The Grand Théâtre de Genève opened its 2023–24 season with a monument of an opera: Verdi's Don Carlos, in the five-act French version. Conductor Marc Minkowski chose a version closely following the original version, composed for the Paris Opera, with minor cuts, and the resurrection of some of Verdi’s original cuts before the 1867 premiere. The opera is loosely based on historical events in 16th-century Spain but director Lydia Steier moves the action to the middle of the 20th century, with Soviet rule acting as a mirror of Philip II's tyrannical regime. 

Dmitry Ulyanov (Philippe II)
© Grand Théâtre de Genève | Magali Dougados

This transposition brings mixed results: some ideas work well – the cult of personality, the paranoia and solitude of the ruler, the public execution of the “traitors”. Also, omnipresent spies, listening in to private conversations to expose the traitors, match well with the monks spying for the Inquisition to expose heretics. There is a religious aspect to every tyrannical rule, heavily based on propaganda and a rejection of critical thinking: the stories of public denunciations (and confessions) of traitors of the revolution in the USSR do bring to mind a parallel with the Inquisition. But that parallel breaks down at a crucial point: the Catholic Church was stronger than Philip II in Don Carlos, but in the USSR there was no entity bigger than Stalin. In the Soviet empire the Grand Inquisitor would have been perhaps the head of the KGB, an employee of the ruler, but this makes the whole power struggle harder to understand: what is the “altar” that this Stalin needs to kneel at?

Momme Hinrichs' set is occupied by a revolving cube, with classical architectonic marble elements, which turns to represent the various spaces, with minimal changes in props. During the Act 3 ballet, the cube starts spinning fast for a long time, while dancers in animal masks stage an orgiastic dance, enough to give audience members motion sickness.

Don Carlos
© Grand Théâtre de Genève | Magali Dougados

Steier enhances the gloomy aspects of this opera. During the Fontainebleau act, where Carlos and Elisabeth fall in love, their duet takes place under a man just hanged for treason, his wife and child crying on the side. In the auto-da-fé scene the “heretics” are already dead, hanging from the ceiling. Here, instead of the royal parade, the people watch a black and white movie full of Soviet aesthetic elements, showing a strong, magnanimous leader. 

Minkowski, conducting this monumental score for the first time, led the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in a powerful, detailed reading. The brass section, fundamental in Verdi's orchestration, was spotless and appropriately highlighted. Minkowski managed to maintain the tension for the full four hours of music, giving appropriate room to his singers, allowing Verdi to shine; a wonderful interpretation.

Stéphane Degout (Rodrigue) and Charles Castronovo (Don Carlos)
© Grand Théâtre de Genève | Magali Dougados

The cast was very strong, despite the lack of any “true” Verdian voices. Rachel Willis-Sørensen was Elisabeth. Her mellow timbre and large voice did justice to the role, displaying secure high notes (only a few were a bit uncovered) and great lyricism. Her best efforts were in the filati and pianissimi – the solo to her lady-in-waiting, “Ô ma chère compagne” was a gem. Her acting was also effective, however, her “hand-dropping” gestures are unmistakably American, which distracts a bit, but in an endearing way. In the final scene, she gave a great rendition of “Toi qui sus le néant”, with power and desperation, in the most absurd of situations, cradling her newborn, singing how she has nothing to live for, and only hopes to die. This scene becomes even more absurd when the whole court enters and witnesses in silence the marvellous farewell duet between Carlos and Elisabeth, which Charles Castronovo and Willis-Sørensen sang with poignancy and true lyrical intent. 

Stéphane Degout (Rodrigue), Ève-Maud Hubeaux (Eboli) and Charles Castronovo (Don Carlos)
© Grand Théâtre de Genève | Magali Dougados

Castronovo was a solid Don Carlos, high notes secure in his dark tenor, his interpretation convincing. Stéphane Degout was Rodrigue, turned into some sort of court jester in this production, losing almost all of his dignity with out-of-place laughs. Degout heroically reclaimed all of Rodrigue’s dignity in his death scene, with a smooth legato and a moving interpretation. Dmitry Ulyanov clearly had trouble with his French pronunciation as Philippe; the voice was beautiful and powerful, but his big aria “Elle ne m'aime pas” lacked a true legato or pathos. Ève-Maud Hubeaux sang Eboli, her mezzo full and beautiful, high notes brilliant, her stage presence strong.

Liang Li was a suitably terrifying Grand Inquisitor, his well-projected low bass very suited to the part. The voice from heaven was Giulia Bolcato, who beautifully sang on the stage, and was the same widow crying for her hanged husband in Act 1, apparently teleported from Fontainebleau to Madrid. 

The Grand Théâtre de Genève helped fund Laura's travel to Geneva