The wisdom of mounting a mammoth production of Don Carlos –  a full 5 hour marathon with a massive, maskless cast – in the middle of growing pandemic-related contagion concerns in Vienna seems questionable. But while the risks may be high the artistic payoff is enormous, largely due to the authority of Peter Konwitschny’s directorial voice and a world-class cast.

Malin Byström (Elisabeth de Valois) and Jonas Kaufmann (Don Carlos)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

This version of Verdi’s epic grand opera includes nearly all the often-cut music which Verdi envisioned for the 1867 Paris premiere, including the opening act in the Forest of Fontainebleau where Elisabeth meets and comforts the suffering peasants, and duets between Eboli and Elisabeth in Act 4, and Carlos and Philippe after Posa’s death. These scenes offer added depth to the characters – the females in particular – and contextualize their behavior considerably.

Johannes Leiacker's costumes are lush and almost exclusively black and white, against a backdrop which, ironically, quarantines most of the action within three white walls. This ostensibly depicts the restrictive, colorless nature of the court and other seats of traditional power. Konwitschny elicits a borderline slapstick approach at times; performative, sometimes exaggerated physical movements amplify the emotional drama in the work, and simultaneously subtweet it as well, in proper Regietheater style. The monk who opens the action in Act 2 (longtime house favorite, Dan Paul Dumitrescu), for example, makes no secret of being Emperor Charles V’s ghost, even whipping a crown out of his robe and donning it briefly while winking at the audience.

Ève-Maud Hubeaux, Jonas Kaufmann and Michele Pertusi in “Eboli's Dream”
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

The slapstick peaks with “Eboli’s dream”, a ballet which, in another nod to the opera’s premiere, opens Act 3. Here, Eboli, Carlos, Philippe and Elisabeth pantomime a sitcom-style dinner party in a wallpapered living room in ‘50s/’60s decor. A pregnant Eboli waltzes with a dressed turkey, burns it and Posa’s Pizza rescues dinner. Everybody drinks too much, a crib is constructed and pointless merriment and insignificant drama ensues; the princess’ vision of ultimate power is reduced to a middle-class living room, replete with its minutia. The scene – perhaps one of the most scandalous of the production –  was brilliantly acted. It received both boos and raucously enthusiastic applause from the traditionally conservative Staatsoper audience.

Roberto Scandiuzzi (Le Grand Inquisiteur) and Michele Pertusi (Philippe)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Reflections on power and its varied, self-perpetuating corruptive structures becomes more explicit in Act 3. The auto-da-fé opens with a news report by Spanish state TV, then live video is projected of men (ostensibly religious dissidents) being beaten and dragged across the Staatsoper foyer, juxtaposed with video of both gala-clad religious personnel and the royal entourage, who are serenaded by a sycophantic choir wearing modern black tie. The Voice of Heaven (Johanna Wallroth), normally sung from offstage, is personified as a glitzy diva, bowing repeatedly onstage while images of mass-executions are projected overhead. 

Igor Golovatenko (Rodrigue, Marquis de Posa)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Love or hate the production (for the record, I adore it), it is hard to argue with the cast. This is a stacked ensemble and the evening was massively sung and wonderfully embodied. Headliner Jonas Kaufmann was a convincingly disheveled, indecisive Carlos in his first Verdi outing at the Staatsoper, but even he was all but overshadowed by a powerhouse cast, a veritable opera’s who’s who, many making debuts in their particular roles. Malin Byström was an absolute revelation, a velvety voiced Elisabeth de Valois who managed to both burn with passion and remain convincingly pious, and anybody would be lucky to hold the door for Eve-Maud Hubeaux’s mesmerizing Eboli. Igor Golovatenko’s Posa brought the house down at curtain call; he was as vocally warm, pure and focused as the character itself. Michele Pertusi’s Philip II broke hearts with his plaintive “Elle ne m'aime pas”, then turned them to iron again in his jealous quest for power – power held, in fact, by the Grand Inquisitor (Roberto Scandiuzzi), at least until the final moments, when Konwitschny throws in one more twist... an interesting solution to what is a problematic ending. Appropriately, Bertrand de Billy, who was at the helm of the premiere in 2004, led the Staatsoper orchestra with conviction and finesse. 

Hats off to a massive artistic undertaking, and a must see for opera loving audiences, whether in person or online!

This performance was reviewed from Wiener Staatsoper's video stream