The latest opera production of the National Theatre in Brno is Don Carlos by the composer Giuseppe Verdi and the poet Friedrich Schiller. This work, directed by the director of this institution, Martin Glaser, had its premiere on Saturday 2 February 2019 in the Janáček Theatre. The stage set was designed by Pavel Borák and the costumes by Markéta Sládečková-Oslzlá. Lighting was the responsibility of Martin Špetlík. The performance was conducted by Jaroslav Kyzlink, who also produced the performance with the choir and orchestra of the Janáček Opera of the National Theatre in Brno. The main roles were filled by Luciano Mastro as Don Carlos and Federico Sacchi as King Philip II, Carlos’ father; Jiří Brückler is the friend of the title character and the confidant of the king, Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. Linda Ballová took the part of the young queen and madly infatuated Elisabeth of Valois; the figure of the vengeful Princess Eboli, who secretly loves the king’s son was played by Veronika Hajnová-Fialová. The intimidating inquisitor was played by Ondrej Mráz. Also appearing were Andrea Široká, Martina Mádlová, Zdeněk Nečas and David Szendiuch.
The historical works of the great authors only rarely depict actual historical developments, and rather than provide a precise picture of the past such literature offers romantic inspiration from ancient wars, political intrigues and the doomed love of the great lords. Even today as the result of the rich imagination of sensation-seeking burgesses and the literary talent of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin the composer Antonio Salieri is seen by many as having murdered Mozart. In the same way the play Don Carlos by the writer Friedrich Schiller rather borrows from real history and subordinates the characters to romantic literary logic and deformation. A large part of his play was inspired by the novel Dom Carlos: Nouvelle Historique by the French abbot César Vichard de Saint‑Réal. Schiller’s vision however fortunately did not – as is so often the case in similar interpretations of history – did not depict the characters as all black or white. In the same way that we can mourn the doomed love of Don Carlos and Elisabeth of Valois, in the same way we can also have sympathy for the behaviour of the lonely and fearful King Philip II. Schiller’s drama despite its at times schematic approach gives space for a certain moral greyness even in its heroes. Verdi’s music in close harmony with the libretto builds these emotional and expressive bridges also for the singers themselves, who working with the director can accentuate in the given roles otherwise unusual character attributes. I would say that in this respect the opera company of the National Theatre in Brno is in safe hands.
Those taking the main roles (with the exception of Veronika Hajnová-Fialová) are visiting artists. The title role was being performed by the Italian tenor Luciano Mastro, who tried to give the emotional tension of the character the most significant features. Mastro’s aggressiveness, impetuosity and youthful indiscretion were unbelievable and were based on a purely eponymous character type. In the first act, the singer had perceptible intonation uncertainty and variable voice colouring in the higher notes, but in the following acts, however, the audible "stress" in demanding passages disappeared. Linda Ballová, a soprano, as Elisabeth of Valois, brilliantly portrayed the contradictory tendencies and feelings of the character, from the initial happiness through sudden dismay to the final reconciliation, apathy and exhausted resignation. Not just as a singer but also as an actor she breathed life and credibility into an otherwise rather passive and static character. The introductory scene however suffered slightly from overdone vibrato, which occasionally created completely the wrong mood – her shaky “Oh, let us speak of it!” suggesting sudden fright rather than joy and ardour.
The baritone Jiří Brückler as the Marquis Rodrigo gave a successful and intonation-wise steady performance, the only significant awkwardness was in the duet with Carlos, where the leaders knelt side by side and promised loyalty in friendship. The royal stately aura of Federico Sacchi was as strong as its unfortunate awakening sadness from loneliness and helplessness. It was here that Sacchi showed the full range of his acting skills. Princess Eboli as played by Veronika Hajnová-Fialová began somewhat unfortunately with an overly dark colouring to her voice and an insensitive use of sudden dynamic changes, which can be effective, came across as too abrupt and crude. In the following arias however her performance improved markedly and in the closing scenes with sorrow and regret it was strong and confident, even though their heroine lay at the king’s feet. The choir was good most of the time, although at the very beginning rhythmically fragmented and out of step with the brass section and orchestra. The fault however was mainly with the placing of the singers off the stage, removing them from direct contact with both the music and the conductor. This is however rather an issue of the direction, which was at the very least questionable.
At the start of the introductory scene there was a major title saying Fontainebleau against a blue background. That was all. Here the introductory encounter between Carlos and Elisabeth took place, and here also the future queen discovered that in place of Carlos she was to marry his father King Philip Filipa II. In this dumbed down and artistically unimaginative way the audience was informed that they were somewhere in the vicinity of the French city of Fontainebleau. Although the original libretto refers to the forest, here we can perhaps rely on our imagination along. Is the blue traffic sign showing the start of the city? Or still more bizarre – is each character a tree? Of course not, this is too ad hoc, too purposeless. Most likely seems to be a lack of meaning other than just communication, and this seems rather weak when it comes to my idea of artistic opera production. From letters will then erupt on the scene strange creatures in flowery dresses with round glasses apparently showing happy French people. It would perhaps be more comprehensible if they fought their way on to the stage with baguettes. At the start of the introductory scene there was a major title saying Fontainebleau against a blue background. That was all. Here the introductory encounter between Carlos and Elisabeth took place, and here also the future queen discovered that in place of Carlos she was to marry his father King Philip Filipa II. In this dumbed down and artistically unimaginative way the audience was informed that they were somewhere in the vicinity of the French city of Fontainebleau. Although the original libretto refers to the forest, here we can perhaps rely on our imagination along. Is the blue traffic sign showing the start of the city? Or still more bizarre – is each character a tree? Of course not, this is too ad hoc, too purposeless. Most likely seems to be a lack of meaning other than just communication, and this seems rather weak when it comes to my idea of artistic opera production. From letters will then erupt on the scene strange creatures in flowery dresses with round glasses apparently showing happy French people. It would perhaps be more comprehensible if they fought their way on to the stage with baguettes.
The second act improves the impression with the effective use of ancient colonnades and imaginative lighting effects, which, in combination with a turntable creates an impressive sense of endless corridors and aisles between columns. The second part of the third act, however, cuts off the initial impression at the knees - Glaser builds on the minimalist aesthetic, but it's minimalism stripped to the bone and then gnawing at the stage sets. All the action is static and could easily take place on a concert stage. Although the characters discuss whether the rebellious Carlos should be punished or shown mercy, little is shown in their emotions and gestures. The static quality of the stage is further underlined by its absolute emptiness, since the only thing there is a white staircase. Conversely there is excellent work with the space in the fourth act, where the king, high above the stage, laments the loneliness of his fate. In the second scene the inquisitor appears – a figure on the king has already warned about in advance and which within the performance should induce constant fear, caution and concern. But not in this Brno production, where the inquisitor’s power is manifested only with his entrance. I do not say that the correct approach would be naturalistic representation of war and devastation by the Inquisition in Spain and that the bizarre gothic version shown at the National Theatre in Prague in 2013 was a grasp of its production. Not at all! Only I consider that the chosen aesthetics – however modern ¬ should be compact and illuminate the director’s interpretation of the work. The fourth and fifth acts, however, can be described as successful in Brno and were finally emotionally engaged. The successful scene in which Rodrigo chases Princess Eboli on a rotating stage, was one of the most sophisticated and visually engaging parts production.
Under the baton of Jaroslav Kyzlink the orchestra gave a quality and rhythmically and intonation-wise solid performance. Praise should go to the solo instruments, primarily led by the cello with that heartfelt and expressively rich playing complementing the action on stage. Occasional mistakes, however, came from the wind section, where there were at times late entries and uncertain tones. Generally, however, it was a good interpretation that placed great emphasis on the naturally flowing melodies of Verdi's opera.
The Brno production is built primarily on the singers’ performances which managed to eclipse the in places inconsistent direction. Not that I am not a supporter of the concept of minimalist operas, but in this case there was a qualitative imbalance in the directorial concept. While some stage design solutions managed with fewer resources to creatively grasp the situation, in many cases they were static, unimaginative and involved internally incoherent visual-musical communication. There's no doubt that the opera will find many supporters, for whom the approach works. For myself, I would add that there are more than enough similarly staged operas.
composer: Giuseppe Verdi
libretto: Joseph Méry, Camille du Locle
musical production: Jaroslav Kyzlink
conductor: Jaroslav Kyzlink, Ondrej Olos
director: Martin Glaser
staging: Pavel Borák
costumes: Markéta Sládečková
lighting: Martin Špetlík
choirmaster: Pavel Koňárek
dramaturge: Patricie Částková
assistant directors: Vojtěch Orenič, Natálie Gregorová
Philip II: Jiří Sulženko, Federico Sacchi
Don Carlos: Luciano Mastro (guest), Philippe Do
Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa: Jiří Brückler (guest), Svatopluk Sem (guest)
Grand Inquisitor: Martin Gurbal' (guest), Ondrej Mráz (guest)
Elisabeth of Valois: Linda Ballová, Charlotta Larsson
Princess Eboli: Veronika Hajnová-Fialová, Michaela Šebestová
Thibault, Page to Elisabeth: Andrea Široká, Eva Štěrbová (guest)
Count of Lerma: Martin Pavlíček, Zdeněk Nečas
Old Monk: David Nykl, David Szendiuch
Voice from Heaven: Daniela Straková-Šedrlová, Martina Mádlová
Royal Herald: Martin Pavlíček, Zdeněk Nečas
2 February 2019, Janáček Theatre