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CD: Crotchet


Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Don Carlo (1884 - four act version in Italian) [203.04]
(Original French libretto by du Locle and Méry after Schiller’s “Don Carlos”; Italian translation by de Lauzières and Zandini)
Don Carlo - Jussi Björling (tenor)
Rodrigo - Robert Merrill (baritone)
Eboli - Fedora Barbieri (mezzo-sop.)
Filippo II - Cesare Siepi (bass)
Il Grande Inquisitore - Jerome Hines (bass)
Elisabetta di Valois - Delia Rigal (soprano)
Voce dal cielo - Lucine Amara (soprano)
Un frate – Lubomir Vichegonov
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera House/Fritz Stiedry
live rec. 11 November 1950, New York, radio broadcast  (including some  commentary by Milton Cross); (bonus excerpts: 6 November 1950 telecast)
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES WHRA 6021 [3 CDs: 68.02 + 66.53 + 68.49]
Experience Classicsonline


This live Metropolitan performance has been circulating in various fairly unsatisfactory guises ever since the broadcast of 11 November 1950. There is a cheap Myto edition in dim but listenable sound but this painstaking re-mastering by Ward Marston is markedly cleaner and fuller and thus very welcome. He contributes an interesting note explaining just how he contrived to produce a complete, re-engineered performance from disparate sources. However, be warned: this is the four act version and quite heavily cut, and thus valuable primarily for its historical significance as a showcase for four of the finest male voices of the time singing together in one of Verdi's most complex works.

Those voices are mostly to the fore and the unobtrusive, rhythmically steady direction of Fritz Stiedry (1887-1968) permits a direct, unfussy, performance to unfold. Veteran Met star Geraldine Farrar complained that Stiedry’s tempi were too stolid to do service to Verdi and it is true that at times they stretch the singers. However, the compensation is an added depth and poignancy that a faster, less reflective beat can occlude.

The contrast between Delia Rigal's matronly, wobbly Elisabetta - she really does sound like Carlo's mother, which is wholly inappropriate - and Björling's impassioned, finely focused Carlo makes one regret all the more that finer female voices were not cast in this important production, which both opened the season and marked the beginning of Rudolf Bing’s tenure as General Manager. If you have never before heard of Delia Rigal, her plodding, poetry-free account of "Non pianger, mia compagana" and the tepid applause it arouses will give you a clue why; I am afraid that she was not a front-rank artist. What a shame that Eleanor Steber and Blanche Thebom or Giulietta Simionato were not singing that November evening.  Fedora Barbieri was very much a star, and she manages some imposing moments, but as she lumbers through Eboli's first aria you wonder what possessed her to take on a rôle to whose technical demands she is manifestly unsuited: it requires a fleet mezzo who, as well as having a dark contralto sound (which she does) and secure top notes (which she doesn’t), can negotiate hairpin bends (just the way she can't). She partially compensates for what she lacks in technical assurance by sheer gusto and a venomous delivery of the Italian text, but she is often not very grateful on the ear. It is thus no great loss that both Rigal and Barbieri are denied the second verse of their first act arias; other cuts - see below - are more grievous.

Vocal balm and welcome relief come with the rich tones of both Robert Merrill, who once more displays his beautiful bronze timbre and perfect legato - but, unforgivably, his showpiece, "Per me giunto" is cut. Equally fine is the twenty-seven year old Cesare Siepi, who sonorously assumes the rôle of King Philip as if he had been singing it for a lifetime; it is barely inferior in pathos and vocal beauty to, for example, his 1972 live Metropolitan performance over twenty years later. As if the presence of those three were not enough, we also get to hear the rotund bass of the great Jerome Hines as Il Grande Inquisitor. Björling is in his finest voice, with clarion top-notes and great energy, such that, contrary to some performances where he merely (merely?) stands and sings, here he really inhabits the part. Apparently he was not keen on attending rehearsals, despite never having sung Don Carlo on stage in Italian before, but you would never guess it from the security and commitment of his performance. One or two doubtful moments of intonation and the odd characteristic verbal slip apart - surely forgivable in a live performance - this was clearly one of his finest evenings. Although his voice was never huge, it seems to come across the footlights without any difficulty. Finally, and in order to redress the balance regarding my observations on the comparative inadequacy of the women's voices, it is only fair to mention that Rigal comes into best voice - far too late - for the concluding duet "Ma lassù" spinning a lovely legato mezza-voce then floating a beautiful top C, and that Lucine Amara contributes an ethereal voce dal cielo. This was her début, just as it was Bing’s; she became a Met stalwart and one of his favourite and most dependable artists.

As this set stretches to three discs, it avoids the horrible fade-out and break which so disfigures the Auto-da-fé scene in the two disc Myto edition, and there is room for a supplement consisting of excerpts from the earlier telecast performance on 6 November 1950. I hardly think it was worthwhile including them given the poor sound quality but Marston suggests that this might well have been “a more inspired performance than the 11 November matinee” – if only we could hear it better.

This set is expensive compared with the Myto edition and will never be a first choice for this inexhaustibly subtle and moving opera, but you might well want it as a supplement or as a record of four great, favourite male voices. Above all, we can hear Björling in one of his greatest roles, singing as well as he is to be heard anywhere and at any time in his career.

Ralph Moore

see also review by Goran Forsling



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