Verdi’s Don Carlo in Geneva

One of William Shakespeare’s biggest fans in the 19th century was the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), who based three of his operas on Shakespeare plays, namely Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff.

The composer’s second favorite author was the 18th century German playwright Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), whom Verdi admired not only for his dramatic skills but also for his progressive and freedom-loving convictions.

Over the years Verdi made operas out of four of Schiller’s plays, an early Joan of Arc, a gruff I masnadieri (The Robbers), a more mature Louisa Miller, based on Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe, and finally one of Verdi’s masterpieces Don Carlos (in French) or Don Carlo (in Italian), which I’ve been seeing all over Europe lately, including in Geneva.

Since Geneva is in the Suisse Romande, the French-speaking part of Switzerland, I was secretly hoping they would put on the five-act French version of Don Carlos, as they have sometimes done in the past, but this time they opted for the four-act Italian Don Carlo instead.

Most of the characters in Don Carlo are based (some more faithfully than others) on historical figures who really lived in 16th century Spain. The big exception to this is the Marquis of Posa, who was entirely a product of Friedrich Schiller’s imagination. I like to think of Posa as a kind of time traveler, an idealistic 18th century intellectual who was somehow catapulted two hundred years backwards in time and landed on his feet in 16th century Spain, where he became a decorated war hero, a respected diplomat, the confidant of King Phillip II of Spain — and inevitably a victim of the Spanish Inquisition.

All six major characters of Don Carlo took a profound hold on Verdi’s imagination, and he wrote great music for all of them to sing, but perhaps most especially for Posa as he lies dying on a stone prison floor in a futile attempt to save his friend Don Carlo.

(I’m listening to the American baritone Thomas Hampson sing the role of Posa in French as I write this.)

Grand Théâtre de Genève

Opera came late to Geneva. It was forbidden, like most other earthly diversions, during the grim era of the religious reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), and for around two centuries thereafter.

The great French author Voltaire (1694-1778) is generally credited with putting on the first opera performances while he was living in exile in Geneva and vicinity in the 1750s, 60s and 70s. The first theater in Geneva (outside the city walls, actually) wasn’t built until 1766.

The Grand Théâtre seen through the trees from halfway up the hill

From 1872 to 1879 an opera house was built on the site of the current one, at Place de Neuve, but it was an uninspired scaled-down imitation of the Opéra Garnier in Paris. When that one burned down in 1951 it was rebuilt with some important changes, and the result is the current Grand Théâtre de Genève, which reopened in 1962 with the five-act French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos, even though construction work was still going on.

As of 2018, the building is again closed for extensive renovation and modernization, while opera performances are held in a temporary theater called the Opéra des Nations.

The gilded lobby in 2008

Here’s what the lobby of the Grand Théâtre de Genève looked like in 2008, before the performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo.

Opera program and CD

With the opera program they also offer a CD, which most people seem to buy, called “une heure avant. . .” Essentially it’s the same introductory talk you can hear an hour before every performance, with a pianist playing musical illustrations, but it’s actually a studio recording made shortly before the premiere. (I’ve just been listening to it again; it’s insightful and informative.)

Intermission at the opera on a midsummer evening

During the intermission after the second act of Verdi’s Don Carlo, many of the spectators went out onto the street and the Place de Neuve.

Painting in the opera house

Back inside, this is one of several large staircase paintings in the lobby, full of frolicking naked young people who don’t look the slightest bit austere or Calvinistic, as you might have expected considering Geneva’s history.

Chorus and soloists taking their bows at the end of Verdi’s Don Carlo

This was one of the better Don Carlo productions that I have seen in recent years, especially in comparison with the weak efforts in Strasbourg, Frankfurt and Dresden. (I’m talking about the staging now, not the singing.)

This Geneva production was first created in 2002, and was revived for another run in 2008. It provided for rapid scene changes with simple means, just some foldable red partitions that could be rearranged quickly to create areas of different shapes and sizes appropriate to the various scenes, supplemented by a few simple accessories: a cross for the monastery, two benches for the castle garden, an immense sea of scarlet velvet cloth with the King Philip II knelling in the middle, above everyone else, to preside over the burning of the heretics in the Autodafé scene. This same scene made clear how he was exploiting his lovely young French wife to legitimize his torture of the heretics, making her stand clearly visible at the edge of the pit where the miscreants were being burned alive.

Waiting at the stage door after the performance

The stage door (“Entrée des Artistes”) of the Grand Théâtre de Genève is on the west side of the building, off to the left as you face the front entrance, on the street called Boulevard du Théâtre.

My photos in this post are from 2008. I revised the text in 2018.

For more on Verdi’s Don Carlo/Don Carlos, see my posts
Love in the Forest of Fontainebleau, 1559
and The opera house in Strasbourg, France.

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