The opening aria by Julian Gavin articulates the suffering of Carlos. His beloved Elisabeth (Janice Watson) has, for political reasons, married his father, King Philip II (Alastair Mills). Rodrigo (William Dazeley) tries to give Carlos a purpose to fill his empty life - securing the freedom of the people of Flanders whom his father has oppressed. As the opera proceeds, however, Rodrigo begins to wonder if a more direct way of achieving his objective might be to secure the friendship of the king by betraying his friends.
The oppressive atmosphere of the opera is enhanced by Hildegard Bechtler's set design and Nicky Gillibrand's costumes. Bleak, high walls of undecorated plaster loom over the cast and even though scene two takes place in a garden there is little to lift the mood. Changes in colour are subtle - from monochrome to autumnal and the clothes from Puritan black to pastel shades - which maintain rather than dispel the fearful mood. The only point in the opera when the mood comes close to lifting is a lively soprano solo by Princess Eboli (Jane Dutton) who stands out being one of the few characters allowed to wear anything other than black.
The cast and director surprise with their interpretations of the characters. Mills strips away the defences of Philip II to present a man worn by responsibilities and desperate for friendship. Dazeley cuts an heroic figure but shows how a philosophy in which the ends justify the means leads to fanaticism . The solos and duets by Gavin and Watson bring out the depth of suffering of the lovers.
This is a wonderful production but hardly inspirational. In drama even the most tragic of lovers are allowed some happiness before it all goes pear-shaped. Don Carlos starts with the lovers in torment and gives them no hope of relief. As a result the audience is left depressed rather than moved by a tragedy.