Interpretations on Disc: Verdi’s Don Carlos

‘I’ve just come from Don Carlos. It is very bad… No melody, no accent. It aims at a style – but only aims.’ Critical reaction was mixed, but Georges Bizet wasn’t alone in his negative response to the première of Verdi’s Don Carlos in Paris on 11th March 1867, which centred on the accusation that it was too Wagnerian. The opera was so long that Verdi had been obliged to cut whole scenes before the opening night so that the public could catch the last train home to the suburbs. Years down the line, further cuts were made by the composer (‘Since my legs have to be cut off, I prefer to sharpen and apply the knife myself’), reducing the work to four acts in 1884, before approving a five act version, with the original Act I restored, in 1886. Originally conceived in French, for the Paris Opéra, the work was for years performed and recorded in its Italian translation, before French versions began to appear. Therefore Don Carlos, existing in any number of editions and in two languages, makes choices for the prospective buyer confusing.

In the twentieth century, Don Carlos had nearly disappeared off the map altogether, with just a handful of performances at the Metropolitan Opera in 1920-3 (featuring, at various points, Giovanni Martinelli, Rosa Ponselle, Giuseppe De Luca and Fyodor Chaliapin – dream casting!) and three performances at Covent Garden under Thomas Beecham in 1933, before being cast back onto the operatic shelf. Two key productions brought about an important critical reassessment of the opera’s merits: Margaret Webster’s, which inaugurated Rudolf Bing’s tenure in charge at the Met in 1950, and Luchino Visconti’s Covent Garden production of 1958. Don Carlos rightly found its place at the forefront of Verdi’s mature works – a flawed masterpiece, yes, but one which is loved by many.

Don Carlos

Based on Schiller, the plot explores a convoluted knot of relationships in sixteenth century Spain, with six characters entangled in a dangerous web of church and state politics. Schiller and Verdi focus on the public and private lives of Philip II, his son Don Carlos and Elisabeth de Valois (Philip’s third wife). Elisabeth was originally intended as a bride for Carlos, a central part of the peace treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis between France and Spain, before it was decided that Philip would marry her himself (this being just a year after the death of his second wife, Mary Tudor). Throw in a jealous lady-in-waiting (Princess Eboli – in real life Ana de Mendoza, wife of Ruy Gomez, Philip’s childhood friend and close adviser), the idealistic Marquis of Posa (friend of Carlos, later confidante of the king) and an imposing Grand Inquisitor, and you have the rich ingredients for a sprawling plot.

A fictitious meeting in the forest of Fontainebleu was set by Verdi and his librettists, Camille du Locle and Joseph Méry, to form Act I. This scene, though referred to in Schiller, was not actually set in his play, but largely stems from Eugène Cormon’s play Philippe II Roi d’Espagne of 1846. Verdi has Carlos wandering through the forest to view his intended bride; they meet and fall in love, only to have their hopes instantly dashed with the news that she is destined for Philip instead. The real Carlos certainly didn’t travel to Fontainebleu, but there is a charming story that the young Philip, aged sixteen, had travelled incognito to glimpse his first bride, Maria of Portugal (Carlos’ mother).

The Fontainebleu act was the main casualty when Verdi revised his opera for Milan in 1884. It is a great loss. The meeting with Elisabeth better explains Carlos’s tormented state later in the opera, particularly the opening of Act II, which takes place in the cloisters of St Yuste, where he confides in his childhood friend, Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, who persuades him to champion the cause of Flanders in their famous friendship duet. Act I also contains material used in Carlos and Elisabeth’s two further duets, acting as musical reminiscences, which rather lose their point if Act I has been excised. However, there is an argument that the four act version is dramatically tauter, with a pleasing symmetry in that the opening and closing scenes taking place in the monastery, and also that Schiller had never set the Fontainebleu meeting in the first place.

Either way, the opera’s grandeur and distinctively dark tinta mark it out as something special in the Verdi canon. The opera centres around two quite remarkable duets: the interview between Philip and Posa, where the latter impresses the king with his fervent pleas to end his oppression of Flanders, only to then reveal his innermost concerns to his subject; then, the confrontation between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, where the king explores the validity of sacrificing his son, only for the Inquisitor to demand that Posa be handed over. Verdi specifically requested the libretto to include both these dialogues and his setting of both is masterly. In the right hands/ voices, they frequently offer the highlights of any performance. Posa’s very much the heroic figure of the opera, although Verdi conceded he was ‘an imaginary being who could never have existed under Philip’s reign.’ Similarly, the real Grand Inquisitor – Diego de Espinosa – was neither old nor blind and certainly did not have the influence over Philip portrayed in the opera.

A set piece auto-da-fé (referred to in Schiller, but not set) offered the necessary spectacle Paris sought, which is followed by the single most perfect act in all Verdi. Act IV marks the change from the public to the private, as expected in grand operas. The aria – duet – quartet sequence has a precedent in his earlier work for the Opéra, Les vêpres siciliennes, where Montfort’s opening aria is another one about loneliness, albeit not as brilliantly written as Philip’s ‘Elle ne m’aime pas’ /‘Ella giammai m’amo’. This is followed by the confrontation with the Grand Inquisitor, the entrance of Elisabeth, demanding justice having discovered her jewellery box has been stolen, only for it to be found in Philip’s possession, with the ensuing quartet with Eboli and Posa present. Eboli then confesses to the queen that it was not only she who stole the casket, but that she has committed adultery with the king; cue her aria ‘O don fatale’, cursing her beauty. The second scene, set in Carlos’s prison cell, features Posa’s noble aria ‘Per me giunto’ before he is shot, having just enough time to polish off ‘Io morro ma lieto in core’ before shuffling off his mortal coil. It’s a set piece for any Verdi baritone.

In reviewing the recorded history of the Don Carlos, I have separated the studio recordings from the live ones, with versions in French set aside for special consideration, and a section for versions on DVD. Inevitably, there are more live versions available (both ‘official’ and pirate) than space allows, but I have tried to include coverage of the more noteworthy performances.

Studio recordings

There have been eight studio recordings, or recordings under studio conditions, of the opera in Italian. Abbado’s DG recording will be featured with the other French versions and the Chandos English version treated separately.

Previtali

previtali-cetraThis RAI radio performance under studio conditions in Rome dates from November 1951 with a solid, if uninspired cast under Fernando Previtali. It is of the four act version and, as throughout the 1950s, there are standard cuts – most usually second stanzas of Posa’s ballata and Elisabetta’s romanza – or small cuts to the Elisabetta—Carlos duets. The penultimate act ends with Posa’s death, so there is no Insurrection scene where Philip and the Grand Inquisitor quell the mob, raised by Eboli, to rescue Carlos.

There is a fair argument that, of the six main characters, Carlos is the least interesting, despite being the title character, particularly to a star singer. He gets just a single aria, a brief introductory one at that, however beautiful ‘Io la vidi’ is. Verdi salvaged it from Fontainebleu and shunted it to Act I of his four act revision. Many recordings (both live and studio) feature a less than front rank tenor in the title role – Mirto Picchi is certainly one of those. He sings earnestly, but with a fast vibrato resembling a bleat, marring his aria completely.

Maria Caniglia is a good, if mature-sounding, Elisabetta, who is not just a noble, aristocratic woman, but points the words with meaning, making it a more personal interpretation. However, her cries of ‘Giustizia’ in Act III are oddly clipped and there are some unpleasant sounds and blowsy top notes in ‘Tu che le vanità’. Ebe Stignani is horribly laboured in Eboli’s Veil Song and strangely reserved in ‘O don fatale’, where she fails to whip up any excitement.

Nicolai Rossi-Lemini is too woolly of tone for Philip. He certainly sounds old and displays vulnerability well, but the top of his voice is forced under pressure. I hoped for greater things from Paolo Silveri, but although well sung, his Posa is bland and foursquare. Giulio Neri’s Grand Inquisitor is suitably implacable and wins the scene with Rossi-Lemeni’s Philip hands down. Previtali’s tempi are often flaccid, especially in the marziale at the auto-da-fé, where the choral singing can be undisciplined, although Graziella Sciutti is luxury casting as voice from heaven.

(Warner Fonit 8573 82649-2, 3 discs)

Santini (EMI)

santini-emiGabriele Santini’s first studio recording is also of the four act version. Mario Filippeschi is an unremittingly loud, unsubtle Carlos, with the friendship duet with Tito Gobbi’s Posa suffering as a result. Boris Christoff’s Philip is a towering interpretation, bringing the angst of a Boris Godunov to the part. His was not what could ever be called an Italianate voice, but his inky- black tone gave him an absolute authority in the role which has never been equalled.

I’m more equivocal about Gobbi’s Posa; his ballata ‘Carlo che sol’ is persuasive, but he did not possess the most beautiful baritone, although his attention to the dramatic situation is admirable. His voice hardens on the top F in the quartet and although he sings a moving death scene, but his ppp turns dangerously close to crooning.

Antonietta Stella, one of the great underrated sopranos of the 1950s, is in silky voice as Elisabetta, solid throughout her range. She perhaps lacks some of the grandeur the role requires, and her phrasing is unimaginative at times, but there is some wonderful singing in the closing pages of ‘Tu che le vanità’. Elena Nicolai is an inadequate Eboli; her wild trills in a galumphing Veil Song find her on something of a wing and a prayer! Giulio Neri is again a decent enough Inquisitor. Santini’s pacing is excellent. Chorus and orchestra part during the insurrection scene, though, and the Rome oboe sounds woefully provincial throughout. The recording shows its age too, with noticeable edit points where differences in ambient sound quality are audible. (EMI 5 67479 2, 3 discs)

Santini (DG)

santini-dgSantini recorded the opera again, this time in the five act version, after a run of 1960-61 La Scala performances featuring Christoff, Stella, Ettore Bastianini and Flaviano Labò. There are small standard cuts, most sadly Elisabetta’s short appeal to Philip, ‘Ben lo sapete’, before he denounces her, as are fourteen bars from the end section of her Act I duet with Carlos. The finale is noteworthy, using the original muted close only used elsewhere in French versions.

This appears to be Labò’s only studio recording. He has a pleasant, light, flexible tenor, with just the merest hint of strain at the top. Stella’s plush soprano is again not always used intelligently, breaking up of some phrases, but there are things to delight. If she were around now, she’d be snapped up by opera houses and record labels alike (actually, she opened several La Scala seasons). Her voice has nobility, but also sounds young and girlish in the Fontainebleu act, making it easier to sympathise with her predicament than with grander, more matronly interpretations.

Bastianini had an incredibly rich, full-toned baritone with leonine strength. Posa was one of his signature roles (along with di Luna, Gérard, Renato) and his is an instantly recognisable voice, full of thrilling intensity. A lot of nonsense has been written about Bastianini not being much of a dramatist – true, he doesn’t colour the words as widely as Gobbi, but his is a far more beautiful instrument to listen to and, whilst his dynamic range isn’t as varied, he conveys Posa’s ambiguity well – a noble, passionate idealist, with no sense of self-pity in his death scene.

Fiorenza Cossotto is a fresh-voiced Eboli, agile enough to negotiate the Veil Song’s Moorish arabesques, yet with enough sense of drama for ‘O don fatale’, although she doesn’t nail it as ferociously as Agnes Baltsa.

Christoff’s black Slavic tone and pronunciation mark his Philip as an outsider – isolated – an imposing singer playing an imposing monarch. When he warns about the Grand Inquisitor, Posa needs to take heed! He roars with pain like a wounded lion, especially when calling for his guards to disarm Carlo at the auto-da-fé. No-one contrasts the public and private Philip more than Christoff. His ‘Ella giammai m’amo’, is full of Boris Godunov-like introspection, his enormous bass scaled down to a hushed whisper, displays his inner turmoil touchingly – this is the first point in the opera where your sympathies shift towards the embittered monarch and his dilemma.

Ivo Vinco has the thankless task of squaring up to Christoff as the Grand Inquisitor! He characterizes well though, and holds his own for the most part. Has there ever been a more sinister motif for an operatic character as the slithering contrabassoon which introduces him? Santini’s orchestra is recorded vividly, compared to Rome, for these details to register fully, with red-blooded, punchy playing. Unlike Previtali, he doesn’t let the auto-da-fé chorus drag its feet. Voices are forwardly placed. This was the first recording of the five act version and the first in stereo, particularly useful for Act IV quartet, which rivals that in Rigoletto for its quality. (DG 477 8121, 21 discs or Urania WS 121.112, 3 discs)

Solti

solti-deccaThe Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has played a major role in the rehabilitation of Don Carlos, and three studio recordings derive from its forces; Georg Solti’s is most notable for the noble, aristocratic Carlos from Carlo Bergonzi. Has this role ever been more exquisitely sung? On this form, he was simply the Verdi tenor of the twentieth century. Listen to the artful recitative before ‘Io la vidi’: graceful and poised. Sadly, Renata Tebaldi, his familiar partner on disc, recorded the role of Elisabetta too late in her career. She had never performed the role on stage and sounds a touch matronly, but there are still many delightful things to tickle the ear. Her Act II duet with Bergonzi contains some lovely trademark phrasing, but some ascents to the top are awkward, where her voice then required careful handling.

If Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s opening statements don’t immediately put you off, then perhaps you’ll enjoy his portrayal of Posa more than I do. He gives odd emphases to words and syllables, barking his greeting to Carlos, departing from the note too often. I find his delivery over-emphatic and ungainly, with aspirates aplenty. Sorry, DF-D fans, but a Verdi baritone here he is not.

Solti’s bullish in the pit too, although there is gorgeous playing, almost Wagnerian in places, of the introductions and preludes; the Act III prelude is full of romantic ardour. There is a great auto-da-fé introduction too, conjuring up bells and smells magnificently.

Grace Bumbry’s lively Eboli presents pretty good coloratura in the Veil Song, although the ladies of the chorus are not great. Nicolai Ghiaurov is a noble voiced Philip, not as dark as some, more in the mould of Cesare Siepi’s interpretation. He sings a lovely ‘Ella giammai m’amo’. However, the confrontation with the Grand Inquisitor starts off too loudly and turns into a shouting match, though Martti Talvela’s tone is suitably saturnine. The Philip – Posa interview is ruined by Fischer-Dieskau’s hectoring and snatched phrases. The monk/ Carlos V is poorly sung. Despite Ghiaurov’s and Bergonzi’s marvellous contributions, there are too many frustrations in this recording for it to remain a front-runner. (Decca 478 0345, 3 discs)

Giulini (EMI)

giulini-emiCarlo Maria Giulini’s EMI recording has long been considered one of the best in the five act version. It has many things in its favour, especially Montserrat Caballé’s aristocratic Elisabetta, sung with gorgeous phrasing and pianissimos. Partnering her is Plácido Domingo in fine, youthful-sounding voice, with an heroic ring where required, but fewer dynamic shadings than Bergonzi. Dramatically, however, it suffers from Giulini’s conducting, with marmoreal tempos, especially for the Carlos—Elisabetta duets. Giulini seems to centre his interpretation around these three duets, which are indeed extremely beautiful, but the key focus for a truly satisfying Don Carlos has to be the key scenes involving Philip and here they fall terribly flat. Ruggero Raimondi doesn’t have the vocal weight for the role, although his soft-grained approach allows his to portray the king’s vulnerability. Opposite him, Giovanni Foiani’s Grand Inquisitor is one of the wobbliest on disc, while Sherrill Milnes is a bland, but inoffensive Posa.

During my listening, I rapidly came to the conclusion that Eboli is the hardest role in the opera to cast successfully. It needs a mezzo capable of Rossinian lightness (and possessing a decent trill) to negotiate the Veil Song, but enough bite to chew the scenery later on! Shirley Verrett is a prime example of such a frustration, slipping and sliding her way through the Veil Song’s arabesques as if she were singing Falla, but then delivers a magnificent ‘O don fatale’, her rich molasses tone wonderfully satisfying. (EMI CDS 7 47701 8, 3 discs)

Karajan

karajan-emiThe most frustrating studio account is undeniably Herbert von Karajan’s. The young leads are Mirella Freni and José Carreras, a sweet, affecting couple, both fresh-voiced, but sometimes over-parted by this heavier repertoire. Karajan enticed them both into this repertory and it can be argued that it eventually cost Freni her silky ‘peaches and cream’ tone, but the duets are tenderly sung. Piero Cappuccilli displays his customary long legato lines in Posa’s death scene, swathed by harps, swooning violins and trilling flutes, and his delivery of  the ‘Orrenda pace’ moment in the scene with Philip is vividly fierce, recalling his curse in Boccanegra.

Agnes Baltsa slides around in the Veil Song, but is also extremely seductive. She points the humour in the song (with Gruberova an added bonus as Tebaldo), and sings a fantastic ‘O don fatale’, fearless and reckless by equal turns. Nicolai Ghiaurov is in darker, more weary voice than for Solti and I enjoyed his scene with Ruggero Raimondi’s Inquisitor who hasn’t a fearsome, black bass, but a slippery, sepulchral one; some of his phrases have a sinister sotto voce, which works very well.

So, what’s not to like? In a single word… Karajan! His orchestra is too forwardly balanced – he was an inveterate knob-twiddler – so that the singers are recessed or even obliterated. Carreras is inaudible at the start of the Garden Scene. I know the Berlin Philharmonic is good, but there are times when it’s all we hear. Karajan bludgeons the reprise of the friendship duet in Act III and the opening of the auto-da-fé is so brassy and gaudy, I half expected Bernstein’s ‘What a day, what a day for an auto-da-fé’ from Candide to pop up! If only this recording could be remixed to correct the perverse balance between voices and orchestra, then this would come very close to the top of the pile. (EMI 7 69304 2, 3 discs)

Levine

levine-sonyThe only studio recording from the Met didn’t attract a huge amount of attention on its initial release, but I rather enjoyed it. Sure, James Levine overemphasises some moments – underlining them in red ink – but it crackles with electricity. Orchestrally, there’s brash brass to contend with in the auto-da-fé and the cello solo at start of ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ swoops and swoons in a glitzy manner. Texturally, Levine includes the orchestral and choral introduction from 1867 French score, where Elisabetta distributes alms to a group of woodcutters – the only studio recording of the Italian version to do so.

Aprile Millo’s Elisabetta is ragged about the edges, which is a shame, as she once had a splendid voice, a dead-ringer for Tebaldi at times, but her wide vibrato is quite unattractive. The Carlos, Michael Sylvester, is in pleasing voice, though constricted at the top and not especially Italianate in tone. Dolora Zajick falls into the classic Eboli trap; the pianos in her Veil Song are mannered and although she displays her powerhouse chest register in ‘O don fatale’, her mezzo has a discernible beat that may trouble some. It was bad luck for Vladimir Chernov to be emerging at the same time as Dmitri Hvorostovsky. His slightly grainy, but exciting baritone makes for an impulsive Posa, long breathed and virile.

Ferruccio Furlanetto has an inherent sadness in his voice and his Philip is a very human monarch, full of pain and vulnerability, despite a gritty tone. There is an imposing, if effortful, Inquisitor from Samuel Ramey; their confrontation benefits from the orchestral contribution here, thunderous bass drum and brass. Furlanetto delivers a cracking final phrase here, traversing two octaves, settling on a firm, sustained bottom F. On the debit side, there is some horrible, soft-focus warbling from Kathleen Battle as voice from heaven. (Sony 88697527732, 3 discs)

Haitink

haitink-philips-trioWhile revisiting Levine’s recording caused pleasant surprise, listening to Bernard Haitink’s Royal Opera account was strangely disappointing. I have strong memories of a fabulous Proms performance, with much the same cast, but found this sluggish and passive, albeit with beautifully burnished playing from the ROH orchestra. Too often, Haitink aims for grandeur at the cost of drama.

This is sometimes called the ‘Russian Don Carlos’ and for good reason. Olga Borodina’s imperious Eboli is opulently impressive. She sings an excellent, but very slow, Veil Song, and a fabulous ‘O don fatale’ but Haitink keeps too tight rein and doesn’t really allow her to cut loose the way I know she can. Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s pulls off Posa’s long-breathed arching phrases with his natural flair, but I question how involved he is dramatically. Sadly, intonation issues surround Galena Gorchakova’s Elisabetta. She has good top note pianos, but her diction isn’t great. Hers is an unusually dark, Slavic sounding queen – I thought that Eboli had wandered into Fontainebleu Forest at one point!

Of the non-Russians, Roberto Scandiuzzi’s Philip sounds too young and doesn’t really have the vocal authority for the role, while Richard Margison’s gutsy Carlos is pleasant without being outstanding. (Philips 475 252-2, 3 discs)

Live recordings

There are numerous live recordings, some ‘official’ releases through big labels, others of performances made available via labels specialising in capturing noteworthy casts on stage. Sound quality is often variable and there is frequently a huge lack of printed information. There are more performances available than space to adequately cover here, so I shall confine myself to short reviews of the most attractive or recent issues.

Stiedry (1950)

stiedry-myto-1950The first Met performances since 1923 were frequently cut. The most alarming omission in Fritz Stiedry’s 1950 performance is Posa’s aria ‘Per me giunto’, leading Jussi Björling’s Carlos to utter ‘Che parli tu di morte?’ when Robert Merrill’s Posa has been talking of no such thing. It’s good to hear the famous Björling/ Merrill partnership in action, although less good to hear the ever-audible prompter. The opening bars of the auto-da-fé are missing, presumably to a technical problem, and there’s an ungainly fade out mid ensemble to separate the two discs.

Merrill is in beautiful, but typically unimaginative voice, while Björling’s graceful, liquid phrasing is undoubtedly the highlight. A young Cesare Siepi appeared in this production at short notice after Boris Christoff was denied a visa. Subsequently, Christoff never appeared at the Met. Siepi sings beautifully, but with little drama as yet in his interpretation; the scene with Posa glosses over the drama completely.

Delia Rigal has intonation issues as Elisabetta, with choppy phrasing and fluttery low notes. The first of Fedora Barbieri’s many recorded Eboli’s displays her ‘interesting’ approach to coloratura – very approximate – but she delivers a good ‘O don fatale’. (MYTO 00052, 2 discs)

Stiedry (1952)

stiedry-walhall-1952It’s unusual (unique?) to have the Grand Inquisitor as the sole cover photo feature, but then, Hans Hotter’s Inquisitor is the only real reason to own Stiedry’s 1952 performance, although it doesn’t suffer the strange cuts and odd layout problems of 1950 one. Voices are clearly recorded, but in brash sound.

Barbieri is equally insecure as in 1950, while Paolo Silveri is as bland as on his Cetra recording. Richard Tucker is in tremulous, unsubtle form in duet with Rigal’s Elisabetta, who is again ungainly, with blowsy top notes. The Posa/ Philip interview shows up the ‘B’ casting: it sounds more like an interview with a bank manager than a monarch, Jerome Hines’ Philip gradually becomes more involved, but in ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ goes all histrionic – to great acclaim from audience – but Hotter’s Inquisitor is volcanic! (Walhall WLCD0293, 2 discs)

Adler (1955)

adler-andromeda-1955Kurt Adler’s 1955 Met performance is notable for Bastianini’s third ever performance in the role of Posa. There are intonation problems in the friendship duet, but he sings a marvellous death scene. I enjoyed Eleanor Steber’s Elisabetta greatly, despite the slightly hysterical end to ‘Tu che le vanità’. Hines and Nicola Moscona don’t get as fired up as the Hines—Hotter encounter from 1952.

Blanche Thebom is a feisty Eboli, but squally at times. Adler whips through the score and, once again, the Met Chorus doesn’t exactly distinguish itself. (Andromeda ANDRCD5018, 2 discs)

Votto (1956)

votto-andromeda-1956This Florence performance is notable for big voices singing big characters. Anita Cerquetti brings her very individual tone, thoughtful phrasing and dramatic intensity to Elisabetta. She’s a bit wild in places, some pinched top notes in the Romanza, but delivers a thrilling ‘Tu che le vanità’. Angelo Lo Forese is a sturdy Carlos, attractive in tone, but inconsistent and strained.

Barbieri’s Veil Song is ever more raddled by this stage; she edits it to cut the coloratura she can’t sing and is flat at times. She chews the scenery in ‘O don fatale’, but it’s not pretty. Bastianini is a virile Posa, though he mistimes entries once or twice in his death scene. Siepi’s Philip contains basso cantante singing of the utmost class and beauty, a contrast to Giulio Neri’s gruff bass as the Inquisitor, although his bottom notes aren’t really there. Exciting, go for broke stuff, though vocally flawed. (Andromeda ANDRCD 5064, 3 discs)

Giulini (1958)

giulini-roh-1958The 1958 Covent Garden performances under Giulini has legendary status, so it was no surprise that it was included in the (short-lived) ROH Heritage series. It is the first live recording of the restored five act version, pitting Gré Brouwenstijn’s aristocratic, beautiful Elisabetta against Jon Vickers’ fiery Carlos. He suffers a momentary memory lapse in their Fontainebleu duet, but is very fine, convincing in a way lots of tenors aren’t. I particularly appreciated his excellent recitative in the prison scene.

I much prefer Giulini’s urgent reading here to his later EMI studio crawl, but he could still do with pushing the pace on: the Prelude to Act III is too slow, hardly matching the andante marking. The sound quality is not great, with sudden swells as we suddenly come into focus. Strangely there is no Insurrection scene, which is a real loss (although a cut sanctioned by Verdi at one point). Elisabetta’s ‘Ben lo sapete’ is also missing.

By 1958, Barbieri’s Veil Song is a car crash. The part actually lay far too high for her by then, sounding more Mistress Quickly at this point in her career. ‘O don fatale’ is slow, the ‘O mia Regina’ section too slow and taxing Barbieri, who takes several notes lower than written, plus the ones she misses out altogether.

Gobbi is in dramatic, but not attractive voice as Posa, sounding quite strenuous in his interview with Christoff’s Philip. He takes the high F# on ‘me-le-dir’ down an octave, although he opts for the higher note later on. Christoff is as superb as ever, a peerless performance. Michael Langdon, a substitute for Giulio Neri, who had died a few months before the run, is a very credible Grand Inquisitor.

Presentation is excellent and includes an interview with the late Lord Harewood on the final disc. I love that the Countess d’Aremberg is credited in this audio set, even though she does not actually sing! An historically important performance, and one every Don Carlos lover should try to hear. (ROH Heritage ROHS003, 3 discs)

Karajan (1958)

karajan-dg-1958Karajan’s Salzburg performance contains some lovely singing and none of the infuriating sound balance which bedevils his EMI set. On both occasions, Karajan opted for the four act revision, although a novel bonus here is that we get the mask-swapping scene between Elisabetta and Eboli in Act II. The Vienna Philharmonic is leaps and bounds ahead of its contemporary Met and Italian theatre counterparts.

Eugenio Fernandi has a sweet-toned, light tenor, but it can tighten under pressure. Nevertheless, he’s responsive to the drama. Sena Jurinac’s sculpted phrasing as Elisabetta is a real joy, bringing serene chamber-like intimacy to her duets with Carlos. She sings a very satisfying ‘Tu che le vanità’, but is possibly a bit too clinical for some tastes.

Siepi’s lack of histrionics in his noble Philip contrast well with Bastianini’s excellent Posa; their interview is just stunning – Bastianini the passionate idealist opposite Siepi, very much a beaten man in confessing his concerns. Giulietta Simionato doesn’t have the cleanest roulades in her Veil Song as I had expected from a Rossini singer, and the middle section of ‘O don fatale’ is tremulous and unvaried, although the outer sections are fantastic.

There are some ‘noises off’: Jurinac’s dress rustles and drags about the stage and there’s an audible prompter, but you can also hear the Salzburg church bells in the Inquisitor scene, which is alarmingly appropriate! (DG 447 655-2, 2 discs)

Rossi (1961)

rossi-walhall-1961A recent release of a Turin performance under Mario Rossi features Christoff and Bastianini at roughly the same time as their DG recording was made. They are in equally remarkable voice here, but the rest of the cast cannot begin to match them, Margherita Roberti’s intrusive vibrato a distraction and Luigi Ottolini an acceptable Carlos. Strangely for a live performance, there is no audience noise and no audible prompter. (Walhall WLCD 0336, 3 discs)

Adler (1964)

adler-sony-1964Another recent release, issued for the first time, is Kurt Adler’s 1964 Met performance in Sony’s new Met series, starring Franco Corelli, who lacks good taste, throwing in an interpolated high note at end of friendship duet. He also has a memory lapse in the auto-da-fé – there’s a pregnant pause which made me wonder if he was present during the whole ensemble until ‘Sire, egli è tempo’. Nicolae Herlea is a very wobbly Posa; it’s difficult to differentiate his vibrato from his trills in his ballata.

Giorgio Tozzi is quite declamatory as Philip, offering a histrionic ‘Ella giammai m’amo’. There’s a touching Elisabetta from Leonie Rysanek, woefully off-note at the end of the quartet, Irene Dalis a serviceable Eboli. There are better Met performances available than this, with better casts, but presumably not from non-Sony/ RCA recording stables. (Sony 88697910042, 2 discs)

Abbado (1968)

abbado-fem-1968Claudio Abbado has had a long association with the opera, the earliest record of which is this 1968 La Scala four act performance, in muddy sound. Bruno Prevedi is volatile – Corelli-lite, if you will – in the title role but there are excellent contributions from Cossotto, who rightly brings the house down, and Cappuccilli, in more vibrant vocal estate than his later recording. Ghiaurov and Talvela spar effectively once more as Philip and the Inquisitor, but the performance is most remarkable for the Elisabetta of Rita Orlandi-Malaspina, whose soprano is not especially beautiful, but has a dark, dramatic edge to it. On hearing this performance, I wondered why I hadn’t heard her before. She and Prevedi don’t blend well in duet, but they do inject drama into them, aided by Abbado who conducts a rip-snorting account, miles away from his ponderous, scholarly approach to the French version for DG. If you can endure the sound, this performance provides hours of pleasure. (Europa Musica/ Frequenz 051 035, 3 discs)

Stein (1970)

stein-orfeo-1970Horst Stein’s spacious Vienna performance contains some dramatic singing. Franco Corelli is perhaps as near to the real Don Carlos as we’ll get – an eye-rolling, psychotic, unstable performance. It’s worth considering the type of tenor Verdi wanted. Francesco Tamagno, creator of the role of Otello, sang Carlos in the premiere of the 1884 revision, so perhaps Verdi did want a more heroic voice after all.

Shirley Verrett is a fiery Eboli, with a keen sense of drama. Ghiaurov’s Philip is exceptionally well sung, matched by a granite-voiced Martti Talvela, their scene together much better here than on the Solti studio recording.

I’m less keen on Eberhard Waechter’s un-Italianate, grainy Posa and am unsure about Gundula Janowitz’s Elisabetta; she comes across as a bit studied and the intonation in her Romanza not secure. Hers is a slightly ‘cool’ sound which not everyone will take to.

There is an odd ending. When the Grand Inquisitor and Philip arrive, the Inquisition seize Carlos, with no appearance from the monk/ Carlos V or any cries from Elisabetta. This ending is based on Vienna edition of the score from 1932. The Viennese ‘shushers’ are out in force, determined to stop anyone enjoying themselves, but this is a performance worth revisiting. (Orfeo C649053D, 3 discs)

Molinari-Pradelli (1972)

molinari_pradelli-myto-1972This performance marked Rudolf Bing’s departure from the Met, attracting a starry cast and a fierce battle of egos. Franco Corelli is terribly self-indulgent, holding onto any number of notes in ‘Io la vidi’. He has intonation problems in the Act I duet with Montserrat Caballé’s Elisabetta, in which one-upmanship prevails – he holds onto one note ridiculously long (drawing applause); then, Caballé finishes the duet similarly and again at the end of the Romanza, the audience applauding after Philip has instructed Posa to ‘Restate’! Caballé is on fire, more histrionic than her more restrained portrayal for Giulini. She sings truly fabulous pp notes towards the end of ‘Tu che le vanità’. This is the famous performance where she holds on to her final note all the way to the opera’s close – very naughty, but also very wonderful.

Grace Bumbry offers a high octane, high-risk Eboli where some things come off gloriously, but others where she threatens to come off the rails. Sherrill Milnes is much more involved than on Giulini’s studio set, although there is a worrying tendency to scoop up to some notes. Cesare Siepi, who sang Philip right at the beginning of Bing’s tenure, reigns supreme here in a fabulous, dignified performance. There’s a feisty Inquisitor from John Macurdy, who snarls and growls effectively. This is a ‘go for broke’ performance… deeply flawed, often utterly wrong, but also utterly thrilling. (MYTO MCD022.261, 2 discs)

Abbado (1978)

abbado-bella-voce-1978Quite difficult to get hold of, it’s worth tracking down Abbado’s theatrical January 1978 La Scala performance. This is the full five act version, containing the choral opening in Fontainebleu, the mask-swapping scene, the Insurrection scene with the Carlos—Philip duet and the opera’s original ending.

When the run started, it featured Ghiaurov, Carreras, Cappuccilli and Freni – but they were embargoed from appearing in their roles on film, so this cast was hastily assembled for RAI broadcast from which this recording stems. And what a cast! Domingo is on electrifying form as Carlos and is splendid in duet with Margaret Price’s creamily noble Elisabetta, aided by thrilling tempi from Abbado. Yevgeny Nesterenko offers some wild and woolly vibrato in ‘Ella giammai m’amo’, but he is an imperious Philip, very much in the style of Christoff. Fellow Russian Elena Obraztsova’s Eboli is of the paint-stripping variety, yet the crowd goes wild for her Veil Song and her ‘O don fatale’ is actually rather good, not as blood-curdling as I’d feared. Renato Bruson is a gorgeous-toned Posa, velvety smooth, and the Garden scene trio is very exciting.

Despite poor sound at times, given the year of provenance, this is a very good version, especially as all but Domingo never recorded their roles commercially and Domingo is far more vital here than elsewhere. (Bella Voce BLV 107.404, 3 discs)

Muti (1992)

muti-emi-1992Luciano Pavarotti, singing his only Don Carlos, was booed on opening night at La Scala in 1992 when he cracked a high B in the auto-da-fé scene. He seems entirely disengaged in this later performance, although he spins legato well enough and sings pp when required.

Samuel Ramey is memorable as Philip, recorded around his vocal prime, but the rest of the cast is severely disappointing. Luciana D’Intino is one of the few mezzos who can deliver a decent Veil Song, but the rest of the role is a size too big for her. Daniela Dessi is similarly overparted, with tension at the top in big duets and lumpy phrasing.

Alexander Anisimov is the wobbliest Inquisitor since Foiani and Paolo Coni’s insipid colouring and occasionally sharp intonation do little to raise Posa profile.

Riccardo Muti leads a perfunctory reading of the four act version from Milan, the big rit at the arrival of the Grand Inquisitor in the Insurrection scene is ridiculous… No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition! (EMI 3 58631 2, 3 discs)

Hold-Garrido (1999-2000)

hold-garrido-naxosNaxos entered the Don Carlos stakes with a recording of the five act version from Stockhom at the turn of the millennium, including the mask-swapping scene, the original Philip-Carlos scene before the Insurrection plus the original (extended) ending.

We’re presented with a youthful trio of Carlos, Elisabetta and Posa. Lars Cleveman is a fresh voiced Carlos and Hillevi Martinpelto a decent Elisabetta who is taxed by her aria, but the standout voice here is the Posa of Peter Mattei, who is very fine. I could listen to his singing all day. His aria and death scene are excellent, as are his contributions to ensembles. However, Ingrid Tobiasson’s inadequate Eboli almost grinds to a halt in the coloratura in Veil Song and the Philip of Jaakko Ryhänen is a bit lightweight. (Naxos 8.660096-98, 3 discs)

French versions

In recent decades, Verdi’s original version in French has taken a firm foothold on the operatic mountain, but not entirely replaced performances in Italian at the summit. Scholarship has revealed the discovery of missing scenes discarded before the 1867 premiere and various performances attempt to reinstate these. Verdi’s second thoughts are almost always better, but the cuts contain important music. The most important, to my mind, is the duet between Philippe and Carlos after Posa’s death, material which Verdi later salvaged for the Lacrymosa of his Requiem. It includes phrases from the earliest version of the Philippe—Posa duet. Also, the scene at the start of Act III where Elisabeth swaps masks with Eboli, so that the queen can retire from the ball, adds dramatic sense to what follows. Three of the four recordings of the French version originate from live performances, while the sole studio recording is rather unsatisfactory. However, Don Carlos is, first and foremost, a French opera.

Hearing the original French text, one marvels at how well Verdi set French – ‘Elle ne m’aime pas’ being a perfect example; the phrase ‘Voici le jour’ is so much more evocative than ‘Già spunta il dì’. Philippe’s later ‘Tais-toi, prêtre’ is much stronger language than ‘Non più frate’, causing Princess Eugenie to turn her back to the stage at the premiere in disgust.

When Verdi revised the opera, he still set new music to French text by du Locle, before having it translated into Italian by Angelo Zanardini – a true indication of how French this opera really is, so to have a version in your collection is a must.

Matheson

matheson-opera-raraThe first version, assembled for a 1972 BBC concert performance, is available – at great expense – in Opera Rara’s plushly documented boxed set. There are elements of English reserve in play here – the chorus is a bit plummy and the audience is both very polite. This is the fullest of all versions and there are times when it can feel like an illustrated lecture – a scholarly play-through of what was unfamiliar material. The studio sound is boxy, with quite an echo.

Unfamiliar music includes the original introduction to the friendship scene, including a brief solo for Posa describing conditions in Flanders and Verdi’s first thoughts on the Posa-Philippe duet with Posa’s ‘Pour mon pays’ solo. It’s not as inspired as Verdi’s rewrite. In addition to the mask-swapping, there’s the ballet ‘La Peregrina’ and Elisabeth gets a different solo before the quartet, which is significantly different in Philip and Eboli’s vocal lines. The duet between Elisabeth and Eboli is included, with Lerma demanding Eboli return her cross before she launches into ‘O don fatal’.

The singing isn’t of the highest quality, but the great joy of this set is in hearing the complete original score sung in French by (mostly) native singers. Joseph Rouleau, Giulini’s monk back in 1958, is an impressive, world-weary Philippe, possibly lacking in authority. Robert Savoie doesn’t have the most heroic baritone and is a dependable but dull Posa. André Turp is a decent Carlos, rising well to his response to Posa’s death.

Edith Tremblay’s Elisabeth is, on the whole, attractively sung, even if she cannot rival the likes of Karita Mattila or Katia Ricciarelli in ‘Toi qui sus le néant des grandeurs de ce monde’. Michelle Vilma’s uncontrolled Eboli is best glossed over. Robert Lloyd is nasal in tone as the monk, but sounds suited to French repertoire, joined by Richard Van Allen’s oily Inquisitor. (Opera Rara ORCV305, 4 discs)

Abbado

abbado-dgWhere Matheson scores is in his use of native French singers, which is where Claudio Abbado’s version fails. Grateful as we are to have a studio recording in French, you cannot but help feel that the majority of singers would have been more comfortable singing in Italian. Abbado is also less urgent than his earlier live recordings and tension flags.

This version, incidentally, is not complete. What we’re presented with is the five act 1886 Modena version, but sung in French. The appendices provide the interest, but they’re lumped together on the fourth disc, making it difficult for the listener to programme a performance of Verdi’s original thoughts. In any case, we’re still missing the original versions of things like the final duet, the Posa—Philip interview and the opening to the friendship duet.

Domingo is a suave Carlos, possibly too polished, lacking the raw energy of his earlier interpretations. This feels a little ‘safe’. Katia Ricciarelli is a sweet, tender Elisabeth, slightly tremulous, but touching. It’s a pity she never recorded it in Italian. She’s not really a spinto soprano, and some of the role’s demands are beyond her, but there are beautiful pianissimos in her Romanza (both verses) and her final aria. She does ‘vulnerable’ well (witness her fine Desdemona).

I’m still unconvinced by Ruggero Raimondi’s underpowered Philippe, but know others will think differently. His duet with Posa goes for little, but it was good of Nicolai Ghiaurov to return the favour from the Karajan set and sing the Inquisitor opposite him, although he completely dominates the duet. Lucia Valentini-Terrani treats the Veil Song with Rossinian lightness and brilliance, but is less than compelling elsewhere. Leo Nucci’s nasal tone alone is insufficient to kid you he’s singing in French, but there’s a pleasant ‘C’est mon jour suprême’ where he doesn’t grandstand. (DG 415 316-2, 4 discs)

Pappano

pappano-emiAntonio Pappano’s performance from the Châtelet (also available on dvd) is very fine. The original choral opening is cut, but we do get the 1867 beginning to friendship duet, the original lead-in to the Quartet and subsequent duet into ‘O don fatale’, although there is no Lerma demanding Eboli’s cross.

Roberto Alagna exudes youthful élan as Carlos, in excellent French, as is Thomas Hampson’s Posa, beautifully sung, caressing the vocal line with his customary honeyed tone. José Van Dam hasn’t the lushest of basses as Philippe, more a pale grey bass-baritone, but he does have the inherent ‘world-weary’ sound which makes his Philip much more human. Eric Halfvarson is a sinister Inquisitor.

Karita Mattila is a dignified Elisabeth, vulnerable, but poised, while Waltraud Meier is an unconvincing Eboli. She’s a bit Kundryesque and mannered, dramatically wild, but at the expense of an occasionally unpleasant sound. (EMI 5 56152 2, 3 discs)

De Billy

de-billy-orfeoThe most recent French version, from Vienna, is also available on DVD, in a controversial production. There is plenty of stage noise, particularly in the ballet, which might distract listeners here, but it’s musically rather rewarding and – textually – complete. Bertrand de Billy’s pacing is spot-on; he allows duets to breathe, but sets good tempi in the dramatic music. The Vienna Staatsoper Orchestra is excellent, especially during Posa’s description of the devastation in Flanders.

Ramón Vargas is a likeable Carlos, singing opposite impressive Georgian soprano Iano Tamar as Elisabeth, although her French diction isn’t exactly marveilleuse. Bo Skovhus isn’t a natural Verdi baritone, any more than Hampson, but he uses his voice intelligently, his baritone quite dry and lean, but a stylishly sung Posa. Nadja Michael’s Eboli is not always as vocally secure as you’d wish, but is vividly dramatic.

I like Alastair Miles’ Philippe, as I did in the recent Chandos version. The monarch’s brutish, sardonic side comes across well. There is a menacing Grand Inquisitor from Simon Yang, whose cold cackle at the end of his confrontation, when Philip asks if there can ever be peace between them, is chilling. (Orfeo C648054L, 4 discs)

Don Carlos on film

Reactions to Don Carlos on film will depend upon your musical preferences, but also how traditional or Regietheater you like your productions, but with an octet of performances to choose from, there’s bound to be something which appeals.

Levine (Met 1984)

levine-dg-dvdThe earliest filmed performance is from the Met, its old five act production, recently taken on tour to Japan, including the original opening chorus which contains a Breughel-like forest scene. Sets and costumes are traditional, but John Dexter’s production is largely static, so much so that even the auto-da-fé scene fails to ignite!

Domingo is a winning Carlos (he swoons well) and Mirella Freni is a noble, angelic Elisabetta, but Louis Quilico is an underpowered, woolly Posa. Ghiaurov brings great gravity to the role of Philip. He is the best actor in the cast, whose resignation at the final curtain is palpable. Bumbry’s Eboli wears an eyepatch, but her Veil Song is a struggle and lacks humour. (DG 00440 073 4085, 2 discs)

Haitink (Covent Garden 1985)

haitink-dvdA year later sees this Covent Garden revival, a memento of the famed Visconti staging and very rewarding it is too. It’s a traditional production, in monumental sets. Haitink’s conducting is also on the monumental side, but it feels appropriate to the staging. It’s not insignificant that this production was last seen during Haitink’s farewell to the House in 2002.

Luis Lima is a charming Carlos, a bit throaty, but there is an innocence about his acting that wins the audience over. Ileana Cotrubas’ Elisabetta is a wonderfully fragile one. I had suspected she would be too light for the role, but I enjoyed her performance hugely.

Giorgio Zancanaro’s wonderfully aristocratic singing makes for an excellent Posa.

Bruna Baglioni is a little matronly as Eboli, as are certain women in the chorus. Robert Lloyd is first and foremost a superlative actor. Philip’s response to Posa’s pleas are masterly, especially his eyes (although Lloyd looks less than comfortable in his green tights at the auto-da-fé!). A very old-fashioned, but rewarding production to watch. (Warner 510110242-2, 1 disc)

Karajan (Salzburg 1986)

karajan-sony-dvdKarajan’s Salzburg production – where he’s also the producer – is not generally available in the UK, unless imported as a Region 1 DVD. Dramatically, there’s little to recommend it and, musically, there are some funereal tempi.

Carreras is an introspective Carlos who doesn’t really look that interested and he’s partnered by a young soprano, Fiamma Izzo d’Amico, whose cardboard acting and permanently pained expression serve Elisabetta less well than her too small vocal contribution. The lack of dramatic commitment even extends to the Countess of Aremberg, who shows not the slightest inclination to weep when Philip orders her back to France. In the chamber scene, both Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Philip and Matti Salminen’s Inquisitor remain static, and I don’t believe that the Inquisitor is blind for a minute.

The key exceptions to this ennui are Agnes Baltsa and Piero Cappuccilli, reviving their roles as Eboli and Posa. Both are, vocally, past their best (there is a severe chasm between Baltsa’s head and chest registers by this stage of her career) but both simply own the stage as actors, largely doing their own thing. Baltsa is wonderfully vindictive in the Garden scene. These two singers apart, there is little to recommend in this performance. (Sony SVD 48312, 1 disc)

Muti (La Scala 1992)

muti-emi-dvdFranco Zeffirelli’s production is as disappointing on screen as it is on disc. There are an awful lot of steps to negotiate on set, plunged into gloom most of the time, the sole exception being a colourful set with Moorish fountains for the St Yuste gardens.

I just don’t believe in Pavarotti as Don Carlos at all, his acting is rudimentary at best. Shaking his fist is his means of showing frustration at the end of the first duet with Elisabetta and he offers a very sedate ‘faint’. The most successful element of the recording – Ramey’s Philip – might seem too youthful looking, although it’s worth recalling that the real Philip II was only 33 when he married Elisabeth de Valois.

Muti, as is his way with Verdi, gets a move on, creating more drama in the pit than on stage. Zeffirelli loves his big crowd scenes – his auto-da-fé is peopled with more singers than many a Triumphal Scene in Aida – but dramatically, it’s inert. There are only two heretics and the merest hint of smoke at the end, which is frankly feeble. (EMI 5 99442 9, 2 discs)

Pappano (Châtelet 1996)

pappano-emi-dvdLuc Bondy’s Châtelet production, also seen at Covent Garden, has stylized costumes and 1990s ‘big hair’, Hampson’s dreadful wig being the worst offender. Much of the action takes place in near darkness… there’s only so much sepulchral gloom one can take. Black ashes tumble from the sky at the end of the auto-da-fé scene, which comes off well, but there are puzzling moments. Silly flames flare up randomly as Eric Halfvarson’s reptilian Inquisitor makes his entrance, but he doesn’t appear to be blind, using his stick to knock back the dead Posa’s arm at end of Insurrection scene – how can he manage that? The constant trickle of blood dripping noisily from Posa’s stomach after he’s shot threatens to become comic.

Voices are not always well caught as well as on CD, the audio being quite foggy.

Alagna’s Carlos is earnest but rather too concerned at striking the right pose. Van Dam’s Philippe is not a king to inspire fear at all; he captures an introverted, pensive monarch instead. Meier is very seductive as Eboli. Mattila’s Elisabeth is quite pristine, perhaps too ‘controlled’ in showing little emotion, but she sings exquisitely. Hampson offers an impassioned Posa. Dramatically, he is the singer with the most presence here. (Warner 0630-16318-2, 1 disc)

Chailly (Netherlands Opera 2004)

chailly-opus-arte-dvdWilly Decker’s Netherlands Opera production has a typically minimalistic staging, set in the mausoleum in the Escorial. Verdi had visited the Escorial, stating ‘It’s a marble monstrosity, very ornate inside… but on the whole it is in bad taste. It’s hard and grim like the dreadful king who built it.’

Decker’s booklet note is very readable. He sees God as the strict father, ready to sacrifice his son, reflected in Philip’s relationship to Don Carlos. He also hits on the idea that Philip’s relationship to his own father is key – ‘his feelings… are those of a child who has failed.’ This strikes me as a crucial insight to a central issue in the opera, often ignored by directors. Costumes are stylized, based on traditional doublet and hose; those of Carlos, Posa and Elisabetta could enable them to blend in, chameleon-like, into the marble walls.

Decker paints Carlos as physically weak, dominated by Philip, who forces him to make the sign of the cross during the prelude. Carlos is ‘locked up’ in this mausoleum environment; Posa opens the door at the end of the friendship duet to reveal the blue sky of freedom. The monk remains unseen throughout. Scenes elide into each other so that, for example, Carlos stays on stage for the start of Act I Scene ii, where we can see that Eboli is clearly smitten with him. Eboli’s ladies are quite menacing, predatory in a typical Decker way. Some effects are clunky – a giant globe appears on stage before the Philip—Posa interview and you just know how it’s going to be used as a visual prop… and yes, Posa turns Philip’s world upside-down!

Decker draws excellent acting from his cast, but the singing isn’t quite in the same class.

Rolando Villazón is a full-throated Carlos, capturing an unhinged, neurotic quality which suits his historical character well. Violetta Urmana lacks sex appeal as Eboli, but sings well enough. Indeed, one rather wishes she were singing Elisabetta instead, because Amanda Roocroft’s soprano is thin and occasionally shrill, her G# at the climax of the second phrase in ‘Tu che le vanità’ is insecure. Dwayne Croft doesn’t possess a huge Verdi voice, but is good enough, despite being a little gruff early on. He is impassioned, which counts for much.

Robert Lloyd’s Philip is slightly less commanding vocally than in 1984, but his is still a fine portrayal. Twenty years on from his Royal Opera Philip, the change in his acting reflects the differences expected from singers nowadays. He is far more restrained, with none of the grand gestures of yore. His encounter with the Grand Inquisitor is gripping (and physical); a literal battle for the cross, which the Inquisitor is using as a walking stick. Jaakko Ryhänen is very convincing and Riccardo Chailly’s conducting is electric here.

At the end, Carlos grabs Philip’s sword and kills himself. Philip cannot bring himself to cradle the body. Sadly, there’s a cruel cutaway to the pit which denies us Lloyd’s final expression… Philip is, after all, central to Decker’s view of the plot (and mine). (Opus Arte OA0933D, 2 discs)

De Billy (Vienna 2004)

de-billy-arthaus-dvdThe most controversial production available is by Peter Konwitschny for the Vienna Staatsoper. This is the full 1867 score in French (also available on CD from Orfeo).

Costumes are a mixture of modern dress and stylized sixteenth century costumes, ruffs much in evidence. With the single exception of an open, starry background for Fontainebleu, the set is a white box with low doors, which will be a stumbling block for some, with no trees or fountains to depict a garden other than a single sapling the monk plants at the start of Act II.

Konwitschny’s monk is a straw-hatted gardener who comically reveals to the audience early on that he’s really Carlos V, keeping his crown in his robe pockets… as you do. Another clunky moment is when Elisabeth sings of her ‘black mask’… whilst removing a golden one!

Ramón Vargas offers nice touches of humour in Act I with a quick fandango, but he’s no great actor. Iano Tamar’s Elisabeth tussles with the ladies at the end of Act I to avoid becoming queen. She’s still fighting to escape during the friendship duet, where Alastair Miles’ Philippe is immediately portrayed as a bully. He wrestles the Countess d’Aremberg to the ground, which makes Posa’s boldness in the following scene all the more remarkable. Bo Skovhus is a bookish, pony-tailed Posa, looking as if he’s fresh from university. He is more an observer, taking notes all the time, than action-man.

The ballet takes us into the realms of fantasy. It’s a 1960s sitcom entitled ‘Eboli’s Dream’, where she and Carlos are married and have the in-laws round for dinner. A heavily pregnant Eboli burns supper, so they order in a pizza, delivered by Posa! Good on the cast for taking this on – it’s surreal, but entertaining.

The Auto-da-fé is also controversial. It begins off-stage in the Staatsoper’s foyer, with a presenter reporting events as Philippe and his entourage arrive. Seemingly, we’re mid-interval, hence the number of empty seats as Bertrand de Billy cues in the orchestra. There are some audience boos (not retained on the Orfeo audio recording).

In Act IV, it’s clear Philippe has been sleeping with Eboli, for she’s asleep on cushions on the floor and is present for the whole of the Grand Inquisitor confrontation (he inadvertently steps on her dress as he enters, thus preventing her from departing), thereby making her party to the whole plot to deliver Posa to the Inquisition. Simon Yang is a young, but sinister Inquisitor.

Eboli is clearly central to Konwitschny’s production, so it’s fortunate that Nadja Michael is an excellent actress. There is thinly veiled hostility between Eboli and Elisabeth which adds an interesting dimension. Eboli slashes her own face with a shard of glass from the smashed portrait at the start of ‘O don fatal’, hence her (historically correct) eyepatch in the next scene. It all makes Waltraud Meier scratching her cheek in Bondy’s production look a bit tame. She helps Carlos escape after Posa’s death, but then gets dispatched by Inquisition hitmen.

At the very end, Carlos V appears, slaps Philip and leads Carlos and Elisabeth off, leaving a dumbfounded Grand Inquisitor noisily tapping his way around the darkened stage. A provocative, rewarding production. (Arthaus 107 187, 2 discs)

Pappano (Royal Opera 2007)

pappano-emi-roh-dvdNicholas Hytner, who directed Schiller’s play in the 1987, turned his attention to Verdi’s operatic version for the Royal Opera in 2008, turning away from the French version, but retaining all five acts. The resulting DVD is something of a miracle, given the amount of illness and injury which dogged the production. Sets are slightly stylized; the forests of Fontainebleu work well, but I’m not so keen on the gardens outside San Yuste, with its orange Lego-brick blocks. Carlos V’s tomb in the monastery is rightly imposing and a drop wall ensures scenes flow swiftly from one to the next.

The Auto-da-fé is splendid, with a shimmering gold Valladolid Cathedral, but contains a controversial additional part of a Priest Inquisitor who roll-calls the heretics and presses them to repent. I find it rather effective and it adds a welcome sense of religious fervour to the scene. Hytner’s vision of the piece is bleak. His Carlos is killed by the Inquisitorial Guard at the end.

Rolando Villazón is as lovable a Don Carlos as you’d find, if not as reckless as in Decker’s production. Marina Poplavskaya is a good Elisabetta. She has real potential as a Verdi soprano. Angela Gheorghiu had withdrawn from the role at an early stage and it is significant that Antonio Pappano did not cast his net any further than the Royal Opera’s Young Artists programme to find his Elisabetta. She was slightly better in the 2009 revival under Bychkov, where she had more weight behind her voice. She and Villazón are suitably coquettish in Act I, she laughing girlishly, and they make for a most convincing pair of young lovers.

Sonia Ganassi’s Rossini pedigree ensures her Veil Song is decorated with ease. She is perhaps a little lacking in decibels later on and dramatically is not as dangerous as Baltsa, but then who is? I’ve not been convinced by Simon Keenlyside as a Verdi baritone (until this summer’s Macbeth). He is earnest here, with dashing good looks, but vocally a size too small for the role.

Ferruccio Furlanetto is an excellent Philip and this is the best of all his recorded versions. In ‘Ella giammai m’amo’, he clutches the portrait of Carlos, his anguish arousing audience sympathy. He clearly loves Elisabetta hugely; his concern for her when she faints is most touching. Eric Halfvarson’s Inquisitor is brilliant, bedecked in the most wonderful cardinal robes and his acting is terrifying, his right hand quivering with palsy. In the revival, John Tomlinson merely succeeded in looking like Father Christmas! (EMI 50999 6 31609 9 4, 2 discs)

Don Carlos in English

Farnes

farnes-chandosJohn Tomlinson’s Inquisitor can be heard on disc. Should you wish to acquire a version in English, then this Chandos set is your only option. As it happens, it’s a very decent account, excellently conducted by Richard Farnes, based on an Opera North production. The translation by Andrew Porter is as good as any of Verdi into English I’ve heard. Unfortunately, we’re only presented with the four act version. Musically, Tomlinson and Alastair Miles are excellent sparring partners as Inquisitor and monarch, and there’s a beautifully sung, lighter Posa from William Dazeley. Julian Gavin makes for an appealing Carlos. On the distaff side, there’s a pleasant, creamy-voiced Elisabeth from Janice Watson, but I don’t care for Jane Dutton’s Eboli. (Chandos CHAN3162(3), 3 discs)

Recommendations

Declaring a single recording as a recommendation is always going to be hazardous in the realms of opera, where critics will cite so-and-so’s performance of a particular role elsewhere as superior. Doing so here, where there are so many extra variables to consider (four acts or five acts? French or Italian? which cuts can you live with?) as added complications, so I hope some gentle guidance from a personal perspective can lead the reader through the minefield of versions available. Reactions to voices vary, thank heaven, so if one enjoys a particular performer in Verdi more than your reviewer does (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau comes to mind), then follow your tastes and instincts.

Ideally, one would assemble a line-up from the available recordings, a ‘dream cast’ for the desert island. First, the easy choices. My Philip simply has to be Boris Christoff. He owned the role and portrayed both his inner torture as well as the brutal monarch of the opera’s public scenes. I love the beautiful tone and basso cantante finesse of Cesare Siepi and Nicolai Ghiaurov, but Christoff will always be tops. Ettore Bastianini is easily my favourite Posa. Of contemporary singers, only Dmitri Hvorostovksy comes close, but for sheer beauty of sound – a ‘voice of bronze and velvet’ according to title of his Italian biography – few baritones could ever match him. Fewer mezzos can tick all my boxes in meeting the challenges of singing Eboli. Choosing between Agnes Baltsa and Fiorenza Cossotto is agonizing and if I marginally lean towards the latter, it’s purely on greater technical ability and beauty of sound, though I love Baltsa’s tigress of a princess. There are some scary Grand Inquisitors out there, but I’d plump for the luxury casting of Hans Hotter, if only to witness him squaring up to Christoff’s Philip.

Don Carlos and Elisabetta are trickier propositions. I have a very soft spot for Carlo Bergonzi’s superlative singing, but he doesn’t dig deep into the psychology of the role, whereas I find Franco Corelli’s portrayal too exaggerated. For beauty of tone, the young Plácido Domingo is hard to beat. If Renata Tebaldi had recorded the role in her prime, then she would have been a real contender for Elisabetta. There are few voices more charming than Mirella Freni or Katia Ricciarelli, but neither completely surmounts the heavier challenges of the part. As it is, Antonietta Stella, with her experience of actually performing the role, vies for supremacy with Montserrat Caballé, who is technically the superior singer. If Domingo and Caballé are to be my leading couple, then I would request an earlier incarnation of Carlo Maria Giulini to conduct them, please.

The fact that the only singer of my ‘dream cast’ to have recorded the role in French is Domingo and that he’s at his least effective in Abbado’s DG set, probably indicates that a single recommendation has to be of the Italian version, but I wouldn’t want to be without the Fontainebleu act. Therefore, considering Christoff, Bastianini and Cossotto appear together on the 1961 La Scala recording which also contains Stella as a ‘near miss’ Elisabetta, Santini’s DG set is my top choice for a single studio recording. To their shame, DG has never released this in the UK on CD other than in a La Scala compilation box containing seven other operas and the Requiem. However, now just out of copyright, it has been reissued on the Urania label this year. For a ‘live’ recommendation, the 1972 Met performance under Molinari-Pradelli is a scorcher, despite the number of eyebrow-raising moments it induces, and Giulini’s 1958 performance has historical significance. I’d also volunteer Abbado’s 1978 La Scala performance as if offers something rather special in terms of vocal performances and captures this fine Verdian at his most exhilarating.

Owning a French version, however, is an absolute must to experience the opera in its intended language and to hear the extra material Verdi was forced to discard. If Peter Konwitschny’s production isn’t a problem, opt for the Vienna/ de Billy version on DVD. Musically, Pappano’s EMI recording is marginally finer, although the production isn’t nearly as effective and his ‘pick-and-mix’ from different editions means you don’t get as much original material as in Vienna. For a DVD of the Italian version, it will depend on how traditional you like your productions. Decker’s Netherlands production is excellent, but a ‘safer’ recommendation would be Hytner’s Covent Garden one, both containing Villazon’s edgy Don Carlos, while Visconti’s production offers a more traditional approach.

The good news is most recordings offer something of interest and, having ploughed through 27 versions on disc and eight on film, Don Carlos still ranks as a favourite opera!

This article originally appeared in International Record Review (November 2011, pp.22-31)

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