The Wiener Staatsoper’s previous production of the four act version of Verdi’s Don Carlo by Pier Luigi Pizzi was visually arresting, dramatically compelling and true to the libretto. Its replacement by Daniele Abbado is the exact opposite. This is a bargain-basement boxed-set affair which fails to satisfy the expectations of Europe’s most prestigious opera house. Perhaps the shortcomings were attributable to Graziano Gregori’s aberrant stage concept although directional deviations were also abundant.

In restricting the performing area to a series of claustrophobic boxes with a steeply raked stage there was almost no space for the large chorus, multitudinous monks or malcontent Madrileños. Economies at El Escorial have been stringent. The royal box at the auto-da-fé looked like temporary bleachers from a county cricket club. Elisabetta’s enchanting gardens were closer to a kaleidoscopic disco and Carlo’s prison a homeless shelter below a highway overpass in El Gallinero. Carla Teti’s costumes were closer to Oxfam than Balenciaga. Elisabetta wears some kind of second-hand sans-culottes white smock. Most of the locals looked liked miserable prisoners escaped from Fidelio.

Directional incongruities abounded. The rebellious crowd in Act IV announce the Grand Inquisitor after he has already been in their midst for several minutes. There is no tomb of Charles V for Elisabetta to pray to in “Tu che le vanità”. Instead she delivers the aria standing motionless in the middle of a bare stage.

Musically things were more satisfactory. Whilst being clearly attentive to the singers, Maestro Marco Armiliato wasn’t going to hold back the orchestral sound for even a quaver rest. There were some huge blasts from the pit, and not just the brass, although horns and trombones certainly made their presence felt. The orchestral tutti in the auto-da-fé was chilling in its ferocity. The trilling solo flute at Posa’s “Io morrò” was correctly delicate and the solo cello introduction to “Ella giammai m’amò” beautifully phrased. The chorus was consistently excellent.

The Voce del cielo of Andrea Carroll was impressively lyrical and suitably celestial although exactly where she was singing from was hard to determine.

Alexandru Moisiuc as the egregious Grand Inquisitor looked more like an emaciated hirsute Sufi mystic but was dramatically competent. As Rodrigo, Ludovic Tézier displayed a remarkable top register, powerful without losing focus and lyrical without losing robustness. His middle voice is also impressive and only lacks projection at the extreme low register. “Per me giunto è il dì supremo” was splendidly heroic and the sustained top G flat preceding “salva la Fiandra” riveting. The only negative was a disappointing stage presence, with an annoying habit of constantly gesturing with his right arm. 

Eboli is one of the great Verdi mezzo roles. Coquetry, rage, revenge and remorse are all part of the persona and the most fioratura music in the opera was sung by Béatrice Uria-Monzon. The Veil Song was competently delivered and the roulades and embellishments accurate, though slightly mannered. The show-stopping “O don fatale” almost risked being overwhelmed by the even more gifted horns, but still generated the necessary excitement.

Anja Harteros recently sang Elisabetta to considerable acclaim in Salzburg under Antonio Pappano. There is no question she is a seriously impressive soprano, but there are some inconsistencies. The fast vibrato often intrudes and the chest note gear change is far from smooth. On the other hand when singing piano legato without vibrato, the voice is stellar. Harteros’ vocal technique is rock solid but the opening F sharp to “Tu che la vanità” was jarringly sharp and not much improved in the da capo. The middle long-phrased “s’ancor si piange” section was much more satisfactory.

In the title role, Ramón Vargas must have been having a bad night as the performance was vocally undistinguished and dramatically banal. Even the great “Dio, che nell'alma infondere” duet with Posa lacked impact. The top register was consistently pinched and forced and it was only in the final “Ma lassù ci vedremo” duet that the middle voice was more mellifluous.

With a truly imposing stage presence, René Pape as Filippo II gave the best performance of the evening. Despite many seasons singing in the huge expanse of the Met, the voice has retained its power and lustre, except in the extreme lower register where projection was not quite as impressive as before. The impassioned sustained top E natural on “amor” in “Ella giammai m’amò” was superb and his phrasing and diction exemplary throughout.