The year two thousand and thirteen marks the bicentenary of
Giuseppe Verdi’s birth, the composer described at his
death as The Glory of Italy. In Part 1 of my Verdi
Conspectus on this site (see review)
I detailed the composer’s early life, how he came to write
opera and how performances came about. I also surveyed the recordings
extant at the time of writing.
In all, there are twenty-eight titles in the Verdi operatic
oeuvre. This includes the re-writes of two operas under different
titles. It is worth noting that a number of Verdi’s other
works appear in different versions but carry the same title;
this is particularly relevant to this collection in respect
of Don Carlos as I outline below.
This Arthaus setis one of the first such
to hit the shelves and mark the bicentenary. The three operas
chosen have little connection, spread as they are from the composer’s
glorious middle period commencing with Rigoletto in 1851
and Il Trovatore two years later, to that nearing his
final flowering which included Don Carlos of 1867. The
sequence and recordings, alongside the composer’s wider
life, is further extensively detailed in parts two,
of my conspectus.
Whilst two of this collection emanate from performances at the
Vienna State Opera there are no other connections, not even
among the singing casts. However, as I outline in each review,
they do illustrate something of the evolution in production
styles that has occurred from the earliest, Il Trovatore
recorded in 1978, to that of Rigoletto in 2006 via Don
Carlos in 2004. Each has the distinctive hand of the stage
director very much to the fore.
The earliest operas available on visual media, VHS tape being
one of the first, were most often films of stage or special
productions. For these the lip sync was often all too obviously
contrived. In the 1970s various broadcasting corporations aspired
to relay live opera from a theatre to a wider audience. This
process reached its epitome in live relays, in HD, broadcast
to and available in cinemas around the world. Early examples
were relays from New York’s Metropolitan Opera and RAI
from La Scala opening nights.
The present recording, from 1978, was all about capturing Von
Karajan conducting one of his favourite operas on his return
to Vienna. To be transmitted live, it was scheduled to be taken
Europe-wide. As we know, there is many a slip between cup and
lip. After the dress rehearsal, Franco Bonisolli the scheduled
tenor walked out in a huff and all seemed lost. However, Karajan
was in luck, Domingo was available and, prepared to travel.
It was the perfect substitution. Even if the Austrian transmission
was put back a few days and the pan-Europe schedule lost, a
live transmission was achieved. Suffice to say of the performance
that its qualities following its emergence on DVD stood it head
and shoulders above later recorded contenders although I no
longer believe that to be the case.
Karajan chose his own stage designers as well as the television
director, Günther Schneider-Siemssen. He himself directed
the production. Looking at it thirty odd years after the event
several matters date it, not least the décor and the
frequent breaks for curtain calls at the end of scenes as well
as each part (act). The periodic vociferous applause of the
Viennese audience holds up the dramatic cohesion of the story
after the popular solos. Fortunately the singers do not break
role but wait impatiently to continue. Also rather dated is
the fuzziness of the picture. There is neither the sharpness
that we currently get with HD nor the immediacy of HD sound.
The costumes are in-period and the sets are appropriate and
atmospheric. Take the following as examples: the painted backdrops,
the rails of the convent (CHs.20-22) and De Luna’s castle
(CHs 34 et seq).
Musically and in terms of singing the performance is outstanding.
Domingo, the saviour of the day as Manrico, is in pristine lyric
voice with plenty of power in reserve. His is a bravura performance
vocally and in terms of his acting. He does not duck, or abbreviate
the high notes of Ah si, ben mio and Di quella pira
(CHs. 31-33). As Manrico’s supposed mother Azucena, Fiorenza
Cossotto is absolutely fantastic in her acted and sung portrayal.
I was fortunate to see her in this part a few years before this
performance when, as here, she lived the role bringing every
nuance, vocally and facially, to her interpretation. Her portrayal
of Azucena in the two scenes in parts 2 and 4 are particularly
notable (CHs.12-19 and 40-43). As De Luna, who covets Leonora,
Pierro Cappuccilli is more committed than usual in his acting
and vocal characterisation. He colours his tone and seems really
to believe in the character. His phrasing, even tone and vocal
colour are a strength throughout. His long-breathed phrasing
and legato line in Il Balen are worth waiting for, not
however, the over-long applause it elicits (CH.21). As the woman
that Manrico and De Luna both love, the Bulgarian soprano Raina
Kabaivanska is committed in her acting and floats some lovely
notes in her two great solos (CHs. 5 and 35). However, I personally
find her tone fluttery. She is certainly no match in lushness
of production for Leontyne Price who sang in the production
a year earlier and of which sound recordings exist. As Ferrando,
the role that Caruso forgot when saying that Il Trovatore
simple required the four best singers in the world, José
van Dam brings presence and acted commitment albeit my personal
preference is for the extra vocal sonority of a true bass.
This is obviously an opera dear to Von Karajan’s heart.
He knows it intimately. There are no over-indulgencies on his
part and, a few small cuts apart, he does as full justice to
Verdi’s creation as any other on record. The booklet refers
to a Karajan interview during one of the intervals. This is
not present on this DVD nor was it on the earlier two-disc manifestation
(TDK. DVUS CLOPIT). More recently an HD recording from New York’s
Metropolitan Opera on Blu-Ray has displaced this older one in
my affections (see a colleague’s review).
The tenor is good, but not in the Domingo class. The rest of
the cast, Radvanovsky as Leonore, Hvorostovsky as Di Luna and
Zajick as Azucena are good Verdians with the soprano particularly
With a major International Exhibition scheduled for Paris on
the horizon, and Meyerbeer dead, Emile Perrin, director of the
Paris Opéra, was desperate for a five act Grand Opera
complete with the de rigueur ballet. With the helpful interventions
of a mutual friend, Verdi committed himself to compose again
for a theatre whose bureaucracy he abhorred. The agreed subject
was Don Carlos based on Schiller’s poem. Verdi
travelled to Paris in July 1866 and began composing.
Schiller’s Don Carlos is long and so was the libretto
to which Verdi composed the music. By February of 1867, as rehearsals
for the first night were in full progress, it became obvious
that the opera was too long for Parisians to catch their last
trains home. Verdi reluctantly excised sections.
This performance claims to be that which would have been presented
at the premiere if Verdi had not been forced to make the excisions.
At the Verdi Congress in Parma in 1969, David Rosen, an American
scholar, produced a previously unknown section of the Philip-Posa
duet that had been folded down in the conducting score prior
to the premiere. The English musicologist Andrew Porter, acting
on a hunch, visited the Paris Opéra library and asked
to see the autograph score. He was amazed to discover that the
pages of the music that Verdi omitted from the premiere, and
subsequently thought to be lost, were simply stitched together.
These excisions amount to about thirty minutes of music. They
also give greater cohesion and logical explanation of the details
of the complex story as the work unfolds. Porter copied out
the missing parts. These were included in the first recording
of the work in this complete form by the BBC in London on 22
April 1972; this recording was broadcast on 10 June 1973 and
was much later issued on CD by Opera Rara (see review).
Some of the missing music was also included as an appendix to
the first studio recording of the French version conducted by
Claudio Abbado (DG 415 316-2). Orfeo issued the sound track
of this performance from Vienna on CD in 2005 (see review).
Whilst not parading the quality of international names found
in this and the parallel Orfeo recording, that from Opera Rara
has the advantage of several singers for whom French is their
first language and there are occasions when this is obvious
to any francophone listener.
Thus far I have commented on the generalities. On re-hearing,
perhaps after the strained efforts of too many tenors heard
in the Metropolitan Opera transmissions at my local cinema this
past year, I find more grace of phrasing and tonal beauty in
the singing of Ramon Vargas. Bo Skovhus, as his friend Rodrigue,
looking quite silly with pony-tail and large specs, I find utterly
unconvincing as a Verdian. Alastair Miles is more resonant than
I allowed and suitably reflective in his supposedly lonely soliloquy
Elle ne m’aime pas (DVD 2 CH.8). Of the ladies
the Georgian soprano Iano Tamar as Elisabeth de Valois is distinctly
better in the opening Fontainebleau act (DVD 1 CHs.3-9). However
she seems to tire and struggle with the vocal demands of the
big concluding act five aria, known in the Italian version as
Tu che le vanita (DVD 2 Ch. 20). There I find her phrasing
choppy and her expression limited. Nadja Michael has vocal resources
to spare as Eboli. Hers is among the best Verdi voices in the
cast. She uses her strengths to convey the many lyrical and
dramatic facets the role demands and is reflected in the particularly
warm applause that rewards her O don fatal et détesté
(DVD 2 CH.14).
As to the production and sets, the latter take little comment.
Sparse is hardly the word. The whole is set in an open shoebox
stage of white walls with innumerable doors. The doors might
not be so bad if they were not so low as to require everyone
leaving to have to duck down to exit. In neither the Fontainebleau
scene, nor that in the Palace Garden, is there a tree in sight.
There is some effort to portray the St Juste monastery with
railings and a gate. It is the setting for the Auto da fé
that stirs the most antipathy. Played in modern dress and starting
in the foyer with announcements of Royal Entrances, it is a
travesty. However, the scene is not alone in the latter respect.
The ballet music is not played with dancers, but portrays Eboli
and Carlos, as a married couple entertaining Philip and his
Queen to dinner. Eboli burns the chicken and a pizza has to
be summoned, delivered by pony-tail and silly specs Rodrigue
himself. Then there is the mish-mash of costume, some scenes
in period, others in modern dress as in the last scene (DVD
2 CHs.21-22) as well as the Auto da fé. However,
the ultimate contradiction with the words of the opera comes
as Philip rises from a futon, have bedded Eboli who is beside
him, to sing of his loneliness and regret at Elisabeth not loving
him (DVD 2 CH.8). Eboli is then present throughout the scene
with the grand Inquisitor (CHs.9-10).
At the end of the performance there is applause for the singers
as well as general booing. Booing is also evident during the
entrance to the Auto da fé. This takes place through
the auditorium with the audience seeing what is going on outside
in the foyer via a large screen above the stage. How De Billy
on the rostrum keeps the whole thing together at this point
I do not know. However, he is one of the few winners here, responsible
for sensitive phrasing of the orchestra while supporting the
singers as they strive with the demands of the French language
and the director’s concept.
Is all this worth it to hear the complete French version? My
advice is to transfer the sound to a CD via your computer, if
possible. Alternatively, buy the Orfeo version or that by Opera
Rara. If you want a standard five act version in French, that
is without the excised additions, then Pappano conducting from
Paris in Luc Bondy’s production at the Théâtre
du Châtelet in 1996 is a better bet. It has the advantage
of a couple of francophone singers in the cast although you
do not escape a silly haircut for Rodrigue (Warner DVD 0630-16318-2).
There are several recommendable recordings of the Italian translation,
as Don Carlo. However, it is worth remembering that each
time that Verdi amended his score, as he did more than once,
he composed to a French libretto commissioned for the task.
The music and prosody of the original language are an essential
consideration to achieve a true appreciation of Verdi’s
Strangely for one of the most popular of operas, even of those
by Verdi, Rigoletto has not had a great record on DVD
in recent years either by quantity or, more particularly, quality.
That from Covent Garden, whilst having a rather perverse meccano-like
set, is generally well sung and acted (Opus Arte OA 0830 D).
That from the Gran Teatre del Liceu is marred by unsteady singing
from Carlos Álvarez in the title role (see review).
The Dresden production in 2008 involving Juan Diego Florez as
the Duke was eagerly awaited. He is somewhat under-powered,
and even lacking some vocal élan. The Gilda of Diana
Damrau is outstanding with pure and even vocal production and
characterisation along with a trill to die for in Caro nome.
As her father,Zeljko Lucic lacks the dramatic vocal bite
for this most demanding of all of Verdi’s baritone roles.
Some of the production antics and costumes will be a deterrent
to many (see review).
So this production and cast from Zurich enters a not too competitive
field of modern recordings in 16:9 aspect.
In the title role, the sixty-four year old Leo Nucci could be
considered a veteran. A favourite of Decca in the days of audio
studio recordings, I always found his tone rather wiry and lacking
in the vocal colour of the likes of his compatriot Cappuccilli.
I could make a similar case in the case of his performance here.
However, what tilts my opinion his way is his detailed and consummate
acting and vocal nuance. His body language and facial expression,
along with expressive vocalisation, are all that one could wish
for in this most dramatic of baritone roles. Yes, there are
moments of unsteadiness when he puts a shade too much pressure
on his voice (CH.10), but in totality his interpretation is
among the best, not least in the father and daughter scenes
that are at the heart of Rigoletto as an opera of pathos
and drama (CHs.11, 23 and 35). As his daughter Gilda, Elena
Mosuc has a proud history in the most demanding of high coloratura
roles such as The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic
Flute. Here her tone is womanly and her coloratura secure.
However, she significantly mars her acted and sung contribution
by returning to the balcony to acknowledge the applause after
Caro Nome (CH.15), and then positively milks it, wholly
ruining the dramatic effect of what has gone before.
Piotr Beczala is a lyric voiced and handsome Duke. His singing
is elegant in phrasing and variety of tonal colour. These vocal
skills are paralleled by a convincingly acted portrayal as both
the sincere suitor of Gilda (CHs. 13-14) as well as the egocentric
master of his Court who pays unwelcome attention to Countess
Ceprano (CH.4) and later dallies with Maddalena with seduction
in mind (CHs. 30-31). Lasló Polgár is the most
elegant Sparafucile I have ever seen portrayed with smooth sonority
to match his appearance. This brings me to the matter of sets
and costumes. Switzerland is not that far from Germany, the
home of regietheater. Consequently I was more than surprised
when the opening scene has Duke and courtiers in a location
and in costumes of the period that Verdi envisaged and demanded.
Rigoletto is the complete humpbacked jester sporting an appropriate
hat and carrying his tricorn. That vision lasted to the end
of the first scene after Monterone, with grey beard, had come
and gone leaving Rigoletto cowering at his curse (CH.8). When
the jester meets Sparafucile on his way home to his daughter
all has changed (CH.10). Costumes have moved on a few centuries,
late nineteenth century at a guess. Both father and assassin
have rolled and curved brims to their bowler hats and the street
scene would be suitable for a Jack the Ripper scenario with
high brick walls and a dingy ambience. Rigoletto’s home
emerges from the large double doors in the wall near the meeting
with Sparafucile. Rigoletto is met by his daughter who wants
to know more about her mother and the town where they are (CHs.
11-13). He fears any intrusion that might put the young girl
in danger. The home is decorated in the same late nineteenth
century period as the costumes. The final act is set with an
atmospheric waterfront backing with Sparafucile’s inn
represented by trestle tables and a staircase to the rooms available
for the more nefarious side of his business. Like the set for
the end of act one, and that for act two in the Count’s
room, it works. The manner of the sack containing the body being
passed from assassin to father also works, as does Rigoletto’s
discovery that it is his daughter not the Duke. This is accomplished
with full assistance from Nucci’s convincing acting and
Overall a convincingly sung and acted interpretation with a
mixture of periods for set and costume. It’s all helped
by imaginative direction and the singing of the principals.
The gimmicks and rudimentary set of the Don Carlos are
a world away. It is a pity about Katharina Peetz breaking role
though. The vastly experienced Nello Santi, conducting without
a score and towering above the orchestra, perhaps did not help
that situation by joining in audience applause. Otherwise, his
conducting helped the singers to maximise their respective vocal
accomplishments to the full while doing justice to Verdi’s
Robert J Farr
Il Trovatore - Opera in Four Parts. (1853)
Manrico - Plácido Domingo (tenor); Leonora - Raina Kabaivanska
(soprano); Di Luna - Pierro Cappuccilli (baritone); Azucena
- Fiorenza Cossotto (mezzo); Ferrando - José van Dam
(bass-baritone); Ines - Maria Venuti (soprano); Ruiz - Heinz
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Herbert von Karajan
Stage Direction by Herbert von Karajan
Set by Teo Otto
Costumes by Georges Wakhewitsch
Sound: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1
Picture aspect: 4:3
Subtitle Languages: Italian (original language), English, German,
French, Spanish, Chinese
Also available separately as 107 117 [151:00]
Don Carlos - opera in five acts (Paris version
sung in French) (1867)
Philippe (King of Spain) - Alastair Miles (bass); Don Carlos
(Infante of Spain) - Ramon Vargas (tenor); Rodrigue (Marquis
de Posa) - Bo Skovhus (baritone); Le Grande Inquisiteur - Simon
Yang (bass); Elisabeth de Valois (Philip's Queen) - Iona Tamar
(soprano); Princesse Eboli, Elisabeth's lady-in-waiting - Nadja
Michael (mezzo); Thiabault (Elisabeth's page) - Cornelia Salje
(soprano); Le Comte de Lerme (A Royal Herald) - Benedict Kobel
(tenor); An Old Monk - Johannes Gisser (bass); A Voice from
Heaven - Inna Los (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Bertrand de Billy
rec. live, October 2004
Stage Directed by Peter Konwitschny
Set and Costume designer, Johannes Leiacker
Picture Format: 16:9
Sound Format: LPCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
DVD Format: 2 x DVD 9, NTSC
Subtitle languages: Italian, English, German, French, Spanish
Also available separately as 107187 [2 DVDs: 247:00]
Rigoletto - Melodramma in three acts (1851)
Duke of Mantua - Piotr Beczala (tenor); Rigoletto, his jester
- Leo Nucci (baritone); Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter -
Elena Mosuc (soprano); Sparafucile, a villain available for
hire as an assassin - Lasló Polgár (bass); Maddalena,
his sister - Katharina Peetz (mezzo); Giovanna, Gilda’s
Duenna - Kismara Pessatti (mezzo); Count Monterone - Rolf Haunstein
(bass); Marullo, a courtier - Valery Murga (baritone); Matteo
Borsa, a courtier - Boguslaw Bidzinski (tenor); Count Ceprano
- Morgan Moody (baritone); Contess Ceprano, Angela Kerrison
Chorus and Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House/Nello Santi
Directed by Gilbert Deflo
Set Design by Willian Orlandi
Television Director: Robin Lough
rec. live, 2006
Picture Format: 16:9
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1 + DTS 5.1
Subtitle languages: Italian (original language), English, German,
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 285 [128:00]