When any opera house considers a new production of Don Carlo, bean-counting boffins in the administration department usually cringe in horror, or suggest La Voix humaine instead. The logistical and musical demands of this extremely complex work are daunting and for a small house such as Zagreb to mount a new production of the grandest of Verdi’s grand operas is no small achievement.

Adela Golac Rilović (Elisabetta di Valois) © Marko Ercegović | Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb
Adela Golac Rilović (Elisabetta di Valois)
© Marko Ercegović | Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb

Encouraged by the Croatian National Theatre’s musical director Nikśa Baresa, the enterprise was musically nurtured by 84 year old maestro Elio Boncompagni, who produced a fascinating new critical edition of the opera drawn from the original 1867 Paris version and the 1886 Modena partitura. Restoration of music usually discarded over the course of Don Carlo’s multiple reincarnations definitely increased the dramaturgy – not to mention the performance time, which ran to three and a half hours excluding intermissions.

Luciano Batinic (Philip II), Branislav Jatić (Grand Inquisitor) © Marko Ercegović | Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb
Luciano Batinic (Philip II), Branislav Jatić (Grand Inquisitor)
© Marko Ercegović | Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb
The Fontainebleau scene was included but opened with the maudlin “L'inverno è lungo!” chorus which Verdi cut even before the Paris première. Further dramaturgical clarity was achieved by the restoration of the scene where Elisabetta and Eboli exchange masks, making Carlo’s confusion more credible. The addition of mercifully truncated “La Pérégrina” ballet music was less convincing. Another major inclusion was the “Chi rende a me quest'uom” duet between Carlo and Philip after Posa has been shot, which again Verdi cut before the première, recycling the melody seven years later into the Lacrimosa in his Missa da Requiem. There was unfamiliar orchestration in the introduction to “Ella giammai m'amò” which was played by celli tutti instead of the customary solo. Boncompagni avers there is no solo marking in the original Ricordi score.

The production by Derek Gimpel updated the action from 1560s Spain to the 1860s and, apart from a suitably chilly Fontainebleau forest, was set entirely indoors. Since the practice of barbecueing religious backsliders ended well before 1820, this made the auto-da-fé contextually problematic. Gimpel’s solution was to have the apostates branded with a hot torch as some kind of coronation divertissement. Curiously, in the same scene there were no guards to refuse the King’s command when Carlo gets uppity and draws his sword. Posa doesn’t attempt to stab Eboli but tries strangulation instead. Elisabetta’s jewelry casket looked like a Cadbury’s chocolate box and her demand to “Rendetemi la croce!” was highly unlikely as Eboli wasn’t wearing one.

© Marko Ercegović | Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb
© Marko Ercegović | Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb
Stephan Dietrich’s costuming was particularly quirky. King Philip sported a long smoking jacket, Eboli’s couture was more paesana than principessa and the ill-fated Contessa d’Aremberg looked like Elisabetta’s charwoman. Posa’s military uniform was only captain’s rank and trudging a cavenous overnight bag made him more like a peripatetic ordinance officer. The production ends with Carlo escaping with said portmanteau in one hand and the skull of his grandfather in the other, safe back in the forests of Fontainebleau.

Vocally this was a creditable ensemble performance with several impressive individual interpretations. Remarkably, all parts were sung by members of the Croatian National Opera. 

Tomislav Mužek (Don Carlo) © Marko Ercegović | Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb
Tomislav Mužek (Don Carlo)
© Marko Ercegović | Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb
In the title role, Tomislav Mužek displayed a really beautiful mezza-voce and appealing vocal colour. Regrettably the top register was tentative and his characterization rudimentary. As a youngish Philip, Luciano Batinić was wanting in gravitas and needed more resonance in the lower register. “Ella giammai m'amò” suffered from irregular phrasing and a rather brisk tempo. On the other hand, there was a hefty sustained top E natural on “amor”.  Similar low register problems befell Branislav Jatić’s Grand Inquisitor and even the first deep A flat on “Re” lacked projection. Regrettably, the epic confrontation with Philip never reached the requisite incendiary frisson. Adela Golac Rilović was a suitably regal Elisabetta although her vocal technique was somewhat mannered. Attempts at Caballé-esque floaty pianissimi didn’t quite come off and “Tu che le vanità” was uneven. Much greater vocal and dramatic conviction came from Dubravka Šeparović Mušović as the egregious Eboli. The “Canzone del Velo” was a tour-de-force of vocal pyrotechnics and a stupendous “O don fatale” was reminiscent of Shirley Verrett in her prime. House baritone Ljubomir Puškarić scored a singular triumph as the valiant Rodrigo. Consistently fine phrasing, sensitive rubato and a refulgent top register characterised Puškarić’s performance. The sustained high G flat on “salva la Fiandra” was  truly heroic and “Io morrò, ma lieto in core” the musical highpoint of the performance. 

Deferential to the singers, Boncompagni kept the large orchestral forces under admirable control, although occasionally his tempi were slightly alacritous. There was some seductive solo clarinet playing and strings were surprising mellifluous, especially in the soaring crescendi during the superb “Ah! sii maledetto, sospetto fatale” quartet. The outstanding 80 strong chorus sang with exuberance, musicality and exemplary diction.

This Don Carlo was not just a vindication of Boncompagni’s commendable musicology but a testament to the excellence achieved by the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb under the indefatigable Baresa.