Salzburg Don Carlo Does Feeble Job Burning Heretics

Burning heretics at the stake is all in a day’s work for Filippo II in Verdi’s opera “Don Carlo.”

Yet the despotic Spanish monarch still arouses pity when he weeps pathetically and beautifully over his lonely marriage.

“She has never loved me,” he sighs.

Perhaps he should have seen it coming. Filippo first agrees to marry Elisabetta to his unstable son, Carlo. They fall in love. Then the king changes his mind, and decides to marry her himself. Jealousy, treachery, forbidden love, revenge and self-sacrifice ensue, set against a dark backdrop of suffocating religious repression and political tyranny.

The stake-burning fizzles at Austria’s Salzburg Festival new staging, which premiered last night. A flickering fire is projected onto a screen at the back of the stage (there’s a smart-phone application that does something similar) while plumes of white smoke obscure the heretics and pyre.

Blue sets designed by Ferdinand Woegerbauer that resemble unfinished, boxy architectural models fail to create ambiance, despite the panoramic use of the wide Grosses Festspielhaus stage. The third act opens with a ball, here rendered with a tentative marquee, an arrangement of red fencing like the temporary barriers used to create orderly lines in airports, and some paltry colored lanterns.

Obsessive Prince

The music had much to make up for -- and luckily, the excellent singing compensated for a lot.

Jonas Kaufmann as the obsessive prince Don Carlo and Anja Harteros as the unfortunate Elisabetta were outstanding and won hearty bravos. So did Thomas Hampson as Rodrigo, Carlo’s close companion and the true hero of the piece. Matti Salminen as Filippo began weakly though gained power and warmth in time for his sad aria.

Antonio Pappano, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, brought the variety and energy that was lacking in the staging.

The costumes were mainly drably color-coordinated, the crowd scenes bland and some of the acting was wooden. Kaufmann and Hampson spent much of the fourth act clinched in awkward man-hugs. Stage director Peter Stein clearly wanted to introduce a homo-erotic element, yet Kaufmann’s brooding Carlos is more compelling with Elisabetta.

When they meet for the first time as mother and son, she gives an inch, saying she still loves him, and he tries to take a mile, pouncing on her so that she has to throw him off angrily.

Harteros has great presence, equally moving when flying into a rage with the king for questioning her honor as when singing her tender final farewells to Carlo in the last act.

Verdi’s strange ending is here played straight. A tomb in a monastery, adorned with a golden statue of Carlo V, opens to release the dead and venerated king, resplendent in gold armor. He calmly winds his arm around his grandson’s neck and reverses back into the grave with him. Addio Carlo. Rating: **

Meistersinger Madness

Wagner’s “Meistersinger von Nuernberg,” the story of a singing contest with a bride as the prize, is set in the 19th century rather than medieval times in Stefan Herheim’s meticulously choreographed production in Salzburg.

As the overture plays, the curtain opens on Hans Sachs in a frenzy of creative energy in the middle of the night. He draws a white curtain, and a neat projection replicates the image on stage and can alter the scale.

Parts of that image are then blown up to fill the stage for the sets that follow: Sachs’s desk becomes a church in the first scene, while a Biedermeier cupboard becomes the facade of his home for the later street scenes. Undisturbed in one corner, a portrait of his dead wife and children, some toys and a cradle remind us he has a tragic past.

Seven Dwarves

The books on his desk become larger than people, and in the wild riot that Sachs provokes to deflect attention from Eva’s elopement plans, an anthology of Grimms’ fairytales opens to release Snow White, the seven dwarves, the Frog Prince and Puss in Boots into the madness. They are joined by Bottom with his ass’s head from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Herheim highlights an era with charm and inventiveness, yet doesn’t offer much in the way of food for thought. It feels a little too rounded, almost twee, and doesn’t ask enough questions about breaking rules and pushing back borders in the name of art -- the themes, after all, of the opera.

Michael Volle is a fabulous Hans Sachs. None of the rest of the singing was of an equal caliber. Daniele Gatti earned boos from the audience for heavy handed conducting. Rating: **

For the program and more information on the Salzburg Festival, go to, or +43-662-8045-500.

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on arts, Mark Beech on rock, Scott Reyburn on the art market and Frederik Balfour on books.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Excellent
****       Very good
***        So-so
**         Mediocre
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)