“Beware my Grand Inquisitor!” The Hamburg audience would do well to heed Phliip II’s warning to the Marquis de Posa in Peter Konwitschny’s production of Don Carlos. During the first interval, there was a close encounter as the creepy cardinal brushed past us in the foyer, white stick tapping, eyes shielded behind dark glasses. It sets up the audience for an immersive auto-da-fé, the sharp-suited royal party making their way through the stalls, trailed by paparazzi and a film crew. Black and white propaganda photos rain from the balcony as the action returns to the stage.

<i>Don Carlos</i> at Staatsoper Hamburg © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg (2008)
Don Carlos at Staatsoper Hamburg
© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg (2008)

It’s impossible to do Konwitschny’s staging justice in 800 words. It premiered at the Staatsoper Hamburg in 2001 and was adjusted slightly for its Wiener Staatsoper transfer three years later, where it caused a scandal. He employs the French version of the opera… every single note of it, including all the music Verdi was forced to cut before the 1867 Paris premiere. Every other production I’ve seen has cut some of the music (usually the ballet).

Most of the action is costumed in stylised 16th-century dress and plays out in a simple white box with low doors – too low, as singers have to duck to leave the stage. The exceptions are a star-flecked black backdrop for Fontainebleau, the modern dress auto-da-fé and the ballet. The latter is a stroke of genius (but for some a major irritant). Instead of depicting the story of La Pérégrina (the famous pearl Philip II presented to Mary Tudor), Konwitschny presents Eboli’s Dream, a 1970s sitcom where Eboli fantasises that she is married to Carlos and they invite the in-laws around for dinner. Eboli burns the roast, so Carlos dials out for pizza! It’s very silly, but is played with great comic timing by the four singers.

<i>Eboli's Dream</i> ballet in <i>Don Carlos</i> at Staatsoper Hamburg © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg (2008)
Eboli's Dream ballet in Don Carlos at Staatsoper Hamburg
© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg (2008)

There’s humour elsewhere too: Carlos gives a little fist pump when he realises the beauty he’s been chatting up in Fontainebleau is his bride-to-be; we know the gardener-monk at Saint-Just is really former Emperor Charles V because he slips on his crown to show us as he plants a sapling; a mandolin is passed up from the pit for the Veil Song; and when Eboli knocks off Posa’s horn-rimmed spectacles in the Garden Scene, he myopically grasps thin air to search for her.

But it’s in the small details that Konwitschny scores. In his Act 2 duet with his stepmother, Elisabeth de Valois, we see Carlos’ eyes blank out as he “fits” (the real Don Carlos was an unstable young man, prone to seizures). At the end of the auto-da-fé, Konwitschny replaces the off-stage Voice of Heaven with a Marilyn Monroe figure crooning centre-stage, deflecting attention from the war crime photos displayed behind her. In Philip’s aria “Elle ne m'aime pas”, the king is not alone in his study; Eboli has spent the night with him and is sprawled across the scatter cushions. Even better, she is present throughout Philip’s chilling stand-off with the (blind) Grand Inquisitor, so is party to more information than usual, lending her mission to save Carlos added urgency. During “Ô don fatal”, she slashes her right eye to disfigure her beauty (the real Princess of Eboli, Ana de Mendoza, wore an eye-patch).

The auto-da-fé in <i>Don Carlos</i> at Staatsoper Hamburg © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg (2008)
The auto-da-fé in Don Carlos at Staatsoper Hamburg
© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg (2008)

All of this would count for little were the performances not up to scratch. Pier Giorgio Morandi conducted a splendid account that embraced the full majesty of Verdi’s score, the brass especially fine. The six principals were split between “big names” and house regulars. Pavel Černoch (Carlos) and Gábor Bretz (Philippe) have both guested in this staging before (2015) and were both excellent. Indeed, I’ve not heard as fine a Carlos since Roberto Alagna at Covent Garden in the 90s. Černoch has just the right weight of voice and a free ringing top and his acting was completely convincing. Bretz looks far too young for Philippe, but his noble bass – “Elle ne m'aime pas” was beautifully sculpted – can turn to a vicious snarl when required.

<i>Don Carlos</i> at Staatsoper Hamburg © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg (2008)
Don Carlos at Staatsoper Hamburg
© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg (2008)

Elena Zhidkova sang a terrific Eboli. Her coloratura was a bit laboured in the Veil Song (a familiar hazard in this role) but “Ô don fatal” sizzled, a splash of vinegar in her vibrant mezzo. Alexey Bogdanchikov impressed as a bookish Posa, particularly his top in a thrilling rendition of the friendship duet, “Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes”, and the seamless legato in his aria, “C'est mon jour suprême”. Luigi De Donato’s parched bass couldn’t quite summon all the chills as the Grand Inquisitor, but Alin Anca’s warm bass made for a sympathetic Monk/Charles V.

The surprise package was a truly great “Toi qui sus le néant” from Lianna Haroutounian as Elisabeth, superbly controlled, with majestic phrasing. What better way to cap a great night at a great production of a great opera.

*****