The new season at Teatro di San Carlo was never meant to open like this. Saturday’s gala performance of Don Carlo – with tickets suitably hiked in price – was cancelled as a mark of respect due to the catastrophic landslide that had occurred earlier that day on the small island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples. A sombre mood hung in the air over Tuesday evening’s opening performance of Claus Guth’s staging… a mood not unsuited to the sombre weight of Verdi’s epic opera. 

Matthew Polenzani (Don Carlo)
© Luciano Romano

Sombre would be the perfect adjective to describe Guth’s production. Etienne Pluss’ set is a dark box, lined with wooden choir stalls for the three inner acts, murkily lit by Olaf Freese until a blinding neon strip in the closing moments. Chequerboard flooring, albeit in hexagons rather than squares, give Verdi’s – and Schiller’s – characters the feel of chess pieces, manipulated as part of some Inquisition game. Trees drop in for Fontainebleau, six dazzling chandeliers for the midnight garden scene. Petra Reinhardt’s costuming is monochromatic, apart from flashes of red for Filippo and Elisabetta in the auto-da-fé, followed by blue for the Voice of Heaven as the Virgin Mary. 

And there are veils… acres of veils: bridal white for Elisabetta in Act 1, mourning black in Act 2, over a brimmed hat so wide she looked like a beekeeper; full body white for the female chorus during Eboli’s Veil Song, a sisterhood of Wilis. 

Ludovic Tézier (Posa) and Elīna Garanča (Eboli)
© Luciano Romano

Guth’s staging is stylish, intelligent and coherent. Acts 1 to 4 are flashbacks, a dumbshow before the start depicting a hooded monk confronting Carlo, forcing him to the ground. Characters sometimes appear silently, haunting each other’s scenes; for example, we see Filippo write Posa’s death warrant in his study while his son is imprisoned by a lighting effect on the other side of the stage. The auto-da-fé is flame-free, the heretics meeting their deaths via slit throats. 

Video of Carlo and Posa as boys, playing at sword-fighting, illustrates their friendship, although bringing it back every time the theme subsequently appears only serves to underline it in bold ink. Guth’s only significant misstep is to introduce a mute jester in giant pantaloons – or monk’s habit or bridal gown – who spurs on characters, handing them a dagger or a flag or showering them in confetti. A glorified props guy. 

The sepulchral gloom and seriousness of Guth’s interpretation found a willing accomplice in Juraj Valčuha, who conducted a weighty account of Verdi’s immense score. And an incredibly slow one. In a performance scheduled to finish at 23:30, the curtain came down at seven minutes to midnight. Don Carlo as Parsifal

Fabián Augusto Gómez (Jester), Matthew Polenzani (Don Carlo) and Ludovic Tézier (Posa)
© Luciano Romano

There were a few horn mishaps at the start of Act 2, but the orchestra played magnificently. The chorus occasionally needed more power, although much of their action was placed outside the chequerboard frame, behind the choir stalls.  

Intendant Stéphane Lissner wants to revive the glory days of the San Carlo and this show is cast from real strength, with some Rolls Royce voices on display. Ludovic Tézier sang like a god as Posa, his rich, commanding baritone moulded into long phrases, a class act. His encounter with Michele Pertusi’s Philip II was superb, bringing his voice down to a whisper to warn the king against becoming another Nero. 

Matthew Polenzani (Don Carlo) and Fabián Augusto Gómez (Jester)
© Luciano Romano

Tézier and Elīna Garanča were the least affected by Valčuha’s marmoreal tempi. Garanča was outstanding in the notoriously tricky role of Eboli, bringing great nuance to the Veil Song’s narrative, while having the firepower to deliver a stunning “O don fatale”, during which the jester handed her a dagger to slash her face (Guth seems to know his Konwitschny). She then stripped to contemporary black blouse and slacks in the “O mia Regina” section of the aria, taken daringly slowly. 

Matthew Polenzani sang with beautiful, sweet tone, never flagging. He conveyed Carlo’s neurotic character very well. Ailyn Pérez’ lyric soprano has darkened and grown in recent years, yet she still has pearly top notes. She sang sensitively, although the role of Elisabetta – especially at Valčuha’s testing tempi – stretched her to the limit, not always riding Elisabetta’s long, high phrases. I loved her steely glint when commanding Eboli to return her cross and her final note as the monk comes for Carlo at the end was fabulous. 

Ailyn Pérez (Elisabetta) and chorus
© Luciano Romano

Alas, Michele Pertusi’s grey bass-baritone was too pale for Filippo, although he caught the monarch’s mournful mood in “Ella giammai m’amò”. He ran out of gas at one stage but did manage the two octaves descent, with its sustained bottom F, for the king’s final phrase of his encounter with the Grand Inquisitor. Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s inkily black Inquisitor was neither old nor blind, but slippery and sinister, accompanied by a quartet of faceless dancers. 

Despite the caveats, an epic night of grand opera.