After the exceptional high tide in the middle of November, a tremendous effort from the theatre and the City of Venice workforce allowed for a timely season opening at the Teatro La Fenice, which not only rises from its ashes, but also from the waters. The chosen work for the opening was Verdi’s Don Carlo, in the 1884 “Milan” version, in Italian and in four acts. In this version, the political theme becomes all the more prevalent, relegating the love story between Carlo and Elisabetta to a side note, a mere excuse for the power struggle. Robert Carsen’s production, which premiered in Strasbourg in 2016, describes Philip II’s realm as dark and bleak, a land in the grip of obscurantism. Radu Boruzescu's set is deep, with a raked stage, high walls with different openings creating the illusion of a church, a cemetery, a garden. The main impression is of a jail/convent, inhabited by priests and nuns. Everything is in charcoal-grey hues, including the stern timeless costumes by Petra Reinhardt. The presence of the Catholic Church is oppressive: ecclesiastics in cassocks often fill the stage, mute motors of the action. During the auto-da-fé, Philip II is dressed in layers and layers of a magnificent jewel-studded black robe, with a crown resembling a tiara, almost a King-Pope. The sharp, raking lights (by Carsen and Peter van Praet), in tones from a blinding cold white to a golden yellow, managed to highlight the characters and the action without watering down the oppressive black of the stage. It was an impressive, visually stunning production, with a precise, definite interpretation of the story.

Alex Esposito (Filippo II)
© Michele Crosera

Don Carlo was represented as stumbling in the dark, uncertain, often staring at a skull, a clear reference to Hamlet and his indecisiveness. The main twist of this production regarded the character of Posa, who was here a double agent for the Grand Inquisitor. Posa hands him the papers compromising Carlo, while his death was only simulated, with the Grand Inquisitor helping him get up after the end of the scene. Don Carlo, especially in the Milan version, is considered an opera with an “unresolved” finale; Carsen gave a very personal interpretation, by having both Carlo and Filippo killed in the end, with Posa showing up in full regalia: a coup organised by the Grand Inquisitor. The treatment of Posa did end up ruining the best bromance in all of opera, but the production had internal consistency and was convincing.

Julian Kim (Posa) and Marco Spotti (Il Grande Inquisitore)
© Michele Crosera

Maestro Myung-Whun Chung confirmed his status as an extraordinary interpreter of Verdi’s music. He led the orchestra in an intense reading of the complex score. Every section shone with excellence, the brass always on point, and the strings sweeping with perfect legato. The disruption of the rehearsals due to the flood didn’t leave any sign on their spectacular performance. The balance between pit and stage was exemplary, with an unfaltering support for the singers. The chorus, masterfully prepared by Claudio Marino Moretti, was consistently at the top of their game, with careful dynamics and perfect tempi.

A garden near Saint-Just
© Michele Crosera

The cast was worthy of Maestro Chung’s efforts. The three main male singers were all in their role debuts, and they all passed with flying colours, managing to detail all the ambiguity of their characters (more than usual, in this production). Piero Pretti has clearly found an opera that perfectly suits his beautiful, generous tenor. Julian Kim, as Posa, showed perhaps the most Verdian voice of the performance, with a sweet legato and careful phrasing. Alex Esposito has confirmed a successful development of his emotional and vocal range from Rossini and bel canto to Verdi: his Filippo was terrifying and imposing when contrasting Carlo and the Flemish, and he found a very moving vein of anguish in his round, warm bass, when lamenting his loneliness, and his loveless marriage. The “traditional” fermata on the low F at the end of the confrontation with the Grand Inquisitor was a thing of beauty.

Maria Agresta (Elisabetta)
© Michele Crosera

Elisabetta was the only character with no duplicity, torn by sadness and love, crushed by duty, but steady in her character. Maria Agresta gave a credible, if perhaps not particularly charismatic interpretation, indulging on her beautiful filati, especially effective in the lyrical passages. Eboli was Veronica Simeoni, her voice free of over-booming chest notes, always elegant even in the moments at risk of “verismo style”. Her high notes were confident and hit at full throttle, always covered, very exciting.

Marco Spotti was a convincing Grand Inquisitor, with an imposing, booming bass. All the (many) minor characters in the opera were remarkably well sung, from the sextet of Flemish deputies to the Voice from Heaven, to all the members of the Spanish Court. A thundering success.