Verdi: Don Carlo Box set
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Opéra 4 actes / Jon Vickers (Don Carlo), Gré Brouwenstijn (Elizabeth de Valois), Fedora Barbieri (Princesse Eboli), Boris Christoff (Philip II), Tito Gobbi (Rodrigo), Michael Langdon (The Grand Inquisitor)... - Chœur & Orch. de l'Opéra de Covent Garden, dir. Carlo Maria Giulini
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It would be better if it was complete - the major cut to the end of Act IV is unfortunate, but Giulini does bring it off with superb drama. I don't think length was the only factor behind this, remember also that this was in many ways the performance that reintroduced it to the repertoire, and that led to compromise (as I'm pretty sure is mentioned in the interview with Lord Harewood included on the disc).
Far from disappointing, Barieri's Eboli takes my breath away in the act II aria. The other singing is excellent too, so much so that I don't really have any favourites to pick, but you'll struggle to find scenes like the confrontation between Christoff's Philip and Langdon's Inquisitor brought off with more drama.
The previous review is incorrect in how this set is marketed: as now appears to be the fashion this goes as Don Carlo, though the idea that the presence of the 's' denotes terribly much (other, than, in my view, the correct title) is a rather recent idea. My old set of Giulini's studio account doesn't have a complete act I or III, yet is Carlos and I think there may be a Carlo or two that does. Completeness, while excellent, is very difficult to come by and the best such set is from Matheson and the BBC Concert Orchestra on Opera Rara, the Francophone singers are mostly good but Rodrigo is weak and scenes such as the ballet drag, he is not a Verdian comparable to Giulini. As a result, any Don Carlos is a compromise but this, imperfect as it is, would be the one I would choose for my desert island. If you're a fan of the opera it is a must hear.
Don Carlo/s has a claim, with some justification, to being Verdi's most glorious opera, devoid of second rate music and superficiality, but structurally precarious and a long haul in anything but a brilliant and energetic performance (such as this one from the young Giulini). The four act version has its admirers, but it is sad to forego the romance that was Act One, yet completely uncut, the opera can put even an admirer to sleep.
So, a five-act version with a few cuts to keep adrenaline going is no great problem. Sound on this 1958 broadcast is very good and there can be no complaint about Vickers, Gobbi, Brouwenstijn or Christoff. Giulini offers pacy direction and the ROH audience is respectfully silent and enthusiastic in its applause. Documentation and presentation is A+
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Few operas this side of Offenbach's LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN (which at least has the excuse of the composer having died before its completion) present as many thorny textual questions and viable performing alternatives as Verdi's much-revised masterpiece, and one can attend two performances or buy two recordings of CARLO/S and hear very dissimilar things. The edition performed for the Covent Garden audience this night in 1958 was a responsible and even generous edition...for 1958. What we have come to think of as the "real" first act, the one set at Fontainebleau, is included, albeit with a tightening up of the choral celebration at the close. Such time-saving cuts prove typical over the course of the evening, and some are more bothersome than others. Nips and tucks in the ceremonial music of the auto-da-fé scene are almost expected by veteran CARLO/S recording collectors, especially in live performances of this era, but denying Gré Brouwenstijn the second verse of the farewell to the Countess of Aremberg was a miscalculation. A good Elisabetta, and here we have one who was more than good, can achieve one of the evening's most poignant effects if allowed to savor the repeat in that lovely little piece, with its strange harmonic turns. (And yet there was time for both verses of Eboli's delightful but dramatically irrelevant Veil Song?) Lord Harewood in his interview says it was Giulini's decision to cut the entire insurrection scene, a decision with which Lord Harewood disagreed. Act IV thus ends with Rodrigo's death rattle. As Lord Harewood notes, this deprives us of a scene crucial to the opera's "church over state" theme -- that in which the Inquisitor is able to terrify the rebellious people into submission, whereas they had been fearless in defiance of their king. On a more plot-mechanistic level, not noted by Lord Harewood, it also rather makes nonsense of Eboli's fiery vow in "O don fatale" to save Carlo, as she disappears from the opera, denied the brief reappearance in which she urges Carlo to flee during the insurrection.
So far I have largely dealt with what is missing. Obviously, anyone with an interest in this recording will have a greater concern with what is there, and what is there is often highly distinguished. If the recording missed the mark in every other respect, it would be worth having for preserving the work of the tenor and soprano, who did not record these roles commercially (in fact, the soprano recorded distressingly little commercially). It is a pleasure to hear Jon Vickers in fresh and youthful vocal estate, and with a directness of utterance that may come as a surprise to those who have listened mainly or only to his later work. I often have felt when listening to his idiosyncratic performances of Verdi (e.g., Radamés for Solti) that I'd rather be hearing him sing Wagner or Britten -- not the case here. He is well partnered by Gré Brouwenstijn's sensitive, suitably patrician Elisabetta. Tito Gobbi remains, in my estimation, dramatically unmatched in the role of Rodrigo. He has nothing like Bastianini's beauty of tone, nor Cappuccilli's breath control and ease on high; and in purely technical terms, he does not sing the role nearly as well as they or many others have. Where he leaves them all far behind is in his ability to achieve a balance between the character's nobility and his fanaticism; to suggest that while there is much good and decent about this character, there is also something a little disturbing. Gobbi's exquisite subtleties in this role can be tasted elsewhere, but better here than on his EMI commercial recording of the part, done in by the flaccid conducting of one (and thank goodness there was not more than one) Gabriele Santini.
I will confess that Boris Christoff is a taste I have never managed to acquire, least of all in Italian opera -- the monotonous phrasing and tendency toward melodramatic overstatement keep me from more than briefly enjoying the arresting timbre -- but his fans will be pleased with his performance, and he is more tasteful than could sometimes be the case. As he was the Filippo on *two* sets conducted by the aforementioned Santini, my comment about Gobbi's commercial recording applies to him too. Michael Langdon's Grand Inquisitor makes an adequate foil for Christoff, and the Monk/Charles V (Joseph Rouleau) is above-average in a part often entrusted to weak singers. The hardest day at the office is had by the great Fedora Barbieri. It was late in her career, this role lay too high for her in any event, and she simply cannot sing the opera's biggest crowd-pleaser, "O don fatale," without omitting a fistful of high notes. To actually hear that aria sung properly, one must turn to Verrett, Cossotto, Bumbry, or Baltsa. But if Barbieri's showing over the course of the evening is a battle between will and means, it can at least be said that her will puts up a tenacious fight. When the music is within her reach, as more of it is than not (the whole of the garden scene in Act III, for example), her trademark intensity and her native sense of the style hold her in very good stead.
Returning to this after a period of time, I had expected to hear a greater difference in the way Giulini conducted CARLO/S here than on his famous EMI studio recording of 1971. I thought the later recording would be revealed as a good deal more laid-back, slower, perhaps over-refined. I really cannot say that my expectation was fulfilled by what I heard. More stayed the same than changed; and here and there, his approach is actually *more* languid, less well shaped in 1958 than it would be in 1971 (the short, dreamy orchestral prelude to Act III, a reminiscence of Carlo's arietta at Fontainebleau, is "savored" to such a degree in 1958 that it threatens to wither on the vine). Frankly, as a souvenir of Giulini's view of the opera (without getting into role-by-role comparisons of the singers), I believe the studio recording is superior. The interpretation had not greatly evolved, and on EMI we can hear it better recorded (not insignificant when sonority/texture is so much a conductor's forte as it was Giulini's) and more accurately played by the same orchestra. It must be said that the 1958 has its share of the common pitfalls of single-performance live recording: singers going through patches of poor coordination with the orchestra, occasional flubbed entrances and moments of dicey intonation in the pit that would surely be patched up in the studio, and the like.
(Incidentally, while I can neither verify nor dispute the claim that this new ROH "official" release has better sound than any previous issue by other labels, I can say the sound is more than acceptable considering the performance's age and provenance, and that the packaging, photos, and notes, including libretto, are excellent. The level of surface hiss does go through many rises and falls, though -- more noticeable via headphones -- and a comparison to DG's CD release of the Karajan/Salzburg DON CARLO of the same summer [starring Sena Jurinac, et al] reveals that the latter was much better recorded.)
The standard choices for newcomers who are amenable to hearing CARLO/S in the Italian translation remain Giulini/EMI and Solti/Decca, both with all five acts, from the two of which one can imagine creating the ideal set that neither is (importing Solti's Filippo and Inquisitor into Giulini's set, for example, would be a good start). The most consistently strong cast is to be found on Karajan/EMI, which is also the most orchestrally spectacular set; but there, one has not only the Italian translation to contend with but also the four-act abridgement (Karajan, though a great DON CARLO/S evangelist, never got the five-act religion). The field of recordings sung in French is weaker; if your inclination runs that way, hold your nose and go with Abbado/DG or de Billy/Orfeo. The 1958 Giulini live recording, though flawed and not inclusive of enough music to be anyone's first choice, is to be appreciated as an historic recording in every sense -- a window on a time when great artists came together to shine a light on an unaccountably underappreciated work by one of their art form's greatest creators, and did much to clear the path for continuing illumination over succeeding decades. There are times when one senses that much of the ROH audience is encountering music that is new to it, as when Brouwenstijn concludes her massive Act V aria, the orchestra's last note dies away, and the audience waits just a little longer than we expect before erupting into rapturous applause, as if wanting to make sure they do not trample on something -- it would still be a while before DON CARLO/S applause protocol would be as ingrained in them as, say, AIDA protocol was. When a document of a live performance has such palpable excitement of new discovery about it, on the part of the musicians and on the part of the audience, it goes a long way toward covering whatever blemishes and imperfections there might be. Excitement -- even secondhand and at the remove of some 50 years -- is an infectious thing.
We then come to the sturdy glue that holds this affair together in a nearly unimaginable way. Carlo Maria Giulini is certainly at his very, very best in this opera and on this occasion. I would take Filippo's "Ella giammai m'amo" and the following scene with the Grande Inquisitore as an example of magic on the podium. Giulini first sets everything up by letting the solo cellist play quite freely in the opening of the aria. He then takes the orchestra and finds near Straussian complexities in the underpinning of the vocal line. I've never heard anything quite like it. Even the dull English audience manages a few "bravos" at the end. The Inquisitore enters to his usual foot dragging music, but you feel this fight between the King and his so called "advisor" beginning at that moment. The unfolding set of climaxes culminating with Filippo's "Giammai!" are paced so perfectly and with a ferocity that never rushes, that one feels drained after Filippo's long two octave arpeggio on F# from top to bottom at the end of the scene. The Inquisitore is well sung by Michael Langdon.
I could go on like this, but I would be repeating myself continuously. I own more versions of Don Carlo than any other Verdi opera. I think for a historic recording this now goes to the top of the list.
On aura donc atendu près d'un demi-siècle que sorte une mouture officielle de cette version mythique de «Don Carlo» à Covent Garden (publiée par la BBC et Covent Garden). Le son est heureusement meilleur que sur les pirates déjà connus même si certains défauts persistent ponctuellement sur certaines plages.
Jon Vickers est un Don Carlo étonnant mais royal. Tito Gobbi et Boris Christoff complètent le tableau (même s'ils ne sont pas exempts d'imperfections à l'inverse de l'atroce Barbieri). Cette version est en fait surtout celle de C. M. Giulini : enfin un chef d'orchestre qui sait s'effacer quand il le faut. De toutes les versions en italien, c'est celle qui laisse la plus belle part au drame et donne donc à «Don Carlo» ses vraies couleurs.
Le triple cd fait un peu moins de trois heures (version en cinq actes) et on a le livret avec le texte intégral de l'opéra. En bonus il y a a une conversation en anglais d'une vingtaine de minutes sur «Don Carlo» qui devrait en intéresser certains.