Tuesday 27 March 2018

En Francais: Verdi's original Don Carlos in Lyon

Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera de Lyon, Michele Pertusi, Sally Matthews, Stephane Degout  (Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
Auto da fe scene - Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera de Lyon,
Michele Pertusi, Sally Matthews, Stephane Degout  (Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
Verdi Don Carlos (Paris 1867); Sergey Romanovsky, Stephane Degout, Michele Pertusi, Sally Matthews, Eve-Maud Hubeaux
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 24 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Verdi's original French grand opera version, in a brilliantly theatrical production

It is heartening that French opera companies are re-discovering not just the French version of Verdi's Don Carlos but the original Parisian version of 1866/67 before Verdi's revisions of the 1880s. The Paris Opera gave a new production of the 1866/67 Don Carlos, and now Lyon Opera has created its own new production directed by Christopher Honore and conducted by Daniele Rustioni. We caught the fourth performance, on 24 March 2018, with Michele Pertusi as Philippe II, Sergey Romanovsky as Don Carlos, Stephane Degout as Rodrigue, Roberto Scandiuzzi as le Grand Inquisiteur, Patrick Bolleire as un moine, Sally Matthews as Elisabeth, Eve-Maud Hubeaux as la Princesse Eboli and Jeanne Mendoche as Thibault. Designs were by Alban Ho Van, costumes by Pascaline Chavanne, lighting by Dominique Bruguiere, choreography by Ashley Wright.

This was billed as the 1867 version (though there had been press reports, thankfully untrue, that the 1884 Modena version in French was to be used). The 1867 version is that actually premiered, but Verdi had had to make significant cuts just before the premiere to ensure the opera finished by midnight. In the event, we seem to have got most of the cuts opened up, we started with the introduction and opening chorus, the duet for Philippe and Rodrigue in Act II was extended, as was Elisabeth and Eboli's duet in Act IV, and most importantly the section of the final scene of Act IV (which Verdi re-used as the 'Lacrimosa' in the Requiem was present). Almost as important (Verdi regarded it as so), the ballet was performed (the first time I have heard the music live in context).

Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera de Lyon, Sally Matthews, Sergey Romanovsky, Jeanne Mendoce (Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
Act 1 - Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera de Lyon,
Sally Matthews, Sergey Romanovsky, Jeanne Mendoce (Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
A quick glance a the cast list reveals that this was very much an international cast, though both Eboli and Rodrigue were Franco-phone, in fact, the level of sung French was very high. All the principals sang recognisable French (something which has not always happened on international recordings of French versions of the opera) so that this was very much a joy to listen to. The cast were all relatively light-voiced, quite sensibly when considering the original Paris version rather than the 1884 revised version which had Francesco Tamagno, who went on to create Otello, in the title role.

Christophe Honore's production was deliberately theatrical and non-historical.
He and designer Alban Ho Van created a series of large-scale, highly dramatic settings with towering plain walls. huge curtains, an oversized painting of the crucifixion for the monastery and a general feeling of great theatricality. Pascaline Chavanne's costumes were varied, there were several themes running through. The outdoor clothing for Fontainebleau seemed to channel Game of Thrones, but there was also visible influences from Goya and from Paula Rego amongst others and rather than mixing historical periods seemed to be creating its own.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera de Lyon, Sally Matthews, Michele Pertusi (Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
Act II: Monastery of San Juste - Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera de Lyon,
Sally Matthews, Michele Pertusi (Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
The sense of a theatrical event was heightened by the use of a stage in Act One, so that Elisabeth and her retinue were at a higher level, performing to the natives, and then in the monastery scene, there was a large scale curtain hinting again at theatrical performance. In the gardens of the convent, Elisabeth's women were a heatedly sexual lot, with intimate relations suggested. Not everything worked, however; in this scene, Eboli (Eve-Maud Hubeaux) was crippled and in a wheelchair, which seemed an unnecessary gloss, and having her masturbate during the 'Veil song' was positively jejeune.

The ballet was done on the context of a very licentious party (Philippe and Elisabeth's court did not seem to mirror their own very correct behaviour), and the ballet had no plot, there was no hint of Verdi, Mery and Du Locle's La Pellegrina. A problematic central section had four apparent prisoners, lurching and struggling in a way which not only did not say much dramatically but seemed rather patronising.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera de Lyon, Sergey Romanovsky, Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
Act III, Don Carlos mistaking Eboli for the Queen - Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera de Lyon,
Sergey Romanovsky, Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
The problem with the 1866/67 version of Don Carlos is that it is a Parisian grand opera, the genre created by Auber and developed by Meyerbeer, the rather particular nature of the genre with its juxtaposition of grand theatrical ceremonial with intimate personal struggle is something of a challenge to modern directors. By and large, Christophe Honore did an interesting job, and it is a tribute to him and the cast that the performance flew by despite being in two halves of around two hours or so each. One very big failing of the production was that each scene change required the curtain down and a significant pause this had a terrible effect on the flow of the drama. Having seen the wonders that Leslie Travers achieved in Grange Park Opera's production of Don Carlo [see my review], it seemed perverse of Christophe Honore and Alban Ho Van to insist on a production style which inhibited the flow of the drama.

Sergey Romanovsky made a distinguished and rather sexy Don Carlos, with lithe tenor to match which had just the right amount of edge to it. He was clearly on the lighter side, a couple of moments saw the orchestra dominating him, but he never over pushed and had plenty of heft for the final duet with Elisabeth (Sally Matthews). Don Carlos is not the most engaging character, but Romanovsky made him believable and you rooted for him. You experience Don Carlos via his interactions with the other characters, and Romanovsky drew an intelligent thread through these powerful duets. It is a performance I would love to hear again.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera de Lyon, chorus and dancers (Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
Act III ballet - Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera de Lyon, chorus and dancers
(Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
From the very outset, before they knew who they each were, Romanovsky's Don Carlos and Sally Matthew's Elisabeth were clearly attracted. Matthews was warmly passionate as Elisabeth, with a voice to match. She had her icy controlled moments, and Matthews had a nice line in showing Elisabeth at her most held in, but she would often then explode with passion. Matthews' voice has developed since I  heard her last and whilst not strictly spinto she has developed the lower range and heft needed for the role, and her final aria was impressive indeed, though just occasionally such as the lovely Act II aria to her dismissed lady of honour, I rather wanted a finer sense of line.

Stephane Degout made a finely noble Rodrigue, and his account of his aria in the final scene of Act IV was worth the entrance money alone. Degout brought Rodrigue's uprightness and nobility out and every moment of Rodrigue's music and I have rarely heard it sung so finely. The relationship between Rodrigue and Don Carlos is an interesting one, a rare example of Verdi creating homoerotic tension between two men, and here things really did crackle and their friendship duet in Act Two was both stirring and finely sung. Not that anything happened, until their poignant final moments, but the way Degout conveyed Rodrigue's combination of stiff nobility and inner passion was thrilling.

Michele Pertusi's Philippe was rather softer-edged than some, but the Pertusi is not the first to find that the French version of Philippe somewhat different to the Italian. Not that he was shy of being the martinet, and we had some good explosions in Acts II and IV but this was a finely nuanced performance, highlighted by the great solo which opens Act IV, here beautifully sung and wonderfully realised musically (though I am not sure about having Philippe being massaged by one of the monks!). We see more of Philippe here; Pertusi and Degout made the most of the extra material in Act II and the closing to Act IV was simply thrilling.

Eva-Maud Hubeaux was simply one of the finest Eboli's I have ever heard. Her voice has the vibrancy and the flexibility for this most tricky role, and she even brought off the rather ridiculous idea of her being confined to a wheelchair and in fact, made it work dramatically (even the scene where she is 'disguised' as the Queen!). The 'Veil Song' was finely sung, with a lovely flexible top and nice fluidity to the voice, so it was a shame it was marred by the masturbation. Elsewhere, this Eboli was a schemer, the Act Three trio with Degout and Romanovsky was a wonderfully dramatic way to bring the curtain down for the interval, and her final duet with Sally Matthew's Elisabeth really twisted the knife.

Roberto Scandiuzzi made a strong Grand Inquisiteur so that his scene with Pertusi was as thrilling as it should be, with two equals battling it out. Jeanne Mendoche made a charming Thibault, though you would never have mistaken her for a boy, whilst Patrick Bolleire provided the thrilling voice of the monk. The remaining roles were strongly cast with Caroline Jestaedt as the voice at the end of the Auto da fe scene, Yannick Bern as the Comte de Lerme and Didier Roussel as the Herald.

Overall the chorus was in good voice, and there is plenty for them to do in this version. In the opening of Act II there was clearly a problem, as the chorus of monks seemed out of ensemble with the pit. But for the rest, we were treated to some vibrant and engaging singing.

A quite large orchestra in the pit featured, triple woodwind (with four bassoons), four horns, two cornets and two trumpets, three trombones and a cimbasso. This a richly complex score and under Daniele Rustioni's guidance, the orchestra paid dividends. Rustioni shaped the work with skill, letting it unfold gradually whilst never seeming to drag, a superbly judged account.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera de Lyon, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Sally Matthews (Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
Act III Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera de Lyon, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Sally Matthews (Photo Jean Louis Fernandez)
Lyon opera house is a strange place to visit. Jean Nouvel's 1985 opera house, all dramatic black surfaces with red highlights,  was constructed within the shell of the existing 1831 theatre. Nouvel's increase in space and modernisation does not seem to have encompassed basic facilities like toilets and inadequate provision means plenty of queuing for either sex, not ideal for such a long opera.

Christophe Honore's production had its oddities and strangenesses, but it had the supreme advantage of taking this grand opera version of Don Carlos seriously and making it work dramatically. Honore drew strong performances from all his cast, and it was this vibrantly engaging sense from all the performers which was the production's triumph. The advantage of this version of the opera is that we get far more of the story, and all concerned really brought out the richness of the characterisation. This was a long evening, but it certainly paid rich dividends.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Real discoveries: the songs of Nikolai Medtner (★★★★) - CD review
  • The Gluepot Connection - 20th century British composers linked by their watering-hole - CD review
  • A sense of intelligent conversation: John Jenkins complete four-part consort music (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Taking wing: Royal Academy Opera's Flight launches the new theatre - opera review
  • The lure of the East: Soraya Mafi's debut recital at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★)  - concert review
  • Rakastava: the music of Sibelius from Chamber Domaine  (★★★½) - CD review
  • Tradition and innovation: I chat to Hugo Ticciati, violinist and artistic director of O/Modernt - interview
  • Daniel Kramer's new production of Verdi's La traviata at ENO (★★★)  - Opera review
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  • Consume thoughtfully: Niccolò Porpora's cantatas for the Prince of Wales (★★★½)  - CD review
  • .... Into the deepest sea: from Brahms to Bridge in this recital from Sarah soprano Wegener (★★★½) - CD review
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