Don Carlo in Brno

Don Carlo contains some of Verdi’s finest and most inventive music to underpin the drama of the encounters between the principal characters but it also poses problems in performance because its various themes – thwarted love, individual liberty, State versus Church – do not cohere easily.  A strong directorial hand is needed and that is exactly what the staging by the Janacek Opera in Brno offered.

Martin Glaser concentrated on the private sphere, focussing on the predicament of individuals in seeking their own destiny and fulfilment. Their struggles were distanced from the public sphere, so that the larger world of royal Spain was rarely in view. This was grand opera without the grandness; indeed, the auto da fé scene was the least impressive tableau of the evening. Instead, aided by the austere decors of Pavel Borák and the brilliant lighting designs of Martin Špetlík, the characters communicated their desires and frustrations from a predominantly bare stage or, to indicate their isolation or problematic relationships, from within a colonnade or between high walls. Highlighted by strong beams from the side or above, this generated powerful dramatic effects, in the style of scenographer Adolphe Appia. I cannot, for example, remember another production in which the Act Five farewell between Carlos and Elisabeth was so effectively presented to engage the emotions. So also the unusual setting of Philip’s great Act Four monologue, he appearing high above the stage, surrounded by swirling mists depicting his state of mind.

To expect from a regional Czech opera company singing of an international standard, capable of meeting all of Verdi’s huge demands, would be unreasonable; but there was much to commend in what the Brno cast had to offer. Jiří Brückler was an ideal Posa, stalwart in stature, and bringing his expressive, steely baritone to enrich his vocal utterings. Charlotta Larsson’s full-toned soprano satisfyingly captured the force of Verdi’s soaring lines and phrasing, and her demeanour astutely betrayed the depth of her suffering. After a vocally uncertain beginning (the first Act aria poses a considerable challenge for tenors), Luciano Mastro as Carlos settled into his stride and produced some thrilling sounds, while dramatically revealing all the weaknesses in the prince’s personality. Veronika Hajnová-Fialová, dazzlingly costumed, convincingly conveyed the bi-polar features of Eboli and generated the histrionics necessary for O don fatale. Conversely, Federico Sacchi’s portrayal of Philip was somewhat monochrome; he sang competently but his bass did not have sufficient amplitude for the role. The same applied to Ondrej Mraz’s Grand Inquisitor.

The Janacek Opera Orchestra are a quality ensemble, with first-rate strings and wind soloists, and, under the direction of Ondrej Olos, made much of Verdi’s remarkable score.