The glorious, poignant sprawl of Don Carlo returned almost triumphantly to Lincoln Center on Thursday. Equally responsive to Verdi’s dramatic bravado and lyrical introspection, James Levine sustained breadth and tension in the pit. He also reinforced his reputation as a masterly accompanist.

The cast was stellar. Johan Botha, who undertook the title role for the first time here, commands a golden tenor that rings with easy fervour in heroic outbursts and caresses the line in moments demanding tenderness. And, generous physique notwithstanding, he projects a reasonable facsimile of romantic urgency. He found an attractive partner in Patricia Racette, whose Elisabetta benefited from queenly dignity and exquisite pianissimo flights, offset by some stridency under pressure and weakness in linear descents.

René Pape, new as Filippo II, sang with imposing majesty and dynamic finesse, acted with focused restraint. Although he cannot emulate the rolling amplitude of Ferruccio Furlanetto, who dominated the revival two seasons ago, the German basso impressed on his own careful terms – more intellectual, less sensual. Dmitri Hvorostovsky returned as an exceptionally noble, emphatically bel-canto Rodrigo. Samuel Ramey growled and roared as a superbly ferocious, acceptably tremulous Grand Inquisitor. In supporting roles, Kate Lindsey made much of the vivacious page Tebaldo, Andrew Gangestad made little of the ghostly Friar.

John Dexter’s 27-year-old production, economically decorated by David Reppa and currently directed by Stephen Pickover, reduces the turbulent drama to a clumsy concert in costumes. This Don Carlo sounds far better than it looks.
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