There could not possibly be a better cast today for Don Carlo. Verdi’s sprawling opera has at least five punishingly difficult roles: Don Carlo, the eponymous prince; Elisabetta, his stepmother and the object of his forbidden love; King Philip II, Carlo’s father and Elisabetta’s wife; Rodrigo, Carlo’s devoted friend; and Princess Eboli, Elisabetta’s rival for the love of both royals. Each is filled perfectly at San Francisco Opera. With the wise choice of the five-act Italian score, energetically delivered by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, this Don Carlo is musically ideal.

Unfortunately, the staging itself is not so successful. There is plenty of pomp and splendor. The costumes dazzle, with an abundance of velvet, jewels, and gold and fetching knee-high boots for the men (though the overreliance on anachronistic white satin for the women is unfortunate). The polished black set makes for a versatile backdrop that serves well as court, jail, and monument. Gary Marder’s lighting design evokes both the brilliant Spanish sun and the gloom of Carlo’s prison. But the largely bare stage offers little for the singers to work with, and director Emilio Sagi leaves them to stand and sing or to pace aimlessly, rather than giving them purposeful stage business. This is a particular shame because these singers can act; the raw material for a truly dramatic production is here.

As Philip II, René Pape seemed most natural on the stage, using his charismatic presence and warm voice to deliver a devastating “Ella giammai m'amò”. Some fumbled stage violence afterwards did not diminish his gravity. Ana María Martínez shone as his unhappy wife Elisabetta, singing “Tu che le vanità” with extraordinary dynamic and expressive range. This is her role debut, but you never would have known it listening to her affecting phrasing, achingly beautiful floated notes, and flawless messa di voce. I will be surprised if this role (and especially this aria) does not become a centerpiece of her repertoire.

Michael Fabiano had a similarly successful debut as Don Carlo. His bright tenor and impressive stamina are well suited to the role’s demands, although his acting consisted mostly of alternately gripping his head and the wall. He was most dramatically compelling in his scenes with Rodrigo (they had far more chemistry as a pair than he and Elisabetta). Thanks for this go to Mariusz Kwiecień, who gave a fiery and powerfully voiced interpretation of the loyal Marquis. He electrified every scene he entered and was in top form for “Per me giunto è il dì supremo… Io morrò, ma lieto in core”. A habit of sliding up to initial notes and an over-reliance on the bariclaw are minor quibbles with such an impassioned performance.

Nadia Krasteva rounded out the quintet of leads as the vengeful Princess Eboli. She seemed to have two different and equally gorgeous voices – a lighter, flexible instrument that she used for a playful Veil Song, and a resonant powerhouse that showed during “O don fatale”. Eboli is never simpering or weak, but this Krasteva was so strong that it seemed entirely in character when she drew Carlo’s sword and settled into a garde to meet Rodrigo’s threats. As the page Tebaldo, Nian Wang’s clear, full mezzo-soprano was an excellent match for Krasteva during the duet portions of the Veil Song. Finally, Andrea Silvestrelli astounded (as usual) as the Grand Inquisitor, with a voice that both croaks and booms to effortlessly fill the house.

The cast was well supported by a huge chorus (80 people, plus supernumeraries and dancers), who produced a beautiful, blended sound, and by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra under the baton of Nicola Luisotti. The playing was excellent, with verve from the brass, legato from the strings, and balance both between the orchestral sections and with the singers.