A superb live Don Carlo from Karajan in Vienna

Verdi: Don Carlo

Herbert von Karajan/Wiener Staatsoper (Orfeo)

verdi-don-carlo-karajan-orfeoWhen comparing all the interpretations of Verdi’s Don Carlo(s) on disc (November 2011), I awarded Herbert von Karajan’s 1978 EMI set the title ‘most frustrating studio account’. Wonderfully cast, it suffered at the hands of Karajan’s knob-twiddling, with voices sometimes swamped by the Berlin Philharmonic. Karajan had a long association with the opera, always in its four act incarnation; he rejected the five act version (with the Fontainebleu meeting between Elisabetta and Carlo) because he saw the more compact version as ‘a more forward-looking music drama’. He conducted the opera at the 1958 Salzburg Festival, but it wasn’t until 1975 that he returned it to the Festival programme in a production that he also directed. It was so popular that it remained in the programme for four consecutive years, after which he took it to the Vienna State Opera. It is from a performance in this 1979 Vienna season that this live recording emanates.

The wretched balance issues, which blight my enjoyment of his EMI recording, are much less problematic here, although one is always conscious that this is a live recording of a staged production. Off-stage contributions can get lost. For examples, the monk at the end of Carlo’s “Io la vidi” is so distant, it causes one to hear new things in the brass and woodwind chording in Verdi’s orchestration. Liberal applause is retained, which adds a certain sense of occasion.

The recording balance is much kinder to the singers, but Karajan himself is also in more sympathetic mood. The friendship theme at the end of the duet between Carlo and Posa is no longer bludgeoned to death at its reoccurrence in the Garden scene, where the string playing in the introduction is magically sweet and Carlo’s reading of Eboli’s letter is actually audible. The auto-da-fé has splendid pomp and excitement from the brass, although there are a few fluffs in the “Marcia regale”. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of stage noise in this scene, particularly the shuffling footsteps as the heretics are dragged in. The Chorus of the Vienna State Opera suffers from some distant stage placement here.

The casting of the six principal roles in Vienna replicates five of the same singers from Karajan’s studio account, so makes for fascinating comparative listening. Not surprisingly, interpretations differed little from the studio a year before. The biggest change in casting from the studio recording is Ruggero Raimondi’s switch from Grand Inquisitor to Philip II. His slippery, sepulchral tone made for an effective Inquisitor in Berlin, although some missed the impact of a more imposing voice. As Philip, he has more of the vocal weight I found lacking in his earlier soft-grained account for Giulini. This is a more malevolent monarch, with some bite to his delivery, if not the inky blackness of tone other basses, such as the great Boris Christoff, provide.

Raimondi’s king is resigned in his great Act III aria “Ella giammai m’amò”, beautifully introduced by a solo cello. The phrase “Già spunta il dì” as Philip, who has spent a sleepless night fretting in his study, realises that day is dawning, has a wonderful, haunted quality. His whole approach is deeply reflective, the final “Ella giammai m’amò” barely whispered. His confrontation with Matti Salminen’s fearsome Inquisitor crackles, so it’s a shame that the king’s final phrase, traversing two octaves to settle on a bottom F, is so botched. Raimondi was never an out and out bass and there are one or two other moments where his bottom notes disappear into a growl.

José Carreras is in lyrical, fresh voice. He is a little taxed at the end of “Io la vidi” (where he reverses some of the text) and later snatches at one or two high notes, but there is a youthful ardour about his duets with Mirella Freni’s Elisabetta which is endearing. Mirella Freni was Karajan’s favoured Elisabetta at Salzburg and Vienna and she is in regal form, her creamy soprano still youthful, with few signs of strain, even in the challenges of “Tu che le vanità”. She is rightly indignant when discovering her jewel box missing in Act III and draws a furious response from Raimondi.

Piero Cappuccilli’s famed legato lends his Posa an aristocratic air, but he erupts furiously in his exclamation of “Orrenda pace” in the big Philip—Posa duet which closes Act I. His coloration of tone isn’t hugely varied, but the role is beautifully sung. In the studio, Posa’s death very nearly morphs into a harp concerto, so spotlit is the instrument. The balance is more natural here, allowing one to appreciate Cappuccilli’s nobility of phrasing and understated acting.

Agnes Baltsa repeats her electrifying Eboli, here making her debut in the role. The Veil Song finds her slightly more secure in her technique than in the studio and she earns a vociferous ovation. Her Eboli is passionate, even reckless, capped with a superb rendition of “O don fatale”, although Karajan taxes her severely by taking the aria’s central section (“O mia regina”) at a much slower tempo. Edita Gruberova’s fluttery Voice of Heaven (she was Tebaldo on the studio recording) constitutes one of the few disappointments in this performance.

Karajan’s 1958 Salzburg performance, with Sena Jurinac finely sculpted Elisabetta, was released on DG (447 655-2, 2 discs) but is sadly no longer available. For the palpable excitement generated by the performance, and for a fairer balance between voices and orchestra, this recording stands as a finer document of the conductor’s association with the opera than his studio account.

Verdi: Don Carlo  (Orfeo C876 133D)
Ruggero Raimondi (bass) Filippo II; José Carreras (tenor) Don Carlo, Infante di Spagna; Piero Cappuccilli (baritone) Rodrigo, Marchese di Posa; Matti Salminen (bass) Il Grande Inquisitore; Mirella Freni (soprano) Elisabetta di Valois; Agnes Baltsa (mezzo) La principessa d’Eboli; Marjon Lambiks (soprano) Tebaldo; Ewald Aichberger (tenor) Il conte di Lerma; Luigi Roni (bass) Un frate; Edita Gruberova (soprano) La voce dal cielo; Thomas Moser (tenor) Un araldo reale; Chor der Wiener Staatsoper; Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper/ Herbert von Karajan
Ghiaurov, Carreras, Cappuccilli, Raimondi, Freni, Baltsa et al, Chor der Deutsche Oper Berlin; Berlin Philharmoniker/ Karajan (EMI, 3 discs) CMS 769304-2 (1978)
Raimondi, Domingo, Milnes, Foiani, Caballé, Verrett et al, Ambrosian Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/ Giulini (EMI, 3 discs) CDS 747701-8 (1971)

This review originally appeared in IRR.

This entry was posted in CD and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.