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

Ghosts…

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!

 

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The “Three Little Maids” on Tour (a.k.a. The Paris “Don Carlos” Adventure, Part One)

The night before last, I returned to Oregon a sleepier, more jet-lagged, but completely blissful, girl.

The long-planned “Don Carlos Adventure” consisted of one night in London–including a visit to the Royal Opera House–followed by four nights in Paris. The Paris days/nights included four operas: Così fan tutte, The Merry Widow (with opera Hero and my first “Rodrigo,” Thomas Hampson), and two performances of the French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos, with the cast of a lifetime, on the 19th and 22nd.

The Don Carlos is the one that my dear friend (and “mio Carlo”) Viv Hannides and I had been remotely planning for over a year—ever since we heard rumors that Jonas Kaufmann would be singing his first French Carlos in Paris this season. I started saving, and by the time tickets went on sale, we were ready. My own struggles—financially and otherwise—with a major work transition this year, and needing to close my 13.5 year old business, made the projected trip an uncertainty for a long time. Even when I finally landed the job I was hoping for (in July of this year), I didn’t know whether I’d be allowed a whole week off when I’d only have been working for them for three months. Thankfully, everything got sorted out, my amazing boss approved the time off, and we all managed what had seemed a nearly impossible dream…

I will write a separate post about Don Carlos as a production. Here, I will just share a few photo highlights of the trip that speak louder than words of the joy we experienced together. The “Three Little Maids” (which had originated as a joke, as the three of us get so Gilbert-and-Sullivan goofy about our opera Heroes, and “everything is a source of fun”!) include myself (“Rodrigo”), Viv Hannides (“Carlo”), and Maura Devine, our dear friend from Ireland who joined us in London. In Paris, Maura, Viv, and I shared a beautiful fifth floor apartment on the Boulevard Beaumarchais, about a 5-7 minute walk from the Opera Bastille.

“The Operaettes”! From left: Maura, Ursula, Ilse, Rach (me), Viv.

During the trip, we met up with other amazing opera fanatics…Ursula from Ireland, Ilse from Vienna, Rosemary from Australia, Christine and Paul from France, and another dear Christine from England, dear Pam from England… What a joy.

Here is a brief photo tour of the days ~ most of the photos were taken by mio Carlo, Viv:

Day One: London.

Day 1, Oct 17th: London. Viv came to meet me at the airport at 7am, with a “Mio Rodrigo” sign waiting! (I nearly had brought one in my carry-on, saying “Looking for Mio Carlo!”) We drove around that day, listening to Jonas, and talking. Later, Maura met us ~ as did, unexpectedly, our very dear friend Andrew Pycock!!! This was entirely a surprise, and I will never forget the shock of seeing him sitting by the ballerina statue near Covent Garden. The four of us shared a meal together before the three ladies went to see Les Vêpres Siciliennes at ROH with Erwin Schrott, Michael Volle, and Bryan Hymel. An excellent production! I wept at the beauty of the sound–particularly of the chorus and orchestra, and also Erwin’s massively powerful and beautiful voice–which hit us so strongly up in the amphitheater. Everyone was fantastic. One of Viv’s friends, who had a Grand Tier box, invited Viv and I to occupy the two empty seats in his box after the interval! What a treat. 🙂 The “three little maids” spent the night in two sweet rooms above a pub, before catching the Eurostar to Paris the following morning. A note: meeting Erwin Schrott after the opera was a real honor ~ which I nearly missed, as I was so shy about it that Viv had to drag me over to meet him. After which I managed  to clumsily drop the program (which he had just signed) right at his feet.

Day Two: Paris. The Merry Widow.

Day 2, Oct 18th: To Paris. The Merry Widow (Bastille). It is a truth universally acknowledged that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But previous to being there, I think I had imagined in my own mind that the mystique of it was likely overstated…but no. It truly is an overwhelmingly beautiful city…I might easily have taken a gorgeous photo at every street corner…

Thomas Hampson, with his Parisian “Grisettes”!

That night, we saw the delightful operetta The Merry Widow at the same opera house–the Bastille–where we would see Don Carlos the following night. Thomas Hampson led the cast, and the costumes and set were an absolute delight. We managed to get into the lobby beyond the security checkpoint to be the first to welcome one of our great Opera Heroes, Thomas Hampson, when he came out the stage door. He was so incredibly kind and gracious, and was even delighted to hear that I was from his neck of the woods, and asked about my town. The other “little maids” teased me about the progress in one day, as I managed to ask Thomas for a hug at the end! He kindly gave it to me 🙂

Day Three: Paris. Don Carlos, No. 1.

Day 3, Oct 19th: Paris. Don Carlos – #1 (Bastille). I have simply been processing the nights spent seeing Don Carlos. Even after the first night, I immediately knew that it was the best night of my life. More on this anon…

Afterwards, the three leading men, Jonas, Ildar, and Ludovic, didn’t come out to the stage door exit, alas, as they went out another way to go to an after-party. (This was the night of filming Carlos, so it was a well-deserved celebration!) However, we had the honor of meeting the two leading ladies, who are even more beautiful in person, Sonya Yoncheva and Elīna Garanča!!!

Day Four: Paris. Recovery Day.

Day 4, Oct 20th: Paris. Recovery day. It is a good thing that we didn’t schedule an opera on the Friday after the emotionally-wrought Thursday night. We had been up until the wee hours of the morning, watching the recorded version of the opera that we had just seen in person–I know, we are hopeless!!–and drinking tea, and something stronger, and just talking about the whole experience and processing it. Another “healthy lunch” at a patisserie! (Viv downed the rum straight…which was intended for her cake! 😀 )

This day ended up being a walking day ~ and we walked by the Palais de Justice, the Conciergerie, the Louvre, the Seine, the Eiffel Tower…it was magic. (However, as I mentioned on facebook, none of the glorious sights were half as beautiful as my first glimpse of Jonas the night before, from the distant back stall seats!) We had drinks and “crisps” (another inside joke which Maura and Viv will well understand…) at a local restaurant. As we didn’t start walking until around 2pm that day, we didn’t catch a taxi home until about 9pm, followed by some purchases for our late dinner, and more opera listening and chatting until the wee hours of the morning…

Day Five: Paris. Cosi Day. Palais Garnier.

Day 5, Oct 21st: Paris. Così fan tutte (Palais Garnier). What an experience it was simply to be at the glorious Palais Garnier opera house. Previous to this, we’d done a self-guided tour. To then have the honor of being able to see a production here as well was pure magic. The was an abstract and modern-dress production which incorporated a lot of modern dance. Though not my ultimate Così experience in terms of production, it was beautiful nonetheless, and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Our own little “after party” consisted of drinks at “Les Associés,” a bistro across the street from Bastille’s stage door where we’d hung out previously to discuss the productions. I think the “Operaettes”–plus our new friend Howard–were there until at least 1:30 in the morning. This was followed, of course, by a “three little maids” session of more tea and talking by the time we arrived back to our apartment! The only down-side of today was that I realized later that I’d lost my opera glasses (a.k.a. “Jonas goggles”) in the taxi coming from Palais Garnier…hèlas!

Day Six: Paris. Don Carlos Day – No. 2. Farewell…

Day 6, Oct 22nd: Paris. Don Carlos #2 (Bastille). After a large brunch with 17–yes, 17!–opera and Jonas fanatics at the “Cafe des Anges” near the Bastille, we walked together to our final performance.

There are no words for the beauty of this production…yet, I will try to write about it. (More anon.)

Treasured gifts from Maura and Viv: a Paris journal, and opera glasses – a.k.a. “Jonas goggles”

Previous to the performance, however, Viv and Maura gave me a very beautiful gift: a new pair of “Jonas goggles”! After the performance, all of our makeup cried away, we dashed to the stage door, and were soon crushed in the adoring crowd. (Alas, the security guard kept kicking us out from our spot inside the barrier and made us get behind the security barrier like everyone else! 🙂 ) Nonetheless, in spite of the crush, it was such an honor to meet the three Opera Heroes who made us weep and sent us into ecstasies during the performance. Ildar even posted a video of the crush of the crowd at this performance. You can barely see the top of my head as the camera passes by, but there are clear shots of Viv, Maura, and Ilse!!

We had one final beautiful surprise before Viv and I had to dash back to grab our luggage from our friend’s hotel room before catching the last Eurostar back to London that night. My flight was to be the next morning from Gatwick, so the poignant Act IV arias of Rodrigue–where he sings that his “supreme day has come,” and that he and Carlos must say “farewell”–had Viv and I in a tidal wave of tears.

A Whimsical Werther

"Forever!" From Werther, Paris, 2010
“Forever!” From Werther, Paris, 2010

So, perhaps “whimsy” is not the first word that comes to mind when we think of Goethe’s—or Massenet’s—tragic and melancholy Werther.

But just for a little fun today–and for a final post on Werther before moving on–I had to share (for those who haven’t seen it already) a video that my friends Viv and Christine shared with me. It is one of several wonderfully impromptu, behind-the-scenes videos of our tenor (on YouTube) made by Esti Esther. This particular one is filmed right before Werther’s final, tragic scene in the 2010 Paris production.

Now, Jonas Kaufmann happens to be one of the best actors in opera, giving 110% in passion to each role. Most of us would think that, like some Daniel Day-Lewis of the “method acting” school, Jonas might be behind the scenes absorbed in meditations on poetry and death before such a big finale.

sleepless nights, and solitary confinement (Photo credit: www.theguardian.com)
sleepless nights, and solitary confinement
(Photo credit: http://www.theguardian.com)

Day-Lewis’s career is filled with stories like that of the preparation for the 1993 In the Name of the Father, when he chose to live in solitary confinement, and went several nights without sleep to prepare for an interrogation scene.

playing with the gummi bear
playing with the gummy bear

Yet, here Jonas is, just before the big tragic finale scene in Act IV…well, just have a look for yourself. No commentary is needed. And one doesn’t need to understand French:

"Charlotte, did you take my gummies?"
“Charlotte, did you take my gummies?”

I thought I’d share that last thought (for now) on this marvelous production of Werther, before moving on to Tosca. I hope you enjoy it.

I can’t help but think: if only our tragic hero took such delight in gummy bears, he might not have needed to borrow those guns from Albert.

Food for thought…

Jonas’ Werther…for free? Ah, “pourquoi me réveiller”!?

By a happy accident, I’d forgotten to cancel my free trial of Amazon Prime last year—I have about 5 days left at the moment—and so the first opera I saw with our wonder-tenor Jonas Kaufmann is viewable for free, compliments of Prime and Medici (at least here in the US), and can be found here.

Werther is Jules Massenet’s four-act opera of 1887, based on a 1774 novel by Goethe. This is the 2010 production of the Opera National de Paris, starring our tenor in the title role, Sophie Koch as Charlotte, and Ludovic Tezier as Charlotte’s fiancé Albert. A good synopsis can be found at Naxos, here.

"O Nature!
“O Nature!”

As you might imagine, our tenor is sublime as the poetic, melancholy, Nature-worshipping Werther, whose doomed love of Charlotte—affianced to Albert before love awakens between herself and the young poet—leads to tragedy.

Please don’t miss this beautiful, moving performance and production. For a taste of it, click the link above—or here—to the heart-stopping aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller?” (“Why rouse me?”) You won’t want to be awakened from the dream, either…