Stéphane Lissner, director of the Opéra de Paris, had one of his greatest successes as general manager at the Théâtre du Châtelet with Luc Bondy’s staging of the original French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos (a production shared with La Monnaie and Covent Garden). In that version, Karita Mattila’s Elisabeth de Valois arrived in Fontainebleau’s forest riding a beautiful white horse. In Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new Paris staging, Sonya Yoncheva's Elisabeth has to make do with a fibreglass version instead, which she poses beside in full bridal gear. It’s a cold, glassy scene which sums up the Polish director’s staging at the Bastille.

Jonas Kaufmann (Don Carlos) and Elīna Garanča (Eboli)
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra de Paris

Malgorzata Szczesniak’s wood-panelled set holds red latticework suggesting the monastery, eventually trundling on as a gymnasium where a chain-smoking Eboli is a fencing captain. Philippe’s study feels like a dentist’s waiting room, while Carlos is imprisoned in a wire cage, meaning he’s unable to make physical contact with his dying pal, Posa. Instead of his tomb, a bust of Charles V perches on a desk. It’s all very film noir chic, cold and detached. Grainy celluloid video of flickering ash plays intermittently above the set, also showing a close-up of Jonas Kaufmann’s Carlos holding a gun to his temple. Philippe is haunted by a Daliesque film of an old man with writhing legs dangling from his mouth.

Sonya Yoncheva (Elisabeth) and Ildar Andrazakov (Philippe)
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra de Paris

One of Warlikowski’s better ideas is depicting Carlos with his wrists initially bandaged, clearly the result of a suicide attempt and an indication of the historical prince’s mental instability. At the start of Act 4, Eboli has spent the night with Philippe (an unoriginal detail though – Peter Konwitschny did the same in Vienna). Warlikowski handles the aftermath of Posa’s death nobly… until the baritone has to rise from his deathbed to depart the stage.

There are many such missteps. In the Garden scene, Eboli has just discovered – by accident – that Carlos is in love with his stepmother, Elisabeth de Valois. This is a secret so devastating that Posa is prepared to kill to silence her. What does Eboli do? Lights a cigarette and lounges across a chair. Warlikowski relegates the chorus behind a scrim for the opening of the auto-da-fé so he can show Philippe already in meltdown. When it arrives, the bonfire of the heretics is a damp squib, a single victim thrown to his knees before a few feeble flames are projected. The dramatic temperature remains set at “frosty” all evening.  

Jonas Kaufmann (Don Carlos) and Ludovic Tézier (Posa)
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra de Paris

Philippe Jordan’s conducting was ponderous and Teutonic, as if tackling Parsifal. However, credit to him for choosing the 1866 version of the score, before Verdi made any cuts (necessary before the 1867 première) but before he had composed the obligatory ballet. It’s quite usual to see the five act version now (even in Italian) so audiences are familiar with the crucial Fontainebleau act where Carlos meets – and falls in love with – his bride-to-be Elisabeth de Valois only to discover that, for political reasons, his father Philippe II is to be married to her instead. Other advantages include the restoration of the Act 3 scene where a tired Elisabeth swaps masks with Eboli so she can retire early, leading to the garden confusion when Carlos thinks he’s declaring his love for Elisabeth but his secret is revealed to Eboli instead. The other key addition is the scene between Carlos and Philippe following Posa’s death, music that Verdi knew was too good to jettison and which he later employed in the Lacrimosa of his Requiem. Other scenes though – such as the titanic encounter between Philippe and Posa – reveal just how much Verdi improved the score years later for his Italian version.

Elīna Garanča (Eboli)
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra de Paris

Lissner assembled the sort of gold-plated cast Covent Garden could only dream of. Ludovic Tézier is the Verdi baritone de nos jours and he made for a superb Posa, his silky smooth legato lavished on a memorable death scene. Elīna Garanča tore the house down as a glamorous Eboli, negotiating all the Moorish arabesques of the Veil Song, as you’d expect from someone coming from her bel canto background. What surprised was just how big her mezzo has grown, delivering a showstopping “O don fatal”.

Sonya Yoncheva’s open-hearted soprano blended tenderness and fragility as Elisabeth, phrasing her big aria “Toi qui sus le néant” sensitively. Jonas Kaufmann was in fine voice, limiting his trademark covered tone, although his acting  was limited in range (Carlos is – despite being the title character – the least interesting of the five principals). Ildar Abdrazakov plumbed Philippe’s tortured depths although his flinty bass isn’t quite dark enough, but he rose to the challenge of the king’s great soliloquy “Elle ne m’aime pas” eloquently. Dmitry Belosselskiy’s Grand Inqusitor was a sturdy-voiced, sharp-suited Bond villain.

This was a splendid vocal performance. What a pity the singers were trapped in Warlikowski’s frigid production.