Don Carlos in Basel

For my sixteenth Don Carlos, performed in Basel, the original French libretto was used. As conductor Michele Spotti observes in the programme, this version has the advantage that it links the work to the tradition of grand opéra français, as experienced with Meyerbeer among others. If that tradition has not survived well, it is perhaps largely because its often cumbersome mixture of spectacle, romantic melodrama and flashy music (with much reliance on virtuosic coloratura singing) does not always lend itself to the tight dramatic framework which most modern operagoers tend to prefer.  It is, therefore, not surprising that, notwithstanding the extraordinary brilliance of compositional skill that Verdi demonstrates in Don Carlos, the work never achieved the popularity of such pieces as Rigoletto, La Traviata and Aida, all of which offer a compact, coherent experience of music drama.

The very diversity of themes in Don Carlos – mostly derived from Schiller’s source material – must have posed considerable challenges for Verdi and his librettists.  How to integrate Church (Grand Inquisitor) versus State (Philip) with Political Authority (Philip) versus Freedom (Flanders and Posa), not to speak of the complex network of (love-) relationships: Carlos-Elisabeth; Elisabeth-Philip; Philip-Eboli; Eboli-Carlos; Carlos-Posa; Posa-Philip? And the different elements are not brought together in a coherent way; rather the whole is a mosaic of loosely-fitting episodes.  Verdi’s genius was deployed in providing a musical content, often with much originality, for those episodes expertly characterising the relevant relationships, their tensions and emotions.

What implications does this have for the staging of the piece?  Clearly a strong hand is necessary; if confusion or bewilderment is to be avoided, the opera cannot be left to play for itself.  One solution, admirably illustrated by the production I saw a few years ago in Brno (see is to concentrate on the human relationships in the private, rather than public, sphere. Abstracting these relationships from their historical/political setting enables the complexity of human beings and their endeavours to be presented as a mosaic, rather than as a logically driven network.

For his Basel production, Vincent Huguet eschewed an abstract approach, perhaps because he was influenced by working with designer Richard Peduzzi, famous for his architectural sets.  Within that framework, he sought to give meaning to the various episodes, though without any over-arching schema and – like many before him – failing to make credible the opera’s problematic ending. This is not to say that the production lacked insights. There were some original touches as with the presence of a young girl (Elisabeth’s daughter?) epitomising her French childhood; so also an Eboli whose level of cruelty is made highly explicit during her veil song, transformed from the usual fluff to a manifestation of violent contempt.

The musical side was in the very capable hands of Spotti. He by no means neglected the sweep of the Verdian vocal lines, but impressed most with his attention to detail: short phrases in the orchestra depicting some tension or constraint; harmonic touches signalling disappointment or despair. While the soloists were not from the front rank of Verdi singers, without exception they gave committed, characterful performances. Best of the bunch was John Chest’s Posa. His baritone moved smoothly to a shining upper register, and his portrayal brought out the ambiguity between heroism and pragmatism. As Carlos, Joachim Bäckström too revealed the complexity of the Infante’s personality: emotional dependency on others, broken by occasional moments of unsuspected valour. His bright tenor withstood the demands of a long evening, though not without some tiredness towards the end. His Elisabeth, Yolanda Auyanet, convincingly communicated the transition from a freedom-loving French princess to a tightly-controlled Spanish queen. Her vocal delivery caught the anguish of her frustrations, though the soprano lost a little of its bloom at full volume.

She was well matched by the Eboli of Kristina Stanek. Aided by Huguet’s conception of her, she emerged as a really nasty piece of work, which found its musical expression in the dark colours and timbre of her powerful mezzo voice. The strength of veteran Nathan Berg’s assumption of King Philip lay in his character portrayal, a combination of brutality and uncertainty. If his bass cannot be described as “cantante” and his French pronunciation was not immaculate, these aspects enhanced, rather than detracted from, the characterisation.

All in all, a worthy attempt to come to grips with Verdi’s flawed masterpiece.