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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Don Carlos Opera in Five Acts (1867 Paris version with additional music unused at the first production. (Sung in French).
Libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille Du Locle after Schiller’s dramatic poem ‘Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien’ of 1785-86.
First performed at the Paris Opera on 11 March 1867
Philippe (King of Spain), Alastair Miles (bass); Don Carlos (Infante of Spain), Ramon Vargas (ten); Rodrigue (Marquis de Posa), Bo Skovhus (bar); Le Grande Inquisiteur, Simon yang (bass); Elisabeth de Valois (Philip's Queen), Iona Tamar (sop); Princesse Eboli (Elisabeth's lady-in-waiting), Nadja Michael (mezzo); Thiabault (Elisabeth's page), Cornelia Salje (sop); Le Comte de Lerme (A Royal Herald), Benedict Kobel (ten); An Old Monk, Johannes Gisser (bass); A Voice from Heaven, Inna Los (sop)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Bertrand de Billy
Live recording, 18 October 2004
ORFEO C648 054L [4 CDs: 53.28 + 79.17 + 62.57 + 50.13]



Verdi’s first opera for Paris was Jerusalem. By then the pre-eminent Italian opera composer, Verdi followed the example of Rossini and Donizetti in re-working a successful piece for his first assault on Paris. Premiered at the Paris Opéra in November 1847 Jerusalem was a rewrite of Verdi’s fourth opera, I Lombardi with the necessary addition of a ballet, de rigueur for the Paris Opéra. Like his illustrious predecessors Verdi was tempted to Paris by the superior musical standards, greater money available for productions and the lack of censorship that plagued his work in Italy then under foreign occupation. These qualities were sufficient to keep Verdi interested in The Opéra, whilst Jerusalem was sufficiently successful to keep the theatre management interested in the composer. Jerusalem was to have been followed by a completely new work by Verdi. The dramatic upheavals in France, leading to the Second Empire in 1848, made that impossible. Verdi did not return to Paris until 1852 when, during the gestation of Il Trovatore, he negotiated a new contract that lead to Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Verdi’s twentieth title. Although there was a revival in Paris in 1863, for which Verdi wrote several new arias, his first ‘Grand Opera’ had a chequered fate and was not destined to enter the charmed circle of Paris repertory Grand Opera such as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots or Halevy’s La Juive. It was not heard in France in its original language after 1865. Verdi’s only other Paris venture before Don Carlos was a revision in French of Il Trovatore for which he composed the necessary ballet, made some minor additions and revised the rather abrupt ending. The commission for this revision was something of a placatory gesture by The Opéra following the failure of Verdi’s litigation against the Théâtre Italien for what he contended were unauthorised performances. Paris for Verdi was perhaps, at this time, ‘unfinished business’. He was very much his own man, living on his estate with his wife and only accepting commissions if he was highly motivated by a proposal or circumstances. In 1864 when Verdi spent much time revising Macbeth he was approached by Emile Perrin, director of the Paris Opéra, to write once more for the theatre. With the helpful interventions of a mutual friend, Verdi committed himself to do soothe following year, the work to be of four or five act, with ballet. The agreed subject was Don Carlos. Verdi travelled to Paris in July 1866 and began composing. Schiller’s poem is a long one and so was the libretto to which Verdi composed the music. By February of 1867, as rehearsals for the first night were in full progress, it became obvious that the opera was too long and Verdi, however reluctantly, excised sections of it. This performance claims to be that which would have been presented at the premiere if Verdi had not been forced to make the excisions he did.

Whatever Verdi’s vicissitudes in Paris they were minor, it would seem, compared to that of the Viennese audience on the opening night of Peter Konwitschny’s production. The Viennese audience could not have been wholly surprised as the production originated in Hamburg three years previously. On a number of occasions, such as during the ballet music (CD.2 trs. 11-16), involving singers miming a rather farcical domestic scene involving phone calls to a Pizza Company rather than any dancing, the audience reaction to the producers concept is voluble and clearly audible. There is a similar audience reaction during the auto da fe (CD 3 trs. 1-3). Who said CD was dead in the water with the arrival of DVD? There are virtues in not seeing what one is hearing.

Some years ago whilst researching in the archives of the Paris Opéra, Andrew Porter rediscovered the music Verdi put aside. Some of those items were included as an appendix to the first studio recording of the French version conducted by Claudio Abbado (D.G.). Recorded over two years with a non Francophone cast in an over resonant acoustic and spread over four discs its appeal was limited. The later recording, well conducted by Pappano (EMI CD and Warner DVD) and recorded live around six years ago at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and sung in better French, is far preferable but it of the more limited version. This recording adds the extended choral introduction to act 1 (CD 1 tr.1), the exchange of masks at the start of act 3 (CD 2 tr.10) and also sections of the duet between Elisabeth and Eboli before O don fatal (CD 3 trs.6-8). The outcome of these and other minor alterations means an extra 30 minutes or so of Verdi’s finest music compared with the Giulini (EMI GROC) and Haitink (Philips) recordings of the standard Italian version.

In my review of the CD of Ramon Vargas in duets and titled ‘Between Friends’ (LINK) I reported on the tenors move towards heavier roles including Don Carlos in which he was carded for Houston and Washington. On the basis of his singing here that move might be premature. Although the booklet does not say so he was reported to be recovering from an infection at the first performances. His voice lacks the honeyed cover to the tone that has been his hallmark on record to date. Thee are occasions here when his tone thins and whitens and he cannot raise the requisite heft. As Rodrigue, Bo Skovhus was tackling his first Verdian role, one he would not have undertaken in the Italian version with its greater demand for tonal richness particularly in the duet with the King (CD 2 trs 8-9) and which is much more dramatically intense in the Italian version. Skovhus’ singing is at all times musical, but also with a certain tentativeness that does not go with the character of Rodrigue. As Philippe II Alastair Miles is resonant and suitably reflective in his lonely soliloquy Elle ne m’aime pas (CD 3 tr.4) and plays his part in the following dramatic confrontation with the vocal gravitas of Simon Yang’s Le Grande Inquisiteur (CD 3 tr.4). As Elisabeth de Valois the Georgian soprano Iano Tamar really struggles with the vocal demands of her role, her phrasing in the big concluding act aria known in the Italian version as Tu che le vanita (CD 4 tr.5) is choppy and expression severely limited. Nadja Michael as Eboli on the other hand, has vocal resources to spare as Eboli. Hers is the most consummate Verdi voice in the cast. She uses her strengths to convey the many lyrical and dramatic facets the role demands and is reflected in the particularly warm applause that rewards her O don fatal et détesté (CD 3 tr.9).

Given the length of the opera, the choral contributions are rather limited. Nonetheless these are given worthy and vibrant performances although the manner of the presentation of the auto de fe scene causes some lack of the impact it would otherwise have. On the rostrum Bertrand de Billy shows a welcome feel for Verdian cantilena. He is somewhat better in controlling the big dramatic events, particularly the confrontations, than the more lyrical and intimate moments where he tends to linger a little. The audience’s shows of disapproval of the production, odd shouts from the chorus, not written by Verdi, and stage noise, area a distraction.

The booklet notes, lacking numbering, claim that this recording is a first for the Don Carlos that Verdi intended to present at the premiere and is the composer’s true effort at Grand Opera. It was an effort that did not bring him popular acclaim in Paris that the later more cogent revisions of the score, in Italian, in his own country did. Even then it has only been in the post Second World War period, and stimulated by the Covent garden production of 1958 by Visconti, with Giulini conducting, that the true greatness of Verdi’s rich score has come to be appreciated for its true worth. It is interesting that an increasing number of opera companies are returning to the French version with some adding the music contained here. It might make for a long evening, but with mature Verdi who cares. On that basis I welcome this opportunity to hear the opera as Verdi first intended it to be heard in Paris on March 11th 1867, with the excisions in their correct places and which give the cohesive and dramatic whole the composers intended when he poured so much time and effort into its writing.

Robert J Farr


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