“Viva l’Italia antifascista!” shouted a spectator from the high reaches of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on December 7—Saint Ambrose’s Day, when the great and the good of Italy and beyond gather to inaugurate a new season at the country’s leading opera house. This year, political drama threatened to distract from the stage’s drama: neither Italy’s center-left president, Sergio Mattarella, nor the right-wing prime minster, Giorgia Meloni, attended the opening, as occupants of these highest national offices usually do. Their absence did attract comment, as did the presence of some of Meloni’s more controversial cabinet members. But none of this could detract from the performance of the superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as Elizabeth in Verdi’s Don Carlo.

The recent trials and mistreatments of Netrebko have been well documented. She remains effectively proscribed from performances in America. Despite her sufferings, she is in the finest voice of her career. Don Carlo is emotionally wrenching. Its plot supposes that the title character, King Philip II’s son, was his father’s political rival and his romantic rival, in love with his stepmother, Elizabeth. Any soprano taking on Elizabeth must balance romantic love against marital fidelity, passions of the moment against the joys of memory. Netrebko was irresistible at every turn. Her middle register has thickened to the point where Verdi roles are now her best repertoire, benefitting from a rich, creamy sound. Her best singing of the evening was by far the final act aria “Tu che le vanità,” a six-part monster set piece that demandingly combines the character’s emotional states. The audience, overcoming its political edginess, united in sustained applause that went on for several minutes—a phenomenon scarcely known in today’s operatic world.  

Hardly any assemblage of vocal talent could deliver a performance to equal Netrebko’s. The sunny-voiced tenor Francesco Meli gave it his all in the title role, but, while appealing, he lacked the sonorities of a true Verdian tenore di forza. La Scala’s frequently cast baritone Luca Salsi surprised in the role of Don Carlo’s friend Rodrigo, banking on a softer use of his often gruff, barrel-chested voice. The Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča promised to be a gratifying addition as Princess Eboli; the range was there, but the singing tended oddly sharp for this otherwise excellent performer. The famed German bass René Pape was scheduled to sing Philip but left the cast some weeks before the premiere. His replacement, Michele Pertusi, was announced sick halfway through the opening-night performance, but still delivered a respectable, if not exactly thrilling, portrayal. The Estonian bass Ain Anger, cast as the menacing Grand Inquisitor, also cancelled for health reasons shortly before the premiere. The Korean singer Jongmin Park replaced Anger but was tasked as well with appearing in his originally assigned role, that of the Monk. This created a problem at the finale, when both the Grand Inquisitor and the Monk are briefly on stage at the same time. Park soldiered on as the Inquisitor while Huanhong Li stepped into the Monk’s part for just this scene. Though otherwise satisfying, Park lacked the low notes requisite to make the Inquisitor as scary as he must be.

The Catalan director Lluís Pasqual directed Don Carlo for the second time in his career in this production. His first effort was in 1985. La Scala productions are not without innovation, but they trend toward the traditional. Pasqual created an enormous edifice of dark-wood and translucent panels to fill the background of every scene. The effect was as austere and foreboding as Philip’s reign is said to have been, though full use of the stage was not always made. Reconfiguring the structure for different scenes caused audible creaking sounds that detracted from the drama. Of particular disappointment was the auto-da-fé scene, a tableau of horrific persecution that forms the backdrop for Don Carlo’s plot-turning political rebellion. The characters are mostly static while the heretics are burned in an invisible dungeon. Only a pale flame suggests their immolation. Riccardo Chailly’s careful and well-balanced conducting emphasized the traditional aspects of the staging. The production team probably did not deserve the loud booing they received at curtain calls, but there was not much new here, or much to attract global attention beyond Netrebko’s virtuoso singing. Any American impresario bold enough to break the taboo on casting her will do our audiences a great favor and be rewarded for it.

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