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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Don Carlo - opera in four acts (sung in Italian) (1884 revision)
Philip, King of Spain – Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass); Don Carlo, Infante of Spain – José Carreras (tenor); Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa – Piero Cappuccilli (baritone); The Grand Inquisitor – Matti Salminen (bass); Elisabeth de Valois, Philip's Queen – Fiamma Izzo D’Amico (soprano); Princess Eboli, Elisabeth's lady-in-waiting – Agnes Baltsa (mezzo); Tebaldo, Elisabeth's page - Antonella Bandelli (soprano); The Count of Lerma - Horst Nitsche (tenor); An Old Monk – Franco De Grandis (bass); A Voice from Heaven - Antonella Bandelli (soprano)
Chorus of the Bulgarian National Opera, Sofia, Vienna State Opera Chorus
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert Von Karajan
Produced and directed: Herbert Von Karajan; Sets: Gunther Schneider-Siemssen; Costumes: Georges Wakhevitch
rec. live, June 1986, Gross Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Summer Festival.
Video presentation 4:3 PAL. Stereo.
SONY 88697 296019 [176:00]
Experience Classicsonline

The original five-act form of Don Carlos was premiered at the Paris Opéra on 11 March 1867 and was only modestly received. The premiere of the Italian translation as Don Carlo, fared little better. Both the Italian public and theatre managements found it over-long and were slow to take it to their hearts. It was not long before the act three ballet and then the Fontainebleau act were dropped altogether. The arrival in Italy of the shorter and grander Aida in 1871 added to the difficulty of the opera’s length. After a failure in Naples in the same year Verdi made his first alterations to the score for a revival under his own supervision. Still the fortunes of the opera disappointed the composer and as early as 1875 he began seriously to consider shortening the work himself. With other demands he did not begin seriously on this until 1882, concluding his revision as a four act opera the following year with the premiere having to wait until 1884. This new shorter four-act revision involved much rewording to explain the sequence of events and maintain narrative and dramatic coherence. Verdi’s own reworking involved the removal of the Fontainebleau act, the ballet and the Inquisitor’s chorus in act five as well as other detailed changes. The full story of the genesis of Don Carlos, and its various forms, is told in detail in Part 4 of my Verdi Conspectus. The premiere of the new four act Don Carlo, which has become known as the 1884 version, was a great success at La Scala and featured the tenor Tamagno who created Otello three years later.
 
As with the contemporaneously issued Sony DVD of Verdi’s Falstaff, also from the Salzburg Festival, (Sony 88697296009 to be reviewed) this issue is as much a veneration of Karajan as of Verdi and his opera. Karajan had first conducted at the Salzburg Festival in 1933 and was Director from 1955-1960 being appointed to the Board of Directors in 1964. He founded the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1967 to go alongside the established Summer Festival. Well before the time of this recording, Karajan had used the Salzburg Festival to take total control in the theatre as director, as well as on the podium. He also chose his set and costume designers. He had become the Svengali of Salzburg. This was how he wanted it. Some productions from the 1970s were filmed by Unitel, often with film studio additions, and with the sound dubbed, the lip sync of the singers occasionally betraying that fact as with the production of Verdi’s Otello (see review). Later, after helping to introduce and launch the CD audio system, and always enchanted by technology, he founded Telemondial S.A.M. to produce his complete repertoire for the emerging video-disc. This also gave him full control of both vision and sound. As is well known, the video-disc format didn’t take off. A number of these operas were issued on VCR before their current emergence on the Digital Versatile Disc, or DVD, currently the medium of choice, at least until Blue Ray takes premier position.
 
I believe this Don Carlo recording was made in 1986, three years before the conductors death, which may account for all too evident signs of under rehearsal and moments of laggardly tempi. The production was first seen at Salzburg in 1975 and reprised each year until 1978, a situation hitherto unheard of except for a Mozart opera! The first of those performances forms the basis for the EMI Classics audio recording (EMI 769304 2). By the time of the present recording some of the cast had moved on. What did remain the same was the quite magnificent array of sets. Except for the likes of the Salzburg Festival and New York’s Metropolitan Opera such scenery is rarely seen or afforded on the opera stage. This is exemplified in the opening scene at the monastery of St. Yuste with its mighty gates and with views through the bars which seem to go onward to infinity (CHs 2-4). The following Garden Scene is equally impressive with sweeping descending staircases, crenellated wall at the rear, and for its extras in front of whom the dogs are exercised (CH 6). For the Queen’s Garden of act two the back wall is changed. But, perhaps the most impressive is the backing to the staircases in the Auto da-fé scene, a magnificent Renaissance-style palatial façade (CHs 18-20). After such splendours the staging of the King’s study, the setting for Philip’s soliloquy Ella giammai mamo (CH 20) and the mighty confrontation with the Grand Inquisitor (CHs 20-21), seem relatively commonplace. But no, like the setting of the Prison Scene with Rodrigo’s murder and the Eboli inspired insurrection (CHs 26-28), everything is appropriate and has its purpose. This is grand opera in all its splendour and as Verdi might have expected and seen at the Paris Opéra for the premiere. Both sets and costumes are in period and utterly realistic. If you enjoy such traditional productions with period sets and costumes, luxuriate in this whilst you can. It is of a lost period in opera production as producers and designers seek to bring their own vision, and even added words to a score. They are often not at all bothered about a composer’s intentions, even when they are clearly stated.
 
As I have indicated, the sets and costumes are the same as for the initial performances in 1975-1978, but there are significant cast changes and I regret that they are not for the better. Of the original cast, José Carreras in the eponymous role has lost the lyric plangency of his voice in the intervening years. His tone is more baritonal in timbre and less free at the top. He sings and acts with commitment and involvement although tending to force his voice at times. As Princess Eboli, Agnes Baltsa with her lean tangy tone is one of the few who can manage with conviction the coloratura of the Veil Song (CH 7) and also the more declamatory aria O don fatale (CH 25). Unaccountably both the introductory Sotto ai folti, immense abeti (beneath these trees) by the ladies is abbreviated and the second verse of the Veil Song itself, Ma discerna appena (I can hardly see) is omitted entirely. As Baltsa sings and acts everyone else off the stage this is a significant loss! Piero Cappuccilli reprises his admired Rodrigo and continues to field impressive tone and adequate steadiness. His vocal characterisation and acting are altogether another matter. Added to their deficiencies he looks rather the worse for years and altogether too old for fighting in Flanders.
 
Physical appearance is also an issue with Ferruccio Furlanetto’s portrayal of Philip and Matti Salminen’s as the Grand Inquisitor. Furlanetto’s Philip looks more like Carlo’s elder brother than his father; surely the make-up department and the camera crew could have done better as he sings about his grey hair. There is better news. Whilst regretting the lack of Ghiaurov’s outstanding singing in the original production, Furlanetto’s tone is full and well varied although he fails to bring out the pain felt by the King in his famous soliloquy in the manner of his illustrious predecessor (CH 20). He is perhaps most impressive in Philip’s duet with Rodrigo which concludes with the ominous warning to beware the Grand Inquisitor (CH 14). Matti Salminen looks far too healthy and upright for a blind nonagenarian. Whilst his singing is strong and appropriately forceful in the confrontation with Philip, his is not a natural voice for the role, lacking Italianate squilla (CHs 21-22). Perhaps the poorest acted impression is that made by Fiamma Izzo D’Amico as Elisabeth. Born in Rome in 1964 and supposedly a Karajan ‘discovery’ she made her operatic debut in 1984 in Treviso. She is a lovely looking woman, but neither her face nor her acting convey the emotions of what she is singing. Far too often she wears a bland look or, at worse, that of a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights. This appearance at Salzburg was perhaps a step too soon and too far. The role of Elisabeth is as much spinto as lyric and her promising voice is not up to the task. Although she went on to sing Mimi in La Boheme at La Scala and appear at the Metropolitan Opera, she had seemingly disappeared from the stage by the early 1990s. My colleague Göran Forsling reviews a 1987 recital disc of her elsewhere on this site.
 
The age of Fiamma Izzo D’Amico brings me to contentious issues in respect of presentation of this DVD from Sony in PAL format. If, as the booklet states this recording derived from 1982 performances, then the soprano was a mere 18 years old at the time and had not made her professional debut! This might have explained her somewhat overawed appearance. However, I believe the recording was made at the 1986 reprise of the production, a mere three years before Karajan’s death. A DVD issue of the performance has been available in America as Region 1 NTSC since 2002 with multi-coloured front and with correct Chapter listings. This issue has the wrong Chapter listings from 20 onwards, the latter being listed twice. The King’s aria, Ella giammai mamo should be Chapter 21 and all subsequent numbers one forward. In reference referrals above, I have chosen to use the incorrect numbers given on the rear of the booklet. This being his centenary year the booklet has a biography of Karajan, an essay on the origins of the four-act version and a detailed synopsis, regrettably not track-related. These are in German and English.
 
Robert J Farr
 

 


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