The Salzburg Festival has long had the image of this place where for a little over a month, the very best singers are brought together with the very best conductors and the very best directors to create the very best productions the opera world has to offer. Tickets are notoriously expensive and hard to get. Expectations are thus always extremely high for any Salzburg Festival performance and production. A performance can’t simply be “nice.” It has to be out of this world. A production can’t simply be a solid repertory utility production. It has to be for the ages, such a great production that opera houses all over the world will clamor for that production. In recent years, the Willy Decker Traviata started at Salzburg Festival 2005 and traveled to New York and now is a Met staple. Last year’s big hit was the Herheim Meistersinger.   

The opening scene of Peter Stein’s staging of Verdi’s Don Carlo quickly makes it clear that this will not be a production for the ages. The Fountainbleu Forest consists of a bunch of freezing peasants (dressed vaguely like Russian serfs) huddling in a sterile white room with windows in the back. Elisabeth (Anja Harteros) enters every inch the queen, in furs and a sparkling royal gown. Carlo (Jonas Kaufmann) is in a black fur coat. They are both shivering and the snow starts to fall in this white room. Are they inside? Outside? I guess outside, because they’re all shivering and at the end of the scene Carlo is left alone with the falling snow.

By now I’m sure you can guess what kind of production this is: spare nonsensical minimalist sets, rather fancy “period” costuming, and completely static to non-existent personregie. This is basically the same kind of Don Carlo you could imagine Rudolf Bing mounting for the Met in the 1950’s. Only difference is the use of the five-act version (now standard). The singers seem to have been directed to simply stand and look miserable for five acts. Even the bro-mance between Posa (Thomas Hampson) and Carlo is G-rated, without even a hint of homoerotic longing. The only break from tradition is Eboli (Ekaterina Semenchuk) isn’t wearing an eyepatch.

Some things about the production make nonsense of the libretto. For instance, Don Carlo and Eboli have their nighttime accidental encounter except the stage is brightly lit with festive paper lanterns. The scene ends with Posa stage left, Eboli stage center, Carlo stage right, all singing straight to the audience. I hate to use the term park and bark but there’s really no other way to describe the direction. Other attempts to set a scene just come across as amateurish. The Auto-da-Fe scene has two tiny thrones perched on wooden unpainted bleachers. The infidels are led to two tiny wooden stakes recessed to the very back of the stage, hidden behind rows and rows of chorus members, so you can barely see what’s happening to them. And why the hell are some guys dressed in sombreros?

The production shows its sloppiness in other ways. When Posa is shot, we see Hampson reacting to being shot, but his shirt is completely white. Then he crouches downwards, squeezes the fake blood bag, and all of a sudden he’s blood-spattered. The whole production is just a muddled, boring mess.

Musical values are much higher. Kaufmann, Harteros and Semenchuk are all excellent. Casting for Carlo has gotten weird over the years. I saw Roberto Alagna and he was pretty fine, but then there’s been a string of miscast Infants. There was Ramon Vargas, who made a nice stab at the role that pushed his lovely lyric tenor to the limit. And Rolando Villazon, who flat out had no business singing this part. And … James Valenti? What a relief then to hear a Carlo with enough spinto heft to do the role justice. Kaufmann’s dark timbre suits the role of the brooding, tortured Infanta and his high notes as usual have that thrilling trumpet-like brilliance. With that being said, Kaufmann needed stronger direction than Stein gave him. You know how some people have Resting Bitchface? Kaufman kind of has Resting Glumface. Left to his own devices, he kind of just wandered up and down the stage looking glum for five acts.

Harteros’ voice has a soft-grained, feminine timbre but enough strength in the middle-to-lower register to resonate in this role. She has beautiful float on her high notes. Her voice isn’t really Italianate or very warm, but you can’t have everything. Her natural dignity and grace are also a plus. “Tu che la vanita” has some unexpectedly off-key singing in the beginning of the aria but one is still impressed by the voice’s sweep and scope. But she also needed stronger direction than she received here. Whereas Kaufmann left to his own devices just turns glum, Harteros decided to go for the overwrought angsty facial expressions and silent film acting. “Io vengo a domandar grazia alla Regina” has her making crazy bug eyes and waving her arms frantically like she was directing traffic. Later she resorts to rolling on the floor. And yet, even with these reservations, Harteros is probably the best the world has to offer right now in this rep.

Semenchuk is a vocally appealing, visually sexy Eboli. She injects some much-needed life and sparkle to the zombie-fest. Her “Veil Song” lacks the necessary agility but she sings a thrilling “O Don fatale” and she alone on the stage seems to have gotten the message that this is a performance, and not an embalmed museum piece, and that when you’re singing to someone, it’s normal to make eye contact instead of making a face straight at the audience. Her acting is organic, natural, and strangely Eboli thus becomes the most sympathetic character of the opera.

The problems are in the lower male voices. Hampson’s instrument has dried up, and there’s practically no body left to his hollow, aging baritone. His Posa isn’t even well-acted. There’s no sense of the slippery political machinator from Hampson: he’s as wooden and arch as ever. Matti Salminen is 68 years old and really showing his age. He still brings great dignity and gravitas to the role of Philip, but in terms of actual voice? There’s not much left and pitch strays. “Ella giamai m’amó” has him covering up for his vocal deficiencies by some artful whispering. But there’s no core to the voice. Plus, Philip is more than a dignified old monarch, which is all Salminen makes him. There should be more hardness, more ruthlessness to his characterization. Much more exciting is Eric Halfvarson as the Grand Inquisitor. Robert Lloyd makes a nice cameo as Charles V.

Antonio Pappano’s conducting is excellent, and the Wiener Philharmoniker live up to their own high reputation. Verdi’s score sounds grand, sweeping, terrifying. However, sometimes it sounds too grand, sweeping, and terrifying. Germanic, if you will. I’m not sure Verdi is supposed to sound like Mahler. For a supposedly state of the art video, the sound balance is very poor. The voices often sound tinny and distant, like this was a 1950’s broadcast off the airwaves, and then in another scene they’ll sound vibrant and practically bouncing out of the stereos.