Roberto Andò’s new Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production of Don Carlo serves the work well. A single set, or rather framework, is appropriately varied to represent interiors and exteriors – a song in a garden, a colloquy in a king’s bedchamber, a public burning of heretics. Crepuscular lighting dominates, mirroring both the pursuit of the lead characters by forces they can’t control and the dark glow of Verdi’s orchestral tinta with its ominous low brass. Even daytime scenes avoid too much light and costumes are mostly marked by sobriety. Historical time and place, central to this piece, are respected. The cloisters of the opening and closing scenes fare best with this treatment, but the King’s candlelit bedchamber is an atmospheric setting for the plot’s decisive encounters.

Francesco Meli (Don Carlo)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentina

The Italian four act version of 1884 is used and the production provides strong evidence that it is the most effective. (I hereby abandon years of my French-language-five-act snobbery.) For one thing it is more like Schiller, no small matter for this composer, since the Fontainebleau act has no equivalent in the play, which begins with the opera’s 1884 opening. It is claimed we need that forest meeting to explain Carlo’s love and the effect of its loss, but Verdi’s music explains it all very well in this version, and Andò’s direction of Elisabetta and of the unstable Carlo tells us of the pain of love having to yield to politics.

Roman Burdenko (Posa), Eleanora Buratto (Elisabetta) and Mikhail Petrenko (Filippo)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

But on this occasion, the superior dramatic impetus of this version was almost vitiated by the timings. Act 2’s 38 minutes was separated by intervals of 25 and 20 minutes before and after (both were longer than those advertised timings). Conductor Daniele Gatti seemed to be waiting on his podium for a minute or so before starting some scenes, perhaps waiting on the Rai announcer explaining what came next to the live radio audience for their broadcast. A performance that began at 7pm ended 4 hours and 35 minutes later. (The current Covent Garden production plays for 4 hours10 minutes – for the five act version with the same intervals). Verdi cut his score before the 1867 Paris premiere partly because he was told people needed to get trains back home, but the sight here of so many leaving before the end carried historical authenticity too far.

Don Carlo Act 1 Scene 2
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

They missed some very fine singing and the biggest cheer of the night, for Elisabetta’s long and taxing “Tu che le vanità”, soaring and searing as it rarely is live. Indeed, Eleonora Buratto’s Elisabetta excelled throughout, one of the two strongest vocal performances. The other was Roman Burdenko’s Posa, deploying a tone as noble and as appealing as the character he depicts. Francesco Meli was the titular hero, if heroism be the word for Don Carlo’s passionate recklessness, and the Italian tenor was on his most ringing form. Almost as critical in this role was his persuasive acting in a part which can become unsympathetic, but here remained touching throughout. Meli and Burdenko were splendidly stirring in Carlo and Posa’s Act 1 duet “Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor”, one of Verdi’s most ineradicable earworms.

Eleanora Buratto (Elisabetta) and Ekaterina Semenchuk (Eboli)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Ekaterina Semenchuk, a seasoned Princess Eboli, began with a less-than-immaculate Veil Song, but soon settled and her Act 3 “O don fatale”, one of several sublime solos in this score, made convincing that ostensibly curious curse upon her own beauty. Mikhail Petrenko was a moving King Philip II, lamenting his loveless marriage in a fine “Ella giammai m’amò”, if a touch too lachrymose at its close. But this opera is carried by fine duets and ensembles as much as solos, as its five main characters struggle to influence each other. Thus when Petrenko’s King meets with Alexander Vinogradov’s sinister Grand Inquisitor, one of opera’s great scenes for two basses, their powerful singing off each other marked the encounter as the turning point for those not present.

Alexander Vinogradov (Grande Inquisitore) and Mikhail Petrenko (Filippo)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Gatti’s tempi were broad and expressively sustained with a sense of the epic quality in Schiller’s portrayal of personal events affecting whole nations. One of Verdi’s greatest openings announces his sombre and momentous theme brayed by four horns in solemn unison – and how magnificently atmospheric it sounded in this modern auditorium compared to the dryness of traditional opera houses. Gatti is on this evidence very much a singers’ man, looking after them in orchestral tuttis, cueing phrase ends and transitional moments – the opera conductor as comfort blanket. He secured fine playing and choral singing from his Florentine forces. The Teatro del Maggio has a winner, especially if it can cast revivals at this strength and get Maestro Gatti to lead them.