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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Don Carlo (1871) - Opera in four acts. Libretto revised by du Locle, translated to Italian by Zandarini, based on Schiller’s “Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien” and Cormon’s “Philippe II, roi d’Espagne”.
Philip II - Robert Lloyd (bass)
Don Carlo - Rolando Villazón (tenor)
Elizabeth of Valois - Amanda Roocroft (soprano)
Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa - Dwayne Croft (baritone)
The Grand Inquisitor - Jaakko Ryhänen (bass)
Princess Eboli - Violeta Urmana (mezzo)
A monk - Giorgio Giuseppini (bass)
De Nederlandse Opera Chorus
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
Stage Director: Willy Decker
Rec. live at Het Muziektheatre Amsterdam, 2004
all regions
OPUS ARTE OA0932 D [2 DVDs: 199:00]

 

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 the scene.

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 – death.

Familiar though 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.

Rolando Villazón 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.

Evan Dickerson

 

 



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