Verdi was obliged to cut music from Don Carlos so the Paris première finished before midnight, allowing the public time to catch the last trains home. Why didn't he simply request an earlier start time? Beginning at 18:30 and including lengthy set changes, although just a single interval, Christophe Honoré's new staging for Opéra de Lyon was done and dusted by 23:24. Honoré and conductor Daniele Rustioni present the original French version (as was never performed in 1867) although not quite complete, in a production which hit the spot far more than Krzysztof Warlikowski’s frosty Paris staging last autumn.

Sergey Romanovsky (Don Carlos) © Jean-Louis Fernandez
Sergey Romanovsky (Don Carlos)
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

Honoré succeeds in catching the darkness and grandeur of Verdi's Schiller setting without turning it into period prissiness. Alban Ho Van's austere black sets and Dominique Bruguière's chiaroscuro lighting conjure up a murky atmosphere, with multiple curtains giving scenes fluidity. Cream drapes and vases of flowers create the monastery garden, while the auto-da-fé was observed from a three-tiered platform, plebs on the ground floor, royalty in the middle, monks on high. Four heretics were raised, a flaming rack lowered to barbecue them. The final scene, in the cloisters of Saint-Just, is presided over by giant paintings of the Virgin Mary and the Crucifixion, echoing the idea of Carlos as sacrificed son, Elisabeth as grieving mother. Light boxes are employed, including one set in the costume of a young monk who seems to be the ghost of Carlos V, collapsing in Carlos' arms at the end and carried back into his subterranean tomb.

The <i>auto-da-fé</i> © Jean-Louis Fernandez
The auto-da-fé
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

The French film director, whose Aix Festival Così fan tutte really tore into the work's cynical heart, offers some thoughtful Personenregie. Don Carlos appears in the middle of the Philippe-Posa confrontation, thus planting the seeds of doubt as to his friend's manipulative intentions earlier than usual. And Eboli is trapped in a wheelchair, a twist on the real Eboli's handicap (Ana de Mendoza wore an eye-patch). I had slight misgivings that too many private moments in the opera were overseen by mute courtiers, but much of the drama was sympathetically handled.

Honoré's one serious misfire was the ballet. La Peregrina – or the Ballet de la reine – is about the celebrated pearl owned by Philip II (and later purchased by Richard Burton for a small fortune as a present to Elizabeth Taylor). This was the first time I'd seen the ballet included so it was all the more disappointing that it was so ineptly choreographed, with choral line-dancing and lots of thrashing about by four slaves in a torrential downpour. It was a mercy that some of Verdi's music here was cut. Elsewhere, it was great to hear Verdi's first thoughts although I'm mindful that his revisions were usually for the better.

<i>La Peregrina</i> ballet © Jean-Louis Fernandez
La Peregrina ballet
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

All the main cast assembled in Lyon were singing their roles for the first time. From his opening poetic recitative, it was evident we were in for something special from Sergey Romanovsky's Carlos. His plangent tenor, light and lyrical, was perfectly weighted. Sally Matthews' Elisabeth wasn't as successful, with mangled French and a plummy lower register that rattled a bit too much, often forced to take breaths mid-phrase. But her silvery colours up top were finely spun and she blended well in duet with Romanovsky. Rodrigue, Marquis de Posa, is Stéphane Degout's first Verdi role and his was a classy performance in excellent French, his mellifluous baritone having just enough heft for a house of this size. The Friendship Duet was beautifully understated, already tinged with regret, and his aria “C'est mon jour suprême” was a masterclass in legato singing.

Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Eboli) and Sally Matthews (Elisabeth) © Jean-Louis Fernandez
Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Eboli) and Sally Matthews (Elisabeth)
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

Ève-Maud Hubeaux (Thibault in Paris) sang a terrific Eboli, adroitly getting to her bitter heart. She made something very sensual out of the Veil Song, agile enough for the Moorish arabesques, turning them into sighs of frustration that she cannot get up and walk. There were comic touches too – offering her hand for Posa to kiss, only to be snubbed – and I liked the way she muscled into the royal box at the auto-da-fé even though she has nothing to sing! With plush caramel colours deployed for “Ô don fatal”, this was a most auspicious debut. Michele Pertusi's ashen bass was suitable for Philippe, reminding me a lot of José van Dam, singing an introspective, careworn “Elle ne m'aime pas”. Roberto Scandiuzzi – a considerable Philip in his time – took on the role of the bullying Grand Inquisitor, his blasting bass taking a vice-like vocal grip over Pertusi's king.

Rustioni had full measure of Verdi's epic score, balancing energy and drive with a sense of majesty and dignity, drawing tireless playing from his orchestra. This was easily the most satisfying presentation of the French version I've witnessed. Restage the ballet and it's well-nigh perfect.

****1