Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Deutsche Oper combines strong singing and acting with lush music in an evening that, despite its beauty, is not without its faults. The version used is the four-act Italian Carlo, and without the Fontainebleau scene to introduce us to the doomed romance of Carlo and Elisabetta, the entire evening flounders.

© Bettina Stöß
© Bettina Stöß

The production, originally created for the Deutsche Oper by Marco Arturo Marelli, is stark, consisting of revolving blocks meant to denote a monastery, a garden, a prison. The lighting is harsh: we are given to understand that this is a very unhappy country, ruled by very unhappy people. Unfortunately, while amply helping the audience to understand the psychology of the Spanish royals and their people, the enormous blocks proved to block sightlines, so that unless one was sitting in the exact center of the auditorium, one could not see all the action. This was particularly so during the auto-da-fé scene, obscuring a powerful moment between an unsympathetic Filippo and the condemned heretics. But where the production lacked, the musicians shined.

Don Carlo’s main love triangle of father-son-stepmother is oft mocked, but makes perfect sense in the hands of capable singers. Anja Harteros was Elisabetta, and was the evening’s true star. There is perhaps no other Verdi singer as excellent as Ms Harteros, and though she took some time to warm up, her singing was clear and beautiful. She executed Elisabetta’s Act IV aria with an ease that belied its difficulty; her dignity and elegance as the unhappy queen were apparent in her every gesture. It was a show-stopping performance.

In contrast was Russell Thomas in the title role. Though he sang with style and panache, there was hesitancy about him: the depth of Carlo’s despair was never fully evident. However, this was the American tenor’s debut in the role, and with experience will come ease.

Hans-Peter König’s Filippo was frightening in the best possible way. Here was a man who had no interest in changing the status quo, who enjoys insulting his wife before the court, who lights the pyre himself during the auto-da-fé. He was not easily bullied by the Grand Inquisitor; indeed, one had the impression that this Philipp bowed to none.

The cast was rounded out by a superb panoply of singers: Dalibor Jenis’ noble, hope-filled Posa; Violeta Urmana’s sensuous Eboli; and the superb basso profundo Paata Burchuladze as the Grand Inquisior, a man terrifying for both his ideals and the horror movie music that accompanies him. Also deserving honorable mention are Matthew Pena’s Count Lerma and Alexandra Hutton’s Tebaldo, and the six Flemish Deputies, Ben Wager, John Chest, Michael Rapke, Andrew Harris, Tobias Kehrer and Stephen Barchi.

While Marelli’s production leaves many questions unanswered (why are the cardinals accompanied by baby-stealing henchmen? Why are the Flemish Deputies in the monastery at the end? Why are they all shot by the aforementioned henchmen? Was Elisabetta meant to be shot, too, or did she just faint when the guns fired?), this production nonetheless makes an enjoyable, well-sung evening.

****1