…I appreciate it greatly. And thanks for sharing the Jonas experiences! Yes, I would love to keep in contact and continue to share about our discoveries!!!


  7. Dear Rachel, I’m so glad you liked the idea of us keep talking (I’ll invite you to Facebook, may I?).
    I agree with you, the greatest works of art reflect upon the complexity of the tensions of their Eras, instead of giving closed answers to them (as there aren’t closed answers to anything). This helps them to keep alive. That’s what I think will happen with this mise-en-scène of “Don Carlos”, although it was treated so harshly by the public and the critics (half of the room bowed it on the 13th, as on the 10th, accordingly to a Brazilian friend of mine that was on the Bastillle for the opening night). In fact, I saw it with the French friend who received me in Paris during that week (and that loved it as much as I did), and she gave me some important insights on the actual status of that society that made the boo clearer to me. French are discovering themselves very individualists people in the last years. The horrible days of Flandres are over. They’re now uncomfortable to have a glimpse at the face of totalitarianism, as they have huge contingents of immigrants they have to deal with (and share their breads with) every day.
    By the way, it’s really wonderful that an operatic mise-en-scène leads us to this kind of conversation. Maybe critics and opera fans were searching for the escapism frequently associated with the Grand Opera, so they were unable to cope with the deepness and darkness of this “Don Carlos”. I have an ambiguous relationship with opera (although I love it from the bottom of my heart, the misogynism and Christian moral of so many of the plots make me sick…), so the beauty of this one hit me deeply. For me, it was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw in my life. At the end of it, I was too exhilarated to go home. I said goodbye to my very serious friend (:D) and like you I head towards the stage door exit to interact with the cast (I even made a video of the Babel that was going on there…). I didn’t want that glorious night to finish…
    So, talk to you soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You’re so lucky to have seen this live! I have only seen the broadcast, but what an all-around fantastic cast!
    Tézier has been a favourite of mine ever since I saw him in that intense Munich Forza (also with Jonas), and he’s such a wonderful Rodrigo. It’s really too cruel of the director to not allow Carlos to hold him as he’s dying! The poor man needed a hug. And the following lament should be restored to every – even Italian – version, it’s so hauntingly beautiful.
    (My dream, however, would be a Trovatore with him, Jonas, Harteros and Semenchuk. Maybe it will happen one day.)

    Liked by 1 person

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