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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Don Carlo Ė an opera in five acts - sung in Italian (1867)
Philip, King of Spain, Boris Christoff (bass); Don Carlo, Infante of Spain, Jon Vickers (ten); Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, Tito Gobbi (bar); The Grand Inquisitor, Michael Langdon (bass); Elisabeth de Valois, Philip's Queen, Gré Browenstein (sop); Princess Eboli, Elisabeth's lady-in-waiting, Fedora Barbieri (mezzo); Tebaldo, Elisabeth's page, Jeannette Sinclair (sop); The Count of Lerma, A Royal Herald, Edgar Evans (ten); An Old Monk, Joseph Rouleau (bass); A Voice from Heaven, Ava June (sop)
Appendix: Interview with Lord Harwood [CD 3.tr.9. 23.27]
Covent Garden Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 12 May 1958
ROYAL OPERA HOUSE HERITAGE SERIES ROHS003 [3 CDs: 73.11 + 70.20 + 58.17]

 

Some time in the late 1950s I returned home from college to find that a new LP of highlights of the 1954 EMI recording of Don Carlo had become the family pride and joy. The more affluent of my student colleagues had portable valve wirelesses but played only pop. I was tired of hearing The Garden of Eden and Elvis Presley around Hall, so that sitting to hear the new LP was a delight. But what was this brooding dramatic music I was hearing. I knew Traviata and Rigoletto from the family LPs. This was music of a different breed and it haunted me. This was true not least of the Kingís great soliloquy Ella giammai míamo sung by Boris Christoff and the portrayal of the noble, selfless Rodrigo by Tito Gobbi. I was hooked. As Andrew Porter notes in his introductory essay and Lord Harwood admits in his interview, for many Verdians it is their favourite opera. It certainly is for me.

What is little realised today is how perceptions of Don Carlo changed within the space of a few decades. The distinguished critic Ernest Newman was dismissive of it in 1933 and the work was scarcely heard. Today, every major opera house has seen the work produced, in one of its versions, in recent years. This has happened despite its demands on casting which make it heavy on budget. This change did not happen overnight. There was a production at the New York Metropolitan Opera to mark Rudolf Bingís taking over the administration of that house in 1950. There were no notable productions during the fiftieth anniversary of Verdiís death the following year and if Radio Italiana broadcast a performance the Cetra record company missed it. Giulini conducted performances in Florence in 1955 but the occasion, like that at the Met, made no waves. When Covent Garden enticed the director Luigi Visconti, together with Giulini, it was to present Don Carlo. Lord Harwood recounts, in the appendix to this issue (CD 3 tr.9), going to Italy to discuss casting with the two. Boris Christoff and Tito Gobbi were quickly agreed as was the young Canadian tenor Jon Vickers. The pre-eminent dramatic Verdi mezzo, more contralto, was Fedora Barbieri and her casting was equally quickly agreed albeit with some reservation regarding the tessitura of the role. Covent Garden proposed the London-based soprano Amy Shuard as the Queen. She had, however, also sung the role of Eboli at Sadlerís Wells, and this worried Giulini in respect of her tonal character. The opportunity went instead to the Dutch soprano Gré Brouwenstein (or Brouwenstijn), who Giulini knew had already sung some of the staple Verdi soprano roles including Aida and Desdemona in London and elsewhere.

The five-act version was also agreed as the basis of the new production. Giulini did not wish to include the insurrection scene of act four after the death of Posa, nor the second verse of Elisabethís comforting aria to her lady in waiting (CD 1 tr.21). Other minor cuts were also made. Verdi was not unused to having the work cut and had had to accept major omissions to enable Parisians to catch their trains to the suburbs after the premiere. The music of these Parisian cuts was only discovered by Andrew Porter in 1969 and received their first performance in a BBC broadcast three years later. That performance, and the background to the re-discovery of the unused music, is dealt with in my review. Verdi also agreed and participated in a reduction to a four-act version in 1884. Despite regret about Giuliniís omissions, particularly the insurrection scene, the abbreviated five act version is far more cohesive dramatically than the four act version. As far as the audience at the Covent Garden performances was concerned the consequence of these omissions was that the performance length was reduced to 178 minutes, still a long evening with intervals. That length compares with the conductorís 1970 recording of the work, reviewed by a colleague, which has 30 minutes more of the score.

The production and series of performances at Covent Garden, of which this recording is of the second, made waves throughout the operatic world as no other production of Don Carlo had done previously. It launched the work into its rightful place in the Verdi mainstream. These were the days before videocassette recordings or live video transmissions, at least in the United Kingdom, and I longed to see the production and particularly with Christoff as Philip. With a young family and a mortgage, visits to London, let alone to Covent Garden, were not on the agenda. Only later, when my work took me on periodic visits to the capital, did I get to see Christoff in the theatre. I did get eventually to see the Viscontiís production, with its magnificent sets and costumes, but to my everlasting regret it was not with Christoff as Philip!

On listening to the recording, the first thing that strikes me is the lyrical nature of Giuliniís conducting. I thought at first that this was a function of the mono recording, which I must say is of a good standard given the circumstances and age. But after playing about with the volume control and using headphones as an alternative, the impression remains. The conductor accentuates the flowing nature of Verdiís melodies in the support of his singers but without detriment to the drama of the opera. One of the first soloists to benefit from this approach is Jon Vickers as the emotionally tortured Carlo. In his interview Lord Harwood notes that Vickers was not the most Italianate of tenors. Yet throughout the performance Giulini draws from him the most sensitive singing and phrasing that I have ever heard from this fine artist who we tend only to remember as the outstanding Otello of his generation and as a Wagnerian. His vocal control, soft singing and expressive phrasing is heard from Carloís opening Fontainbleu (CD 1 trs.1-2) through to his farewell to Elisabeth (CD 3 trs.6-7). Gré Brouwenstein as Carloís intended, and later Queen, sings with full warm tone and a wide variety of colour and gives a very convincing portrayal of Elisabethís many emotions and dilemmas. Her full tone is more the mature Queen than the innocent princess, and I cannot help wondering what Amy Shuard, who I first saw as Marguerite in the early 1950s, would have made of it. Brouwensteinís rendering of her long act-five aria Tu che la vanita (CD 3 tr.5) is deeply impressive as is her characterisation throughout. Fedora Barbieri sings the rival Princess Eboli with rich tones, and a slightly metallic edge to her voice, whilst always being keen to put character interpretation to the fore. In his interview, Harwood implies her casting was a little problematic as she was more contralto than mezzo with the role very much in the latter fach. This is a state of affairs that can be confirmed by those owning the 1956 Karajan Falstaff where she sings Mistress Quickly with Reverenza chest tones to die for. (review) The fact that Amy Shuard, very much a soprano, had sung the role of Eboli at Sadlers Wells, and that both Soltiís 1965 (Decca) recording and Giuliniís studio recordings featured mezzos, Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett respectively, both of whom went on to sing soprano roles, gives an indication of the overall tessitura. Perhaps any limitation in Barbieriís singing is heard in the Moorish scene (CD2 tr.16) where her trill and lack of appropriate vocal lightness is apparent. Her dramatic O don fatale (CD 2 trs.22-23) is some compensation and is deservedly applauded before the orchestral conclusion.

The really great singing on this recording comes from the duo of Boris Christoff as King Philip and Tito Gobbi as Rodrigo repeating the roles they sang on the 1954 HMV recording. In a live performance, and with Giulini conducting, their singing is so much more dramatic. This is particularly so in the second scene of act two after Philip has so humiliatingly dismissed the Queenís lady-in-waiting. As the royal retinue retires he calls Rodrigo back with the word Restate! and proceeds to open his heart to him and concluding the audience with the chilling warning Ti guardi dal Grande Inquisitor! (CD 1 trs. 22-26). In those utterances no other bass on record brings such a shiver to the spine than Christoff. This sub-plot involving the respective strengths of church and throne has its apotheosis in the dramatic confrontation between the King and the aged Grand Inquisitor and in their act four scene; one of the greatest duets between two basses in all opera (CD 2 tr.17). At this performance the role of the Inquisitor was sung by Michael Langdon, a member of the Covent Garden company who went on to mount the throne in a later revival of the work. His power of enunciation and characterisation show all the necessary promise of a future that was realised at Covent Garden and elsewhere. Prior to that confrontation, Verdi gave Philip one of the longest and most demanding of bass arias in the soliloquy Ella giammai míamo (CD 2 trs 15-16). Philip, in the loneliness of his study, doubts his wifeís love and regrets that the power he holds does not give him the key to his own mental peace. The pathos Christoff brings to the words via tonal variation, nuance and colour is heart-rending. One feels for the man, whether he is all-powerful and with bloodied hands or not. Giulini draws from Christoff one of the most telling renderings of this aria by this singer, not least on the DG stereo recording (nla) made when that label added La Scala to their credits. Regrettably, that issue did not surround Christoff with a conductor and colleagues of the quality heard here.

The act two scene between the King and Rodrigo, referred to above, is one that Verdi amended for the 1884 revision of the French original. His changes made it much more taut and dramatic; qualities that Giulini recognises in his interpretation. It is in this scene that Rodrigo, who earlier has had to safeguard Carlo from Eboliís wrath, needs to show the nature of his character by fearlessly revealing his ideals for Flanders to the King. He must do this without attracting royal doubts or admonition. In the plot, Rodrigo does so to such effect as to become the Kingís confidante. Gobbi walks this tightrope vocally with variation of tone, nuance and clarity of diction. His vocal tone is still bitingly incisive. Here as in the scene where he sacrifices his life for Carlo, (CD 3 trs.1-4), Gobbi also shows, via his vocal characterisation, his full appreciation of the depth of what is written in the libretto and the music. Rodrigo is the axis of the plot. I know of no other recording where this is as obvious as in this performance. Gobbiís is a truly towering performance. His studio recordings of Verdiís Rigoletto, Renato and Iago are some of the greatest on record. His assumption of Rodrigo in this performance can stand alongside those memorable interpretations.

As I have already indicated, the quality of the reproduction is more than satisfactory. It is far better than I expected when I heard of the coming availability of this recording. There are few stage noises and the applause after the major set-pieces is warm and appreciative without being over the top so as to disturb the dramatic flow of Verdiís sublime masterpiece. Whilst I might always regret not being there, or seeing Christoff as Philip, this is no bad substitute and I welcome its availability most warmly. Any true enthusiast of Verdi performances will speedily add it to their collections.

Robert J Farr


 



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