If Giuseppe Verdi had stopped writing after his first decade of creative life, his earliest 15 operas would have ensured his reputation as perhaps the greatest—and certainly the most inventive—of the bel canto composers. Had his career stretched just a dozen years further, the masterpieces of his great middle period—half as plentiful as those of the first decade, but infinitely more assured and significant—would have crowned him the most important composer Italy was ever to produce. But it was the handful of works (Don Carlo, Aida, Otello, Falstaff) that Verdi produced over the final 40 years of his life that raised him to the very pinnacle of the art form.

Here, the melodramatic heroes and heroines of his youth ripened into complex, three-dimensional people, and the cymbal-heavy, symbol-light scoring of the early works gave way to a subtler, more dramatically specific use of the orchestra. Even Verdi’s ever-prodigious melodic gift blossomed in his late years, shifting from his popular rum-ti-tum style into something altogether more sublime and harmonically challenging.

It also didn’t hurt that Verdi had great source material to work with late in life. The economy and sophistication of Boito’s Shakespeare-derived librettos for Otello and Falstaff have been applauded ever since those operas premiered. But the libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille Du Locle for Verdi’s Don Carlo—which just started a KenCen run as Washington Opera’s last offering of the season—is notable for preserving much of the lofty striving and down-and-dirty family drama of Friedrich von Schiller’s classic German play. If the Shakespeare Theatre’s recent production of Schiller’s Don Carlos reminded local theatergoers of the power and juiciness of Schiller’s spoken text, then the current WashOp revival should have a similar effect on opera audiences. This is an opera in which all manner of ethical gray areas spill out publicly in the very black-and-white world of Inquisitional Spain, and characters are compelled to do the kind of soul searching that defies the neat and tidy solutions of a well-made plot.

Verdi’s first version of this opera was Don Carlos, a five-hour, French-language epic complete with ballet. He later created a four-act Italian version retitled Don Carlo (the version that WashOp is mounting), dropping not only the final “s,” but a good deal of the music as well. The French original is a work of unique scope and color in the composer’s canon and includes a substantial opening scene that establishes Carlo’s romance with Elisabetta di Valois prior to her marriage to Carlo’s aging father, King Phillip II of Spain. But the Italian retread is leaner and more focused, and it moves like gangbusters from musical highlight to musical highlight. No one could beat Verdi in creating duets and ensembles that fuse memorable melody, telling character detail, and forward-moving dramatic trajectory, and Don Carlo gives him opportunities for creating riveting scenes of revelation and confrontation. Carlo squares off against his father; Phillip battles for political control with the Grand Inquisitor; Elisabetta dresses down her romantic rival, Princess Eboli; Carlo conspires with his loyal friend Rodrigo to free Flanders from the dictatorial rule of Phillip and the church—this opera is all about high-stakes issues, all of them musicalized gorgeously.

Sir Edward Downes was a good choice to place at the musical helm of the production. With a half-century of conducting the Royal Opera at Covent Garden under his belt, Downes knows how to pace music drama, when to move it along, when to let it breathe. His is a noble, burnished Don Carlo with fine discipline and plenty of life in the pit. The physical production, too, lends proper space and mass to the work. Last seen about a decade ago during WashOp’s orchestra strike (when the “orchestra” consisted of a pianist in the pit), this Chicago Lyric Opera production is notable for its striking costumes and—with two dreadful exceptions—its scenery, which features some impressive expanses of stone wall. The exceptions are the two-dimensional bus-and-truck-tour trees for the opening of Act 2 and the ludicrously wrinkled walls in Phillip’s study. (Would it have killed them to pull the damn drops taut?)

What’s needed to really sell Don Carlo, though, is a cast of fine singing actors to spin this brooding yarn with conviction. WashOp has done well with the “singing” piece of the equation. Indeed, this is the sort of cast you might expect to hear at the Met on an average night. Ramón Vargas, as Carlo, upholds his reputation as a plausible Fourth Tenor candidate with sweetly ringing—if smallish—tone and a nice ripple of Latin ardor. He’s well partnered by Met house baritone Dwayne Croft’s chestnut-dark, commandingly sung Rodrigo, and by the Elisabetta of soprano Veronica Villarroel, with her hooded middle register and beautifully floated high notes, her voice is on the cusp of Callas with Caballé rising. If Elizabeth Bishop’s mezzo isn’t the most distinctive instrument, her Eboli is brightly, firmly, and expressively sung. Russian bass Paata Burchuladze sings Phillip with a saturnine timbre, the punch of anti-aircraft artillery, and an ability to make fine interpretive points through vocal means—although he has that Russian mwah-mwah thing going on with his pronunciation, as if he’s chewing caramels. Bass Daniel Sumegi sounds as if the caramels have lodged in his postnasal cavity, but his Grand Inquisitor is a nice pitch-black match for Burchuladze.

To say the acting is weak is to be exceedingly kind. Croft doesn’t build a character so much as stand up tall and look straight ahead, Villarroel confuses listlessness with melancholy, Bishop goes through the usual opera-acting motions without illuminating her character in any way, and Sumegi pretty much lets his makeup give his performance for him. Most distressing of all is Vargas, who simply cannot sing and act at the same time: This is a bit of a liability considering Carlo is the romantic and heroic heart of the piece. That leaves Burchuladze, who, if not the last word in naturalistic acting, is quite a credible Phillip, exuding a regal command in the public scenes and a touching vulnerability in private moments.

To be fair, though, most of these singers have come across as better actors in other productions. Director Sonja Frisell seems the real culprit here, stressing chorus groupings and painterly compositions over plausible behavior and telling character detail. Much of the staging trades in old-school clichés (such as having love duets sung without touching or eye contact or even proximity between the singers) that sap the production of any sense of real life taking place before our eyes. And this isn’t about style, but about connecting with the drama and letting it live convincingly through whatever artifice may be laid on top.

But WashOp has a history of staging beautifully sung, dramatically inert Verdi. Why, in this centennial year of Verdi’s death, our ever-burgeoning opera company can’t muster something better to honor one of history’s great musical dramatists is a question WashOp needs to consider very seriously. Sometimes, a few well-placed high notes just aren’t enough. CP