Karajan has performed this score many times,
and ignoring this issue, recorded it twice, once for EMI in
1978, and the other for DG in 1986. In both examples, Karajan
opted for the four Act Italian language version. His competition
includes Haitink and Muti. Verdi also composed a five Act version
and this too has had a number of recordings. The four act version
tends to be dramatically tauter and this early Verdi opera is
greatly improved by the shorter time span. Verdi also produced
a version in French for Paris; this also is available in a number of performances.
Those aware of Karajan productions of operas
will know what to expect – sumptuous sets, very good, rather
than famous voices and superbly executed by the orchestra, in
this case the Berlin Philharmonic. This is what we get here.
There is no evidence of the current fad of having the opera
in modern or maybe even futuristic costumes and with ridiculous
sets. These will usually be totally inappropriate to the action
being performed by the long-suffering singers and conductor.
Here, we have the opera in the correct time frame, in believable
costumes within appropriate sets. All of this is very welcome
and a feature, common to most, if not all of Karajan’s opera
performances on DVD or Video.
The singers are all in reasonably hardy vocal
condition with the principals being especially fine. Given the
date of the performance, I approached this issue with some caution,
as Carreras had his vocal problems about this time, and I was
not looking forward to hearing him croak through the score.
I needn’t have been concerned as he gives a technically secure
and vocally strong performance. Agnes Baltsa, also seems to
give of her best under Karajan and here she is particularly
Audience noise is minimised, so much so that
you would hardly realize that it was live apart from breaks
between acts, and a few orchestral interludes where Karajan
figures prominently. The video direction, under the control
of Karajan does not spend a lot of time on himself, unlike his
orchestral concerts, and generally the approach is totally in
keeping with the drama.
Are there any weak points in this issue – yes,
one, but this is specific to those listeners who like to hear
every last inflection of each singer, and blow what is going
on in the orchestra pit. Karajan has often had this criticism
laid at his feet and so it is here. Occasionally the orchestral
balance is such that the voices are overwhelmed. However, I
am one of those who like to hear what Verdi wrote for performers
other than the singers, and so I do not find this feature off-putting.
The instances of singers being swamped by the luscious tone
of the Berlin Philharmonic are relatively rare and quite tolerable
when they do occur.
There is also an amusing demonstration of ‘paddy’
from the conductor at the beginning of track 27, Act 3 Scene
2, the beginning of Rodrigo’s death scene, where the strings
are obviously playing a little louder than Karajan thinks they
should, and are quietened very effectively by the conductor.
Remember that this performance was made when relations between
the conductor and the Berlin Philharmonic were somewhat strained
... and it shows.
The DVD comes with multi-lingual sub-titles,
a detailed black and white synopsis, notes and performance details,
again in English, German and French.
Recommended without reservation.