Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Don Carlos - Four-act version (sung in English) (1884)
Philip, King of Spain - Alastair Miles (bass); Don Carlos, Infante of Spain - Julian Gavin (tenor); Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa - William Dazely (baritone); The Grand Inquisitor, John Tomlinson (bass); Elisabeth de Valois, Philip's Queen – Janice Watson (soprano); Princess Eboli, Elisabeth's lady-in-waiting – Jane Dutton (mezzo); Thibault, Elisabeth's page – Julia Sporsén (soprano); The Count of Lerma, A Royal Herald - Stephen Briggs (tenor); An Old Monk - Clive Bayley (bass); A Voice from Heaven, Rebecca Ryan (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North/Richard Farnes
rec. Leeds Town Hall. 26-30 May 2009. DDD
CHANDOS OPERA IN ENGLISH CHAN 3162(3) [3 CDs: 62.06 + 34.08 + 71.15]

The original five-act form of Don Carlos was premiered at the Paris Opéra on 11 March 1867 to go alongside the Great Exhibition held that year. It was by far the longest of Verdi’s operas even after much material had been jettisoned to ensure that the Parisian audience could get their trains home after the performance. Whether that concern influenced its modest reception can only be guessed at. The premiere of the Italian translation, as Don Carlo, fared little better. Both the Italian public and theatre managements found the opera over-long and were slow to take it to their hearts. It was not long before the act three ballet and then the first act, the Fontainebleau act, were dropped altogether. The arrival in Italy of the shorter, more cogent and equally grand Aida in 1871 added to the view. 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 its fortunes disappointed and with others shortening the work in various ways the composer began to consider doing so himself. Subject to other demands, he did not begin serious work on this until 1882, concluding his revision as a four act opera the following year with the premiere, at La Scala, 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 Inquisitors’ 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 section 2 of the fourth part 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 with the tenor Tamagno, who created Otello three years later, singing the title role. As is now accepted, a version sung in English, is denoted by the French title of Don Carlos.

In Britain an abbreviated five-act version produced by Visconti and conducted by Giulini at Covent Garden heralded a renaissance of the work worldwide (see review). However, the economics of staging generally favoured the shorter 1884 version and this was what Opera North presented in 1993, a halcyon period in its history with productions of Boris Godunov, The Thieving Magpie, Jerusalem, Faust and La Gioconda appearing on the roster.

The original 1993 production by Tim Albery, in sets by Hildegard Bechtler, featured John Tomlinson as Philip with Opera North stalwarts Keith Latham, David Gwynne and Clive Bayley as Rodrigo, the Inquisitor and the Monk. By the first revival in 1998 Bayley had become the Inquisitor with Alastair Miles as Philip and Julian Gavin as the eponymous Carlos. With Albery returning to refresh his creation, all three reprised these roles in the 2009 staged revival whose presentation was assisted, stimulated and aided by support from the Peter Moores Foundation and by this recording. The recording joins that of Verdi’s Nabucco in Chandos’s Opera In English series in featuring Opera North forces under Richard Farnes (see review).

In my review of the live performances I found the dramatic scene between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor lost a little because of the similarity of the voices of Miles and Bayley, each a strong but lean bass. I am pleased to note that in this recording the latter has reverted to the Monk with the Inquisitor being sung by the equally strong but tonally more sonorous and vocally distinct John Tomlinson. As in the theatre, Richard Farnes whips up a fire in this scene to great dramatic effect in what is one of the particularly notable all-male duets in the work (CD3 trs. 4-5). Another of those significant duets occurs between Philip and the idealistic Posa after the King has discovered Elisabeth unattended and dismissed her companion. This is perhaps the greatest improvement Verdi made in his many alterations to the score. In this recording it lacks a little of its power and dramatic thrust. The chilling effect of the King’s warning to beware the Grand Inquisitor also suffers. In my view this is more to do with the use of English than any failing of the singers. William Dazely’s Posa responds well to a King filled with doubts (CD 1 trs.16-18).

In terms of Verdi singing the male side is particularly well served here. Alastair Miles sounds suitably old and weary as he reflects on married life in the loneliness of his study (CD 3 tr.2-3). This follows the wonderful cello chords of the introduction that sets the mood for his soliloquy (tr1). Dazely’s Posa was a real revelation in the theatre and is so in this recording. His portrayal is wholly convincing with the highlight of his interpretation being his singing in the prison scene and as Posa dies (CD 3 tr.11-15). In the theatre I found Julian Gavin’s Carlos a little over-sung and wanting in more gentle phrasing and caressing of the vocal line. I am pleased to say most of those problems are absent here with the tenor singing an ardent and well-characterised performance. This is particularly clear in the duet with Posa (CD 1 tr.5) and in how he handles the confusion in the Garden Scene when Carlos confuses Eboli with Elisabeth and declares his love (CD 2 trs.3-5).

On stage Janice Watson portrayed a rather glacial Elisabeth, not many marital comforts for Philip I suspected. As on that occasion she sings her last act aria with silvery tone and well-drawn phrasing (CD 3 trs.18-19) adding to my favourable impression in the following duet with Carlos (trs.20-21). Jane Dutton’s lyric mezzo has a variety of vocal colours and is effective in both the lyrical Moorish song (CD 1 tr.8) and as she dramatically regrets her own beauty after admitting her adultery with Philip (CD 2 tr.10).

As in the theatre, all the singers have excellent diction, the males in particular. However, this makes me acutely aware of the limitation imposed by the compromised relationship of English language prosody with Verdi’s music; they have to get their voices around the words while keeping true to the vocal line in what is accepted as a good translation by Andrew Porter. In his constant reversal to the French language for his various revisions, Verdi wrote in a manner for the words to sit on the music, much as the bel canto composers did half a century before. For many listeners being able to hear the words so clearly allows the story to unfold without their having to read the libretto along the way.

In the theatre, Albery’s management of the auto da fe scene (CD 2 trs. 6-10) was exemplary with an impressively staged pyre an added coup de théâtre. In this recording, with a strong roster of Flemish deputies, the committed singing of the chorus and with Farnes again lighting metaphorical fires in the orchestra it is an equal tour de force.

Robert J Farr