Certainly no other
Verdi opera has had such a complicated performance history as
Don Carlo. Eight distinct versions can be identified, of which
the three main ones are the original 1867 five act French ‘Don
Carlos’, the 1884 four act Italian (the one we have here), and
the 1886 ‘Modena’ version that basically reinstates the French
Act I in Italian to the 1884 version. The 1884 Italian version
offers a tighter plot and musical framework than the others.
The field is already
crowded for anyone wanting Don Carlo in Italian on DVD. Alternatives
include Pavarotti at La Scala Milan cond. Muti; Luis Lima at
Covent Garden, cond. Haitink; Domingo at the Metropolitan Opera,
cond. Levine and finally Carreras with the Berlin Philharmonic,
cond. Karajan. Even without making comparisons, going by names
and reputations alone this new version has to deliver the goods
in no uncertain terms to become an automatic recommendation.
A stark few hours
await anyone encountering the opera. Oppression, ruthlessness,
death and an unrealised longing for freedom pervade this production
from first to last. So too does the rule of law. At every level
society is governed by a higher law: Carlo by his father Philip’s
iron rule, and Philip himself by God, made flesh in the Grand
Inquisitor. God’s law and sacrifice is further underscored by
the presence of a vast cross that is periodically lowered into
Visually, the scenery
is marble grey to represent a stylised mausoleum, loosely based
on the one the actual Philip II created at Escorial as a museum
of his royal predecessors and saintly relics. The majority of
the costumes are of similar marble grey tones, thus underlining
the message that in life man is but a heartbeat away from the
tomb, that the cold everlasting repose is inevitable, which
it is. To strive to break free from such suffocating tyranny,
as Carlo tries to do, is futile and brings but one result –
I am with the opera, I nonetheless started with the extras this
set includes (illustrated synopsis, cast gallery and introduction
to the opera featuring interviews with Lloyd, Villazón, Roocroft,
Urmana, Chailly and Decker). The introduction is by far the
most interesting and extensive, lasting some 25 minutes, and
provides a suitable way into the production. Snatches of orchestral
and stage rehearsals are caught amongst explanation of the concepts
Decker brings to the piece.
Robert Lloyd has
perhaps the most illuminating comments to make on the nature
of Italian opera’s emphasis on the music vs. German opera’s
emphasis on the text. In Don Carlo there are elements
of both, as the libretto was partially derived from Schiller,
whose directness Verdi readily reflects in the composition.
The emphasis on the music comes through here in the recording
too, with the orchestra much more forward than the voices. This
is a pity, as the text suffers, and sound engineers would do
well to remember that voices are integral to the fabric of opera.
More than once I wished there was a greater balance between
the pit and the on-stage protagonists, as it would have strengthened
the impression left by all concerned.
Also commented upon
is Chailly’s conducting. Lloyd points to his dramatic sense
of conducting, whilst Chailly himself points out that his approach
is that of other Italian maestri, Votto and Serafin in particular.
It’s true, he has the measure of internal dynamicism within
the work but at times the sound he gets from the Royal Concertgebouw
Orchestra lacks beauty. Chailly’s wish for a “charcoal black”
sound to accompany the entry of the Grand Inquisitor seems largely
unrealised to me when compared against that achieved by Karajan.
There was a true master at plumbing orchestral depths whilst
still maintaining a beauty of tone.
delivers a forthright, anguished performance as Don Carlo. As
he astutely comments in the introduction, the role is one to
be acted and sung in the extremes of emotion from the start,
and this he achieves wonderfully. Vocally there are few problems
for him, having more the ringing burnish of a young Carreras
or heroicism of Domingo, but like Pavarotti he too has the ability
to capture pianissimi tellingly with the head voice. In terms
of an all-round Don Carlo Villazón has all that could be desired,
and demonstrates fine duet singing too.
Dwayne Croft’s Rodrigo
too is strongly characterised and excellently sung. The strength
of it is that his evil remains largely under wraps, observed
and commented upon by the Grand Inquisitor.
The most problematic
I found to be Jaakko Ryhänen’s Grand Inquisitor. Well acted,
and somewhat encumbered by the lengthy cross that doubles as
his staff, vocally he lacks impact. Perhaps to an extent this
is due to the recording imbalance, but the result is that one
of the opera’s great scenes (indeed, of all opera) fails to
register with the sheer might that it could do. All the more
is the pity as dramatically there could be nothing greater than
the confrontation between Philip and the Inquisitor taking place
over Philip’s waiting coffin.
Robert Lloyd’s Philip
II bears the benefit of his long and varied experience with
the opera, having also often assumed the Grand Inquisitor, as
captured on Haitink’s Covent Garden DVD. Vocally perhaps the
tone is dryer than it was, but that can be seen as positively
reflecting a world-weary man deploring what his lot amounts
to: a loveless marriage, a rebellious son, a terrified kingdom.
The subtlety of Lloyd’s acting is also noteworthy.
Not to be outdone
by the men, Violeta Urmana and Amanda Roocroft hold their own
as Eboli and Elizabeth respectively. Urmana brings a voluminous
presence as Eboli and delivers “O don fatale” in fire-eating
style. Yet one wonders how Carlo could mistake her for Elizabeth,
seeing as the two are so different. Roocroft’s voice has grown
in stature over the years to become a fine Verdian instrument,
as the splendid rendition of “Tu che le vanità” shows. But for
both ladies, their roles come across as being much more than
their big numbers – which is as it should be. The slight tremble
in Roocroft’s voice added much to her reaction when confronted
with Philip’s accusations of love for Carlo and also her distressed
encounters with Carlo himself.
The live filming
of this production brings added immediacy to your involvement
with the action, but also distractions in the form of occasional
‘noises off’. The film direction is there or thereabouts – but
does occasionally omit or fail to capture some aspects or reactions
carefully enough. Inevitably decisions had to be made, but why
does Giorgio Giuseppini’s monk go unseen during the opera, yet
get a lingering curtain call shot?
An automatic recommendation?
On the whole, yes. Certainly so for the contributions of Robert
Lloyd, Rolando Villazón, Amanda Roocroft and Dwayne Croft. It’s
a fine call I would suspect between Urmana and Baltsa (for Karajan)
as Eboli, with Baltsa coming out on top for me. There are greater
Grand Inquisitors - if only it were possible to have Lloyd singing
the role against his own Philip. Should clarity of text be your
thing, then opt for Karajan – he presents a thoroughly Germanic
view of the work, but that’s not to say it’s a better view when
all is said and done. Chailly loses out on insight to Muti,
but provides greater impetus than Levine. But what clinches
this version for me is Decker’s production – the cage it creates
for the drama to inhabit is at once abhorrent, claustrophobic
and yet so totally appropriate: it is really great drama.