Sixteenth century Spain is no fun. The French ladies in the first act of Jürgen Rose’s Don Carlo dress in watery blues and greens, but color quickly vanishes from the production. The palette in Spain is black on black, except for a rare glimpse of a white nightshirt or a red shawl. Only the pageantry of the auto-da-fé gets bright hues, with purple-clad religious functionaries, a flame-red royal box, golden angels, and flower-covered moving statues. This uniquely colorful scene only underscores the horror of the bloody, naked, groaning prisoners who are about to be burned to death.

Watching the energetic, youthful Elisabetta being literally stifled by her royal mantle and then fading into the dreary world of the Spanish court is a tragedy in itself. Anja Harteros imbues the character with a wonderful vitality. As she loses her love, her friendship, and the king’s regard, she becomes more aware of the futility of her struggles. Harteros emphasizes expressive choices over an unbroken vocal line, but she still manages to produce a consistently beautiful sound with a thrilling edge. Her resigned final scene is a triumph of both vocal and dramatic performance.

Unfortunately, not all of the acting is as effective. The singers have a difficult task, because their costumes blend into the all-black set. The eye is pulled to the scene as a whole or to the silhouettes created by the brilliant lighting, rather than to individual actors. Alfred Kim has particular difficulty as Don Carlo, lacking the charisma or voice to draw attention. His instrument is harsh and scream-like, with a fast vibrato. Its brightness and easy high range aren’t sufficient to make him pleasant to listen to. His characterization of the Spanish heir is also too weak to inspire sympathy. With this cast, it’s easier to feel bad for the usually villainized Philip II. René Pape’s delivery of his aria “Ella giammai m'amò” offers a masterclass in expression, dynamics, and legato, making the scene the most affecting in the whole opera.

Philip and Rodrigo also have more chemistry than (the more typically close) Rodrigo and Carlo. In an electrifying moment, when Rodrigo accuses the king of bringing Flanders only “la pace dei sepolcri”, the furious Philip draws his sword. Rodrigo boldly steps forward, daring the king to stab him. Simone Piazzola has both the swagger and the voice for the role. His duets with Carlo misfire because of their clashing vibrati and incompatible tones, but his heroic “Per me giunto è il dì supremo” shows off impressive vocal warmth and agility. As the less heroic royal confidante Eboli, Anna Smirnova wows with a powerful, shimmering “O don fatale”. Her voice shows tremendous dynamic range and fills the theatre with rich sound.

The smaller roles are all well-cast. Eri Nakamura underwhelms in the opening scene as the page Tebaldo, but her duets with Eboli during the veil song were pleasantly chirpy. Her playful manner throughout brings some much-needed whimsy into the dark Spanish court. Goran Jurić plays the mysterious monk with shadowy impassiveness. His deep voice has some odd slurs and slides, but is generally well-suited to the role. As the Grand Inquisitor, Rafał Siwek sings with a very full sound and an appropriately harsh edge to his voice. His bearing makes his character’s mere presence intimidating, and his vocal power adds to the effect.

The strong cast was dragged down by Asher Fisch’s conducting of the Bayerische Staatsorchester. He consistently chose a plodding pace, which combines with the drab aesthetic to make the opera seem interminable. He spent the first half of the opera in a musically different world from his singers – the orchestra made some interesting dynamic and textural choices, but they had nothing to do with what was happening onstage and failed to support the excellent chorus or soloists. That improved; the instruments successfully accompanied the principals through the series of bravura arias that makes up the last two acts.

The production suffers from an unusual but important flaw: bad supertitles. More than half of the text, including many important and emotionally devastating lines, simply goes untranslated. (This is especially noticeable because of the good Italian diction of Kim and Pape.) This surely decreases the opera’s effectiveness for much of the audience. Except for Don Carlo himself, this cast is universally strong. They deserve better conducting and a more engaging production.