Verdi’s Don Carlo is a perfect example of an opera whose action can be moved from its original 16th century Spain of Philip II to any other space and time, provided that the new contextualization is meaningful. With its conflicts between love and duty, secular and religious, self-determination and centralized power, it is well suited to different settings. Tim Albery has directed Don Carlo several times during his distinguished career. His latest attempt, premiered in Washington on Saturday night (a coproduction with Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera), is not a reconstruction of any specific historical period.

Leah Crocetto (Elisabetta) and Russell Thomas (Don Carlo) © Scott Suchman
Leah Crocetto (Elisabetta) and Russell Thomas (Don Carlo)
© Scott Suchman

Constance Hoffman's costumes are dark, mostly black and gray, evoking the severity predominant at Philip II’s Escorial, but the ladies’ dresses are rather 19th-century and men are clad in leather with some odd-looking military belts. Andrew Lieberman’s minimal single set represents a ninety degrees rotated church nave with the dome, pierced by skylights, being the back of the stage. The burnished coppery-gold side walls have black rectangular doors and windows maybe reminiscent of grave slabs or the royal crypt of El Escorial. In the second part, the dome is gone, seemingly due to an explosion, and is replaced by a static view of a cloudy sky.

On one side of the canted floor, a pile of debris and ash, might have been inspired by the background of Pieter Bruegel’s Triumph of Death, a depiction of the devastation brought to Flanders by Philip II’s armies. Conflating gardens, royal apartments, a prison, the scene of an auto-da-fé, into one single minimalist theatrical space contributes to a denser unfolding of the drama taking place in front of the spectators’ eyes. Some elements of the mise-en-scène called for too much attention though. A grille symbolizing both a garden and a prison became an obstacle during the confrontation between the king’s defenders and the insurgents. Several chairs were as meaninglessly moved around as those in Eugène Ionesco’s famous absurdist play. Everyone appeared to constantly need to rest on one of the chairs, preferably in the presence of the king, a totally unnecessary breach of etiquette. Even the condemned heretics were asked to sit, with their back to the public, while symbolically being burned at the stake by means of reflectors.

Quinn Kelsey (Posa) and Eric Owens (Philip II) © Scott Suchman
Quinn Kelsey (Posa) and Eric Owens (Philip II)
© Scott Suchman

However, musically, it was a very fine performance. The opera was presented in the shortened four-act Italian version, leaving some musical reminiscences without their roots. Philippe Auguin, conducting his last opera as Music Director of WNO, led a supple orchestral apparatus, supporting the singers well without overwhelming them and allowing instrumental contributions – oboe, cellos, horns – to shine in their dialogues with the soloists.

In the opera’s most complex role of Philip II, bass-baritone Eric Owens displayed both his flexible voice, capable of steely inflexions and mellifluous laments, and his talent as an actor. His Philip is not just a commanding presence and a cruel tyrant, but also a lonely and vulnerable father and husband marked by self-doubt. Even if Owen’s introspective rendition of “Ella giammai m’amò” was touching, it’s in the dialogues with the idealistic Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, and the menacing Grand Inquisitor (reliable basso profundo Andrea Silvestrelli) where the singer’s adaptability and great musical sense were more obvious.

As Princess Eboli, mezzo Jamie Barton dominated the stage on her every appearance. You quickly realized how immensely powerful her instrument could be, but her vocal agility and dynamic range amazed the most. Her blazing rage when her pride is wounded during the garden scene was as effective as her contrite “O don fatale”.

Jamie Barton (Eboli) © Scott Suchman
Jamie Barton (Eboli)
© Scott Suchman

The talented spinto soprano Leah Crocetto started a bit tentatively in her portrayal of the unhappy Elisabeth de Valois but finished very strong. “Tu che le vanità” was wonderfully shaped, lacked any strain in the upper register. Her final duet with Russell Thomas’ Don Carlo was one of evening’s highlights. Hawaiian-born Quinn Kelsey, possessor of a warm baritone voice, was well suited as the interpreter of a noble Posa.

The conflicted Don Carlo may not be the opera’s most interesting character, but Russell Thomas brought both urgency and steadiness to the role. His voice soared easily above the orchestra; his acting though, wasn’t very flexible. If in the libretto Carlos disappears with his grandfather’s ghost, here the director asks him to commit suicide. I hope the gesture had some unknown to me meaning and wasn’t just a futile quest for originality.