For a company that hadn’t staged Don Carlo for 33 years, Tokyo Nikikai's recent production of Verdi’s masterpiece was an impressive achievement. As none of Tokyo’s three major opera companies (the other two being the New National Theatre Tokyo and Fujiwara Opera Company) have their own house orchestras, Tokyo-based orchestras take it in turns to play in the pit, and on this occasion it was the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra which gave a powerful, yet nuanced performance under the baton of the veteran Italian conductor, Gabriele Ferro. According to the programme, the production was “in collaboration with Frankfurt Opera”, but it was de facto a rental of David McVicar's 2007 staging for Frankfurt (in the five act Italian version).

McVicar sets the production in the original 16th century Spain with authentic looking black-based period costumes (complete with ruff collars) reminiscent of paintings by El Greco or Velázquez. A monochrome set, designed by Robert Jones and constructed from grey bricks and pillars, serves all five acts. In the centre is a flight of stone steps (with a plain stone tomb in the middle, which disappears in some scenes) and corresponding tiered platforms on both sides. At the back of the stage is a row of tall square pillars which in the Fontainebleau act presumably represent trees. A thurible is suspended from the ceiling in the Saint-Just scenes. Visually, it is austere (even the Auto-da-fé scene is relatively restrained), but somehow this austerity helped convey the unforgiving and oppressive atmosphere of Filippo II’s reign.

One of the main characteristics of all Tokyo Nikikai’s productions is that as a rule, the cast is all Japanese and is drawn from its members. Also, the performances are always double cast, in order to give experience to the younger singers. On this occasion, I saw the 'A' cast featuring Kei Fukui, the leading Japanese operatic tenor in the title role. Vocally, it was strong, although results were more mixed in the acting department. Fukui seemed rather tentative in Fontainebleau (modern directors like to include this act for narrative reasons, but it is a difficult role to pull off so early on in the opera). By his Act II scene with Elisabetta, both his singing and his acting had heated up and he displayed both passion and despair. As Rodrigo, baritone Hiroyuki Narita gave a refined interpretation, although he seemed to show more character in the ensembles including “Dio, che nell’alma infondere”, his famous duet with Carlo.

The singer who shone most, both vocally and dramatically, was Mutsumi Taniguchi in the role of Princess Eboli. I first heard her last year, as Fenena in Graham Vick's production of Nabucco at the New National Theatre Tokyo, but her voice was more attractive here and she seemed more confident in this role. She sang her “Veil Song” light-heartedly, but with allure, and although she lacked agility in the faster passages, she sang it with panache. Her other aria, “O don fatale”, was equally impressive, where she found a darker tone to express her remorse.

Soprano Keiko Yokoyama gave a powerful and poised performance as Elisabetta, although her acting seemed mannered throughout. She certainly had the vocal stamina and the voice gained richness as the work progressed, but at times she was trying too hard to push her voice across the orchestra so that her vibrato widened and her top notes were shrill.

Of the major roles, bass Jun Ito's Filippo II was the most disappointing. I think this is the downside of drawing the entire cast from company members, as in Japan there aren’t that many bass singers anyway, and even fewer who have the necessary gravitas and heft for Filippo. Ito lacked power and depth in the great Act IV soliloquy “Ella giammai m'amò” and his stage presence was weak, failing to convey his emotional conflict between public duty and his private turmoil. On the other hand, the Grand Inquisitor, sung by bass Kenji Saiki, had the necessary menace and made a stronger impression.

The driving force of this Nikikai production came from the pit. Ferro’s tempi were often restrained and he supported the singers with care, never pushing or driving them. It was not an 'in your face' performance, but rather he brought out delicate orchestral colours and nuances. Although the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra only perform in the pit once or twice each year, they are currently one of the finest symphony orchestras in Tokyo (Kazushi Ono will become its music director from April 2015). The strings played with lush tone and the woodwind solos (especially the clarinet and bassoon solos) were beautifully eloquent. Not having its own orchestra understandably has its disadvantages, but sometimes it can produce hugely satisfying results, as on this occasion.