Today the looming figure of intolerance seems newly relevant, and by no means locked to 16th-century Spain, in which the opera is set. Verdi in his own time was politically active, an advocate of a united Italy and critical of a Roman Catholic church that did not support this coming together of Italy's many states. In the Grand Inquisitor he poured all the worst characteristics of the bigot. You will recognise him in an instant: he pops up on the news every day.
Jo Davies's very faithful production of Verdi's 1867 opera is splendidly set in the court of Philip II of Spain, and understands that big themes ring across the ages without interference. Buttoned up in black and rigid in their severe collars and ruffs, the characters, all under threat in different ways, inhabit a dark world of shadows, corridors and cages, away from the sun which only once breaks through into a rare moment of playfulness for the women of the court.
Ruxandra Donose (centre) and courtiers in Don Carlo. Photo: Robert Workman
The story is based on history. Philip II married for the second time in 1560. His young bride, Princess Elisabeth de Valois, was once destined to marry his son, Charles V, until the father took her for himself. In Verdi's opera, the younger lovers wrestle with their consciences against the backdrop of political turmoil and instability. Outside the court dissenters are burned to death, on the orders of the Inquisition.
This auto-da-fe brings to an end the shocking second act of the opera. Could such hatred of others be so extreme? Look around you, says Verdi, says director Jo Davis, whose highly intelligent production is blessed with a terrifically creative team. Set designer Leslie Travers, costume designer Gabrielle Dalton and lighting designer Anna Watson and Davies herself did not take a first night bow: I think they would have brought the house down.
As Philip II, Clive Bayley plumbs the depths of his mature bass voice as the isolated king privately lamenting his state. That higher notes are thinner and hollower these days only underlines the apparently all-powerful monarch's essential frailty, deprived of the one thing he cannot command, love.
Clive Bayley is the troubled Philip II of Spain. Photo: Robert Workman
Marina Costa-Jackson, a very exciting American soprano raised in Italy, makes a splendid Elisabeth, passionate, regal and fluid. Listen out for her at the Royal Opera House by and by. Elisabeth, catapulted into the Spanish court, has the friendship there of the Princess Eboli, a lustrous Ruxandra Donose, but no one is to be trusted in these dark times.
Don Carlo is an unenviable figure – he has a tyrannical father, a step-mother for a lover, a political conscience that puts him at odds with the throne. This power-packed performance by Leonardo Capalbo has everything you want from an Italian tenor – elegant notes and phrasing, a really focused drive forwards and dashing appearance. As his friend Rodrigo, Brett Polegato is a fine ally, although there were first-night intonation problems which may subside.
Fine chorus work and strong cameos by, notably, David Shipley as both a monk and the ghost of Charles V, armour-clad like the Tin Man, add to a really satisfying and creative evening. With the Orchestra of English National Opera in the pit and a fine chorus, directed by Gianluca Marciano, the standard of pure musicianship is very high. If Branislav Jatić as the Grand Inquisitor is a bit of a letdown vocally, his is a suitably nasty presence, devoid of compassion.
Brett Polegato as Rodrigo comforts Leonardo Capalbo as Don Carlo. Photo: Robert Workman
The whole package is wrapped in the shiny bright acoustics of Grange Park Opera's Theatre in the Woods. This mushroom opera house – it really does seem to have sprung out of the ground overnight – which styles itself as a mini-La Scala, has a thrillingly brilliant sound. Unashamedly constructed with cheap materials, all the emphasis at Grange Park is on the stage, where sets look more substantial than the auditorium. And with a production this solid, there is nothing makeshift here.
If you haven't given Grange Park a go yet, this Don Carlo – and this opera does not come round so very often – would be a great place to start. But be prepared to be chilled, not in the pretty gardens, but by that petrifying music for the Grand Inquisitor.
Don Carlo is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Further performances are on 15, 20, 25, 30 June; 4, 6, 7 July.
|What||Don Carlo, Grange Park Opera review|
|Where||Grange Park Opera, West Horsley Place, West Horsley,, Leatherhead, KT24 6AW | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
06 Jun 19 – 09 Jul 19, eight performances, with long dinner interval
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|