Performing Verdi’s Don Carlo in Madrid is the closest equivalent to staging Roberto Devereux in London or Giovanna d’Arco in Paris. The usual deformation of national myths in Romantic opera has an additional tinge of awkwardness when showed to the respective local audiences (including in this case a King actually named Philip). The Teatro Real has shunned the wealth of juicy staging possibilities, and has brought in an unassuming production by Sir David McVicar, premiered in Frankfurt in 2007, inviting the Madrid audience to watch Don Carlo as if it was a random period drama set anywhere else.

Marcelo Puente (Don Carlo); Maria Agresta (Elisabetta)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

McVicar’s production, revived now by Axel Weidauer, is above all a fine solution to Don Carlo’s many staging challenges. Robert Jones’ set, a massive bricked structure with no obvious historical reference, provides an oppressive frame for the drama, contrasted by Joachim Klein’s lights, that went from the poignant white of the auto-da-fé to the gloom of Philip II's chamber. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s great costumes served as the only anchor to the historical plot, with the pervasive black of the Spanish court and the astonishing gilded gown that Elisabetta wears in the auto-da-fé, an undeserved walking crown for Filippo. With these rather neutral elements, McVicar tries to focus on the characters but, despite some clever details, the direction seems lost in the intricacies of the drama. Eboli’s position in the palace is blurred, more a nosy intruder than a poised schemer, and Posa is just too eager in front of the king, his nobility betrayed by constant bravado. Some scenes were based on a good idea (the intriguing choreography in the Veil Song) but felt clumsy and contrived. Others were just whimsical, such as the final killing of Carlo by Filippo’s guards. The production was at its best, however, in a ceremonious and extremely well composed auto-da-fé.

The auto-da-fé
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Tenor Marcelo Puente, replacing Francesco Meli, sang with genuine phrasing and very good musical instincts, but some serious technical issues hobbled his performance. His out-of-control vibratto and strained passaggio notes were solved only through courage and strength. He acted with more passion than skill, depicting a candid Carlo that contrasted with Maria Agresta’s wonderfully austere Elisabetta. Her voice is clearly in transition, having lost agility in the centre and ease in the high notes, while still not sounding wide enough for the spinto repertoire. But she proved to be a great singer, with fine mezza-voce and royal phrasing, crowning her performance with a serene "Tu che le vanità", heartbreaking in its lyric evocations.

Luca Salsi has gained a widespread reputation lately as a solid baritone in the Italian repertoire and it is easy to understand why. His tenor-like, homogenous timbre flows free and clean, especially in his astonishing high notes, helped however by portamenti and sometimes lacking enough vibration. He proved to have total control in his “ballata”, full of dynamics, but this vocal easiness turned too often into overconfidence, as he sacrificed the musical line with extreme rubatos. Ekaterina Semenchuk, on the other hand, was too cautious in her well sung, but superficial Eboli. She reserved her energies for the most effective parts, such as the impressive trio in Act 3 and powerful top notes in “O don fatale”.

Ekaterina Semenchuk (Eboli) and Maria Agresta (Elisabetta)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

The same could be say of Dmitry Belosselskiy as Filippo. His rich timbre, with exciting touches of metal, was his great asset in an authoritative public side of the character, but whenever he had to show his inner feelings, his phrasing sounded hollow and monotone. Next to this vocal might, Mika Kares’s Inquisitor was modest, but well sung. The team of basses was completed by Fernando Radó’s nuanced, warm monk and by the six superb Flemish envoys. Natalia Labourdette was a playful Tebaldo with her rosy timbre, Moisés Marín was extraordinary as Lerma and the Royal Herald, with his sharp, clean tenor and sober accents, and Leonor Bonilla was a powerful Voice from Heaven, despite some strained top notes.

Mika Kares (The Grand Inquisitor) and Dmitry Belosselskiy (Philip II)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

After some mixed attempts, Nicola Luisotti finally achieved what he was yearning for with the orchestra of the Teatro Real. He connected superbly with the fiery nerve of the five-act Modena version and conducted with contagious energy. His enthusiasm almost betrayed him in some loud fortissimos but he was able to obtain incredibly nuanced dynamic arcs, especially in the final duet. The woodwinds took the lead with warm sound and moving phrasing, compensating for some blunders in the brass section. They all were at their best in a breathtakingly intimate and minimalist quartet in Act 4. The chorus was in good shape as usual, with superb singing from the female section in the Fontainebleau act.

In the end the score shone as a true masterpiece, but Madrid will have to wait for a meaningful dialogue with Verdi's most politically charged drama.