What makes Arizona Opera's three-hour-plus production all the more remarkable is that it's actually an abridgement. Verdi's original version, first performed in Paris in 1867, had another act at the beginning, in which the titular hero, the "Infante" of Spain's royal family in the 16th century, meets and falls in love with Elisabeth of France, to whom he's been betrothed. Nice when things work out, except that this time they don't -- there's a change of plans, and Elisabeth is forced, for political reasons, to marry King Phillip II of Spain, Don Carlo's dad. A bit awkward, that.
The Arizona production is apparently based on Verdi's 1884 revision, which drops this opening act and begins, rather abruptly, with a mysterious monk mourning the death of Carlo's grandfather, Charles V. Then we see Don Carlo bellyaching about his lost love. His loyal friend Rodrigo tells him to forget that mushy stuff and come and help him fight for the people of Flanders, Protestants who are being oppressed by Phillip, a backer of the Spanish Inquisition.
The plot that ensues -- adapted from Schiller's 1787 play, which, in turn, draws on historical events -- involves late-night assignations, misunderstood love letters, scheming spurned lovers, the auto-da-fé, the Grand Inquisitor, assassinations, stolen keepsakes, changes of heart, uprisings of the people, and even supernatural visitations. Yet all these theatrical bells and whistles don't seem as preposterous as they might in some operas, because the humanist Verdi keeps reminding us of the agonies that the private passions of the powerful can create for real people in the real world.
The March 30 cast of the Arizona production (as usual, two sets of principals alternate performances) was commandingly in control of the material. Tonio di Paolo in the title role and Aimee Willis as Elisabeth both sing potently, yet these roles, though technically the leads, don't generate the same connection with the audience that two of the technically "supporting" players do. Baritone Gordon Hawkins is warm and likable as the valiant Rodrigo, but the real scene-stealer of this Don Carlo is Mikhail Svetlov Krutikov, the baleful bass who sings the black-hearted, hard-assed, unhappy old tyrant Phillip. Krutikov's performance shows how complex and expressive a fine bass can be.
The strongest segment of the production is the beginning of Act Three, Scene I, in which Phillip, alone in his study, bemoans his loveless marriage. The big, indistinct map of the world behind him in this scene is the best of Michel Beaulac and Bernard Uzan's superb sets. Originally designed for L'Opera de Montreal, they give the production a properly massive feel.
Yet the scale of this opera, grand though it is, doesn't feel legendary -- the characters are always more human than mythic. It isn't surprising that Verdi, who died a hundred years ago this past January, turned to Shakespeare for source material so often in his career. With his ability to make the epic and the intimate share the stage simultaneously, he qualifies as the Shakespeare of opera.