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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Don Carlo (1884)
Boris Christoff (bass) – Filippo II, King of Spain; Mario Filippeschi (tenor) – Don Carlo, Infante of Spain; Tito Gobbi (baritone) – Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa; Giulio Neri (bass) – The Grand Inquisitor; Plinio Clabassi (bass) – A Monk; Antonietta Stella (soprano) – Elisabetta di Valois; Elena Nicolai (mezzo) – Princess Eboli; Loretta Di Lelio (mezzo) – Tebaldo, page to Elisabetta; Paolo Caroli (tenor) – Count of Lerma / A Royal Herald; Orietta Moscucci (soprano) – A Voice from Heaven;
Chorus and Orchestra, Opera House, Rome/Gabriele Santini
rec. Rome, October 1954
Bonus Tracks – Great Voices Sing Verdi
Don Carlo: Io l’ho perduta! … Qual pallor! [10:06]
Jussi Björling (tenor), Robert Merrill (baritone), Emil Markow (bass), Chorus and the RCA Victor Orchestra/Renato Cellini
rec. 1950
I vespri Siciliani: O tu, Palermo [3:50]
Boris Christoff (bass), Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Schüchter
rec. 1952
Ernani: Che mai veggio! … Infelice … L’offeso onor, signori [6:30]
Boris Christoff (bass), Philharmonia Orchestra/Anatole Fistoulari
rec. 1951
La forza del destino: Urna fatale [3:28]
Tito Gobbi (baritone), Philharmonia Orchestra/James Robertson
rec. 1950
Un ballo in maschera: Alzati … Eri tu [6:57]
Tito Gobbi (baritone), Philharmonia Orchestra/Warwick Braithwaite
rec. 1952
Otello: Vanne … Credo in un Dio crudel [4:15]; Era la notte [2:45]
Tito Gobbi (baritone), Philharmonia Orchestra/James Robertson
rec. 1950
REGIS RRC 3011 [3 CDs: 60:19 + 67:52 + 75:09]

This 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 felt reading.

In 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).

Two 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.

Casting 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.

Antonietta 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.

Vocally 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.

At Regis price this set should be in every respectable opera collection!

Göran Forsling






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