Welsh National Opera’s Don Carlos is a magnificent achievement, despite a fair number of more or less serious shortcomings. It establishes, at any rate, that this is by far the most probing and powerful of Verdi’s operas, while being, whichever rich selection of scenes is chosen, far from perfect. Despite its Wagnerian length, almost four hours of music at Cardiff, there is a bewildering number of loose ends and implausibilities, as well as a failure to bring the figure of Carlos himself into focus. He has some wonderful music (especially in this five-act French version), he is passionate, impulsive, idealistic, yet, with far less to sing, his comrade Rodrigue is more intelligible and more moving. Jon Vickers, by sheer force of personality, made Carlo(s) live, but no one else in my experience has. The fact that, as usual, the Welsh production doesn’t contain a single singer whose native language is French is no help. If you don’t speak a language confidently it’s hard to give the impression that you mean what you are saying, or singing — and Italian is clearly far easier for foreigners to learn. There’s the further question, as Chris Ball puts it in his article about Verdi’s singers in the programme book, of ‘whether Verdi wrote a French opera in Italian or an Italian opera in French’. I would unhesitatingly go for the latter option, on the basis of the performances of Don Carlos by which I’ve been most moved. I think that Verdi naturally felt his music in Italian, and that his operas in French show the strain — especially Les Vèpres siciliennes.
The director John Caird has, with the collaboration of set designer Johan Engels, made sure that the action moves as swiftly as possible.