Opera Film Review: Don Carlos

scene from Paris Opera Ballet Don Carlos

A magnificent performance of Verdi’s masterpiece from the Paris Opera Ballet season.

This film presentation by Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos was captured live on 19 October 2017 from Opéra Bastille, Paris.  In five acts, the screening runs close to five hours, which includes two short 10 minute intervals and interviews with some of the production’s creatives. It was sung (superbly) in French with English subtitles.

Five hours is a long time to sit through any film, and grand opera is no exception, so make sure you have a good breakfast before taking on this screening.  (The short intervals don’t really allow sufficient time to feed and water yourself in any substantial way, except for quality wine and cheese purchased from the bar, but that may be enough?!)  However, this production of Don Carlos is so good that any hunger pangs won’t distract you (well maybe just a little bit!) from the magnificence of what is on the silver screen.

Verdi wrote a number of versions of this opera and the five act version in French is perhaps the best and the most compelling.  The four act version in Italian is named Don Carlo, whereas the five act version in French is Don Carlos.  There is only one letter different in their names, but the two operas are vastly different in so many ways.

The story line, which is based on historical events, is quite straightforward but there are twists and turns and of course there are embellishments. Carlos, Prince of Asturias and son of Philippe II of Spain was betrothed to Élisabeth of Valois.  However, this soon changed when she was instead married to the widower Philip as part of the peace treaty that ended the Italian War of the 1550s.  Carlos is devastated and never loses his flame for Élisabeth.  Along the way Carlos is assisted in his endeavours by his friend Rodrigue, the Marquis of Posa, and is seduced by the beautiful Princess Eboli, an aristocratic courtier, who ultimately betrays Carlos.  It is a piece of high drama, religious turmoil, political intrigue, brooding love, and psychological torment.

Don Carlos has everything and its themes and messages are as relevant today as they are to the social context in which it was written.  For that reason it was pleasing, and oh-so-natural, for director Krzysztof Warlikowski to set the opera mid-twentieth century using an expansive but minimilastic set that came across as very film noire, especially when various black and white images were projected on a full stage scrim to add figurative meaning to what was happening on stage.  The sheer size of the set, designed by Malgorzata Szczesniak, required the cinematographers to either take either wide angle shots or close ups, with not much in between. From a film-goers perspective, flitting backwards and forwards between the two extremes bordered on becoming monotonously annoying, but the superb singing and lush score more than compensated.

The large cast of principals and much larger chorus were fabulous.  Jonas Kaufmann sang the title role and convincingly captured the conflicted prince.  Ludovic Tézier sang Rodrigue and injected an element of ambiguity into the role:  was he really ‘for’ Carlos, or against?  Sonya Yoncheva gave Élisabeth an air of resignation but was full of passion in her farewell scene with Rodrigue. Dmitry Belosselskiy was both commanding and foreboding as the Grand Inquisitor, and his duet with Philippe, sung by Ildar Abdrazakov, was a highlight of the production.  Probably the standout of the entire opera was Elīna Garanča who sang Princess Eboli with fire, seduction and guile.  The Parisian audience was ecstatic in its appreciation of her performance.

Philippe Jordan conducted the orchestra and worked as hard if not harder than any of the on stage stars.  He captured every requisite mood in a very classy performance.

Check out the website here.

Next production in the Palace Opera Ballet season is La Boheme, screening from the 2nd February.

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