Many composers and librettists have attempted to create operas from the collision of personal desires and political imperatives. Most founder on the rocks of sentimentality, but not Don Carlo: building on Schiller, Verdi paints the travails of Philip II of Spain with fine brushstrokes and an unflinching eye. Grange Park Opera’s season opener succeeded in taking us to the intense heat of the molten core of the opera. The performance was strewn with imperfections, but it did justice to the most important aspects of this most political of Verdi’s operas.

Brett Polegato (Rodrigo), Leonardo Capalbo (Carlo)
© Robert Workman

David Shipley gave us a thundering start with the Monk’s intoned requiem for the dead Charles V. After that opening, what we look forward to most in Don Carlo are its big confrontation scenes, and the point where things really started sizzling was towards the end of Act 1 when Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, pleads with Philip for him to end the carnage of the religious war in Flanders. As Philip, bass Clive Bayley turned on full regal power. As Posa, Brett Polegato was the surprise packet of the evening, a proper Verdian baritone producing a big sound with enormous warmth and feeling, without faltering when moving into the higher parts of the baritone range so loved by Verdi. The ebb and flow of the discourse between two strong men was riveting.

Clive Bayley (Philip II) Branislav Jatić (Grand Inquisitor)
© Robert Workman

However, Bayley either overdid things or started suffering from some ailment, because he cracked some notes badly in Act 2 and in his big Act 3 aria, “Ella giammai m’amò” and the subsequent huge confrontation with Branislav Jatić’s Grand Inquisitor, there were some very odd switches in dynamics (the low register strong, the high register frequently at little above a whisper). It didn’t stop the scene having huge impact – the ebb and flow of power between Church and State are tangible in the music and both Bayley and Jatić stood their corners superbly – but clearly, all was not well.

Ruxandra Donose (Eboli) and chorus
© Robert Workman

The other three main roles (Don Carlo is unusual for Verdi in having six roles that all really count) were also well sung. Going in the opposite direction of Bayley, Leonardo Capalbo’s Carlo started somewhat uncertainly, with strength in the voice but a rather covered timbre, but improved steadily as the evening progressed, to the point where in the Act 4 duet with Elisabetta, when Carlo has finally overcome his childish, petulant nature to become truly heroic, he was singing with warmth to add to that strength and to his smooth phrasing. Marina Costa-Jackson’s Elisabetta came into its own in this duet and its preceding aria “Tu che la vanità”: it’s a passage that can easily outstay its welcome as a piece of drama, but you couldn’t fault the singing. Princess Eboli’s O don fatale is one of the great arias for a dramatic mezzo in any opera: Ruxandra Donose nailed it, with plenty of feeling injected into a voice whose timbre is particularly smooth at the top (earlier, Donose had struggled to make her lower register heard in trio, with Capalbo and Polegato singing at full pelt and making no allowances for the low tessitura of Eboli’s lines).

Gianluca Marcianò and the English National Opera Orchestra played competently, but there wasn’t exactly an explosion of orchestral colour, and tempi in the first couple of acts felt a bit rushed: it would have been nice if the singers had been given space for more expansive phrasing.

Marina Costa-Jackson (Elisabetta)
© Robert Workman

Jo Davies’ staging, transported from the previous Grange to the new Theatre in the Woods, has many virtues but suffers from issues. The virtues lie in a straightforward rendering of the story and a particularly strong auto-da-fé scene, with a genuinely horrifying pyre and people wearing the white conical hoods that we now associate with the Ku Klux Klan but which originated in the Spanish Inquisition. There’s an effective cage which serves either as Carlo’s prison or as a screen for candles in the monastery. But scene changes were prolonged and clunky (including confusing the audience with house lights going on at the wrong times) and you really have to like chiaroscuro on the opera stage (personally, I don’t) with dark backgrounds, most costumes in black and mainly dingy lighting except for highlights on faces. I also question whether the “MGM big crowd scene” style really works with a stage and chorus of relatively small scale.

In sum, there was plenty at which to cavil. But none of the cavils were all that important in the grand scheme of things: what we received was the overwhelming sense of a highly dramatic series of powerful confrontations between characters in whom we could believe, together with a real sense of the historic horrors of the time.