Daniele Abbado’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Vienna Staatsoper has been in play since 2012 and has largely been kept afloat due to a star-filled cast. Last night’s performance, the second after a serious casting face-lift held to that tradition, was very well received despite its inherent flaws, thanks to some very fine singing.

© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

The hero of the night was unquestionably Ferruccio Furlanetto. Not only does Furlanetto have a voice with unconscionable beauty, warmth and an easy spin through his mid-register which continues to impress with remarkable lack of concern for the passing of time, but as the broken, frustrated King Philip he was completely gripping. From the moment he took the stage through a frenetically applauded “Ella giammai m'amò” to open Act III (the Staatsoper uses the four act Italian version), his performance alone was absolutely worth showing up for. Equally commendable was the casting of Eric Halfvarson as the blind, powerful, ruthless Grand Inquisitor. Vocally strong – borderline strident at times- he commanded the stage acoustically and the duet between him and Furlanetto was not just great singing, but excellent theatre. And who has more star quality than Dmitri Hvorostovsky? Or more breath control? His focus was clearly on producing magnificent legato lines, but he also managed to cut a stunning figure as the staid, loyal Posa. After a bit of a tight start, Stefano Secco earned his stripes as well as Don Carlo, earning our respect through his brilliant top, impressive range and all around stamina in role so difficult that it has killed a few very fine tenors.

Unfortunately, the ladies fared a bit less fortuitously in this performance. Though Béatrice Uria-Monzon is a beautiful woman with an impressive instrument, an Eboli she is not. Likewise, Maria Pia Piscitelli seemed vocally uncomfortable in the role of Elisabetta, having trouble both in her aria and in some of the ensembles, struggling both with tempi and with finding the center of her sound throughout the vast range required of the role.

Three of the smaller roles were filled by very promising young voices, Australia Opera Foundation winner Margaret Plummer sang a very solid and self-assured Tebaldo, and both Jinxu Xiahou and Staatsoper newcomer Ryan Speedo Green gave tantalizing glimpses into the future of the craft.

Conductor Marco Armilliato is a wonderfully responsive and sensitive conductor who does an amazing job supporting his singers without covering them. Although a number of glitches in terms of ensemble indicated that this may not have been his favorite night at the podium, there is no denying that his understanding of this repertoire and energetic approach combined with the forces of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra is a win for the production.

Graziano Gregori's stage design is disappointing at best – grey, granite-like walls and backdrops of varying shapes are complemented with a nearly complete lack of props or other decorative aspects. The lighting (Alessandro Carletti) is brash but not striking, and the costumes (Carla Teti) not only lack imagination but indicate a setting closer to the 19th century, a time long past that of the Spanish Inquisition, making the entire pretext a bit of an anathema. There is no problem with this if something else is offered, but this just portrayed a general sense of dreariness and claustrophobia which is not enough to pique our interest. Thank goodness for some effort on the part of the soloists to do more than park and bark, though the lack of Personenregie was still crippling. This was a mildly disappointing rendition of a gorgeous masterpiece with a number of brilliant, must-see moments. The continued success of this production will undoubtable rise and fall at the mercy of how strong the casting remains.