recording has always been held in high esteem by Verdians,
first and foremost for the penetrating portraits that the
great singing-actors Boris Christoff and Tito Gobbi create.
Both were at the height of their powers in the mid-1950s.
Also the rest of the cast are audibly inspired and Santini
draws impassioned playing from his Rome forces, not least
in the prelude to act IV which precedes Elisabetta’s aria
Tu che la vanita (CD3 tr. 5). Elsewhere he is not exactly
the most visionary of Verdi interpreters - no one has mind
surpassed Giulini in his 1970 EMI recording - but he is experienced,
knows his Verdi and leads a generally well paced performance.
The mono sound is somewhat restricted compared to later offerings
but it is clean and the climaxes make a great deal of impact.
This is the four-act version, omitting the Fontainebleau act
and there are some further cuts, compared to the Giulini version;
I followed the libretto from that booklet since this issue
has only a track-related synopsis. Less than a decade later
Santini re-recorded the opera for DG, now in the five-act
version and in good stereo sound. He brought Antonietta Stella
and Boris Christoff over from the present cast but despite
the wider dynamic and generally fuller sound it is a paler
reading. Stella’s voice had dried somewhat and Christoff had
lost some of the focus and acuity even though he gave a deeply
the present case, though, he is magnificent from beginning
to end; a formidable Filippo whose singing often sends shivers
down the spine. This is a merciless ruler who stops at nothing.
At the same time his private broodings in the second act Ella
giammai m’amò … Dormirò sol (CD2 tr. 12) are deeply touching,
delivered as smoothly as can be imagined. Like Maria Callas
his voice is not intrinsically beautiful, he can sometimes
be coarse and hollow, even guttural, but few singers of his,
or indeed any generation, have delved deeper into their characters.
That also goes for Tito Gobbi. Among his near-contemporaries
both Bastianini and Merrill had greater voices and Gobbi could
often lose lustre and sonority at fortes where the others’
voices just rang out in glory and power. But for insight and
vocal colouring Gobbi had no superiors and very few equals.
This portrait of Rodrigo is possibly his best assumption on
record. The end of act 3, Rodrigo’s death scene, is a lesson
in vocal acting (CD3 tr. 1-3).
masters are not alone in illustrious achievement. In the bass
department we also have the magnificent Giulio Neri, who sadly
died before he was fifty, singing a Grand Inquisitor to match
even Christoff. Their act 3 confrontation is a real combat
of giants (CD2 tr. 14 – 17). Even the little role as the Monk
is sonorously sung by Plinio Clabassi, a singer who should
have had better opportunities on record.
Don Carlo is maybe the toughest task for a producer: he must
be youthful and still able to produce heroic tone. Mario Filippeschi
isn’t ideal but he is surprisingly successful, considering
his reputation. He is mainly known for his brilliant and unflinching
top which made him a thrilling but one-dimensional Arnold
in the old Cetra recording of Guglielmo Tell. He was
an unsubtle and noisy Pollione in Callas’s first Norma.
On the other hand he showed some feeling for nuance in Vittorio
Gui’s 1950 recording of Aida. As Don Carlo he every
so often manages to scale down his voice and show more nuanced
feeling, best perhaps in the aforementioned Rodrigo’s death
scene. In the short final act he impresses greatly when he
builds up the tension at Vago sogno m’arrise (CD3 tr.
7) with baritonal tone, almost Otello-like, leading to Elisabetta’s
Sì, l’eroismo è questo.
Stella couldn’t quite compete with Callas and Tebaldi but
was immensely popular in Italy in the 1950s and 1960s. At
her best her silvery tone distinguished her from both her
competitors. It is also in evidence here and she sings some
ravishing pianissimos in a reading of Elisabetta’s part that
also seems deeply felt. Tu che la vanita, at the beginning
of the last act (CD3 tr.5) offers much sensitive singing and
she also has the requisite power for the ringing climax. Bulgarian
mezzo-soprano Elena Nicolai was obviously an important actress;
she even made a number of films after she had retired from
the opera stage. During her heyday she sang many of the great
dramatic mezzo parts and even Brünnhilde, which is easy to
understand when one hears her tremendous and chilling O
don fatale (CD2 tr. 20-22). Few have done it better.
this is a Don Carlo to savour and the only drawback
is that we get a mutilated score; such was the fashion of
the day. The best recorded version available – if one wants
it in Italian – is Giulini’s, now at mid-price in the Great
Recordings of the Century series; for the French original
Pappano – also on EMI – is the one to have and it is also
available on DVD. But as a complement to get two of the best
singing-actors ever in key-roles and a first-class supporting
cast, this 50+ years old recording should also be in any collection
worthy the name. The transfers are as good as they can be.
One has to make do without a libretto but for compensation
there is a good half-hour of bonus tracks, “Great Voices Sing
Verdi”. In the great scene from Don Carlo we hear the
Carlo of our dreams, Jussi Björling, youthful, ardent, urgent
and brilliant, and Robert Merrill provides the baritone sonorities
that Gobbi marginally misses. The rest presents the brothers-in-law
Gobbi and Christoff in unsurpassed readings of favourite arias
and Gobbi’s impersonation of Iago is absolutely spot-on: the
Credo cruel and menacing, Era la notte honeyed
and oily. In Renato’s – as it was then – aria from Un ballo
in maschera the first phrases of Eri tu are filled
with sorrow - his friend has deceived him - but then the anger
gushes forth and the tone cries out: Revenge! Psychology indeed!
Christoff enthrals the listener with his smooth legato singing,
warmth of tone and exquisite pianissimo in Infelice
from Ernani, whereupon Fistoulari whips up a furious
tempo for the cabaletta, which bounces along at Formula I
speed. It is indeed a privilege to be able to hear these classic
sides again. The advances in recording technique during the
intervening 55 years matter not an iota.
Regis price this set should be in every respectable opera collection!