Young princes will leave behind a lot of human wreckage as they blunder their way to maturity. If the titanic confrontations and complex intrigue of Verdi’s most ambitious opera, “Don Carlo,” has a message, it is that. But the drama, which opened Saturday at the Washington National Opera, is larger than any single theme. It is a picture of power and corruption and the enormous insecurities that gnaw at the autocratic mind. Originally written for the Paris Opera, the Hollywood of the 19th century, it is spectacular, flawed and often confusing, and it is Verdi at his absolute best.
Sparks flew in all the essential scenes of this production, thanks to a strong cast and an exceptional orchestra performance led by conductor Philippe Auguin. Some of the finest moments were in the orchestral scene-setting, including the lovely prelude to the title character’s fraught audience with Elisabeth de Valois, who is his beloved and also his stepmother, and the funereal wheedling from the cello and violins that precedes King Philip II’s monologue.
For years before and after its 1867 premiere in Paris, Verdi wrestled with the opera, producing an Italian version for audiences beyond Paris, condensing it and, in some versions, eliminating one of its most beautiful scenes, in which the love interest between the title character and Elisabeth is established. The WNO production also lopped off this essential vignette, a major loss and one that confuses the drama. But its omission underscores the wonderful oddity of the opera, in which seemingly peripheral characters carry the drama, struggling to thwart or save Carlo from his self-destructive impetuousness, and to preserve or reform the cruel hegemony of the Spanish empire.
So the opera needs not just a fine tenor and soprano for Carlo and Elisabeth, but also a world-class bass, mezzo-soprano and baritone. Jamie Barton was the best of these, and the star of the evening, elevating the mezzo role of Princess Eboli from vengeful femme fatale to a wounded but sympathetic courtier, both perpetrator and victim of the palace’s sexual intrigue. Her Veil Song was coy and sultry, and the showstopping “O don fatale” was a magnificent study in how an unhinged mind can still gather itself to a moral purpose.
Baritone Quinn Kelsey sang with a long-lined legato and pleasing timbre (though sometimes cloudy in the lower range) as Rodrigo, Carlo’s friend and protector. Rodrigo is the moral core of the work, both in Verdi’s opera and the Friedrich Schiller play on which it is based, and his volcanic confrontation with the king — “When future ages hear your name, let them not say, ‘He was Nero’ ” — didn’t disappoint. Eric Owens, who sang a fine Flying Dutchman with the WNO in 2015, struggled to adapt a Wagnerian voice to the leaner, more plastic lines of Verdi, but he gave a moving account of the king’s anguished monologue and chilling cat-and-mouse with the Grand Inquisitor (sung by bass Andrea Silvestrelli with a cadaverous edge to his tone). As Carlo, Russell Thomas put all the drama into his voice — an appealing tenor with focus, solid support and a taut sense of urgency — but couldn’t quite find the mercurial Hamlet lurking in his character’s aristocratic brattiness. Soprano Leah Crocetto’s Elisabeth was sung with style and technique, and she conveyed the queen’s youth and vulnerability. But one wanted more subtlety and depth.
The principal failing of this show isn’t musical but visual. Created jointly with Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera, the production is monotonous, ugly and cliched. The set (designed by Andrew Lieberman) is a single expressionist piece, with a canted floor and gaping windows in two side walls that are clearly meant to suggest the claustrophobia of the Spanish court. After the intermission, a wedge of gray dirt is strewn across the floor, and the rear wall has been blasted open to reveal an ominous sky. This apocalyptic gesture is exhausted and should be retired.
Even in its Italian version, “Don Carlo” is still rooted in grand opera, a specific historical form in which the visual element was as essential to a work’s expressive effect as the music and the drama. Contemporary dramaturgy is committed to the ahistoric piety that only the singing and drama matter, that scenic design and spectacle are merely excrescences of the melodramatic mind-set. One doesn’t need a traditional stage set with its gardens, grand squares and brooding palace interiors. But to entirely ignore the essential interplay of dark and light, interior and exterior, and public and private space is to deprive the opera of expressive tools essential to its impact.
Director Tim Albery has decided to make Don Carlo commit suicide at the end, rather than escape into a darkened tomb (as in the Verdi) or be handed over to the authorities (as in the Schiller). So it ends with neither mystery nor cynical fatalism, but a narcissistic act. The narcissism, of course, is the director’s.
“Don Carlo” will be presented by the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center on March 5, 8, 11, 14, 16 and 17. For more information, visit www.kennedy-center.org