Act I of Verdi's Don Carlo closes with one of the rawest depictions of pure heroism in opera: Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, vociferously pleads that the all powerful King Philip II of Spain end his bloodthirsty subjugation of the rebellion in Flanders. Posa describes Philip's peace as "Orrenda, orrenda pace" – the peace of the grave – language that can clearly cost him his life. (Philip, by the way, is unimpressed by the argument but very much impressed by Posa.) It was in this duet that Grange Park's performance last night really began to grip: David Stout's ardent, emotional baritone contrasting with Clive Bayley's intense, commanding bass, both singers taking complete control of the stage and, indeed, of the audience.

David Stout (Rodrigo), Stefan Secco (Carlo) © Grange Park Opera
David Stout (Rodrigo), Stefan Secco (Carlo)
© Grange Park Opera
In Act II, the tension just kept ratcheting up as we reached the trio betweeh Princess Eboli, Posa and Carlo, in which Eboli is furious to discover that Carlo is in love with his stepmother Elisabetta and not her: Stout, Stefano Secco and Ruxandra Donose produced one of those magical moments of ensemble singing that keep you coming back to Verdi. The support from Gianluca Marcianò and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was superb, as it had been all evening: rhythmic drive was solid, melodic accompaniments elegantly crafted, the power in the music always there below the surface and occasionally bursting through in full glory.

From there, we moved to the climactic auto-da-fé scene. There's no doubting where Verdi's political sympathies lie as the Flanders envoys are sent packing and heretics are sent to the flames, contrasting cruelly with the crowd singing paeans to the glory of Philip. The Grange Park chorus and all the soloists were singing their hearts out, and this was also the point where Jo Davies' staging made a real impact, as Philip's magnificent entry through smoke is followed by our view of the pyre behind and guards bodily lift an escaping heretical small child and thrust her into the flames.

© Grange Park Opera
© Grange Park Opera
The remainder of the staging was generally straightforward. We spent the vast majority of the opera in a chiaroscuro look; Gabrielle Dalton's costumes were mosly dark and period without being really period-specific; Leslie Travers sets were monumental walls and cages which shifted with the action. It all imparted a sort of “we are in the unenlightened dark ages” feel to proceedings.

Clive Bayley (Philip II), Alastair Miles (Grand Inquisitor) © Grange Park Opera
Clive Bayley (Philip II), Alastair Miles (Grand Inquisitor)
© Grange Park Opera
Verdi's narrative is at its most effective when depicting the political power play, and this production accentuated that by having four really strong singers in the male lead roles. The title role is a difficult one because at heart, Carlo is such an unappealing character – alternately hot-headed and self-pitying – but Stefano Secco sang it with excellence. It's not the warmest tenor voice, with more steel than velvet, but his power and control of line and phrasing made him exciting to listen to. Alastair Miles didn't overdo the subtlety of the Grand Inquisitor: this was a big bass voice used with the volume control turned up full, but it served the action well for his confrontational duet with Bayley's more nuanced Philip. Ruxandra Donose had power to burn as Eboli, thoroughly convincing in the ensemble passages and her closing “O don fatale,” less able to charm in the skittish Act I veil song.

The romance was less successful. Partly, that's inherent in the work: Carlo's impossible love for his stepmother Elisabetta doesn't give nearly as much scope for dramatic interest as the political machinations between Inquisition and Enlightenment or Philip's musings on the rigours of being an absolute monarch. In spite of Elisabetta and Carlo's background (she was originally betrothed to him before Philip decides to marry her himself), I was never made to feel any sympathy for the pair. Things weren't helped in this production by Virginia Tola's weak Elisabetta: she failed to inject much emotion into the role and didn't match the other singers for power, with some of the high pianissimi hardly coming out at all.

Don Carlo's ending is problematic, to say the least, with the ghost of Charles V appearing to save the day. Davies' staging subverts this in the most unexpected way - I won't say more, but will leave you to find out for yourselves. And with five out of six main characters very strongly cast, including a powerhouse Philip from Clive Bayley, superb orchestral and chorus performances and a more than adequate staging, Grange Park's Don Carlo is a great way to immerse yourself into Verdi's mastery of political drama.