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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Don Carlos - opera in five acts (original Paris version, 1867)
WARNER CLASSICS Blu-ray 2564 634780 [211:00]

This is currently the single French version in the catalogue on Blu-ray. Under the title Don Carlo there are several Blu-rays sung in Italian. Directed by Luc Bondy with Roberto Alagna in the title role this Blu-ray contains the restored original 1867 Paris version of the opera which is given an outstanding and memorable performance and one not short on high drama.

Attending a performance of Don Carlos one experiences a magnificent display of the French Grand Opera tradition combined with the dramatic impact of Italian opera. Verdi excelled with Don Carlos, writing wonderful music with a plot concerning political intrigue and searing romantic passions. It grips like a vice. In addition the work is not frequently staged so performances feel like very special occasions.

This is my first encounter of any DVD/Blu-ray of either the Don Carlos or the Don Carlo versions so I cannot provide comparisons. My reliable guide on CD has been the impressively performed and recorded French version of 1886 in five acts conducted by Claudio Abbado with the Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala recorded in 1983/84 at CTC Studio, Milan on Deutsche Grammophon.

Like many Verdi operas the journey from conception to the staging of Don Carlos was certainly not straightforward. This is underlined by Verdi authority Julian Budden whose opening words in his article A Grand Opera with a Difference are “None of Verdi’s Operas has so tormented a history as Don Carlos.” Verdi was commissioned by Émile Perrin the new director of the Paris Opéra to write a grand Opera to coincide with the International Exposition (World’s Fair) in 1867. The result was Verdi’s five-act grand opera Don Carlos written to a French libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, based on the dramatic play Don Carlos, Infante of Spain by Friedrich Schiller. It was set around 1560 in France and Spain in the aftermath of a war between the two countries. Following rehearsals for the première to reduce the score to fit within the city regulation of a fixed time period 7.00pm to 12 midnight, Verdi grudgingly cut music and authorised the removal of yet more following the first run. The version presented here by director Luc Bondy approximates to the version used at the Paris première in March 1867 for the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra (Paris Opéra) at Salle Le Peletier. Passages cut from the original score to fit in with city time rules are here included. At its première in Paris the opera was only moderately received and it wasn’t long before it was decided to exploit the Italian taste for opera. The libretto of Don Carlos was translated into Italian as Don Carlo by Achille de Lauzières.

Director Luc Bondy’s staging, although essentially set in mid-sixteenth century France and Spain, eschews lavish visual spectacle. Instead it adopts a rather bare-boned approach which works most effectively and avoids too many distractions. Implementing Bondy’s overall vision are set designer Gilles Aillaud and costume designer Moidele Bickel. Here are three examples of this fertile collaboration. First a particular highlight is act 1, scene 1 set in the Fontainebleau Forest, France. Basic in conception, the forest in winter features flat-fronted trees painted in grey and white with dark sheets on the ground sprinkled with snow; all more effective than one might imagine. Against this backdrop the deep ruby-coloured clothing of Carlos and Elisabeth looks stunning. Another good example is act 3, scene 2 set outside Valladolid Cathedral. Here the infamous auto da fé comprises a simple raised wooden platform serving as a gallery overlooking a shallow semi-circular pit containing wooden posts from which the condemned, awaiting burning are tied. With Elisabeth in an orange gown and Philippe wearing a long red cloak the vivid colours of the costumes set against a rather unfussy background are striking. Most basic of all the sets is King Philippe’s bedchamber at Valladolid, featured in act 4, scene 1. Here a long plain wall and patterned tiled floor is furnished with a single simple dining chair and a double camp bed with unmade white sheets. The set certainly doesn’t distract from the deep emotional anguish of the scene.

I found the international casting highly satisfactory with well differentiated voices. All are artists I admire on the opera stage and are able to deliver considerable dramatic insights. Clearly tenor Roberto Alagna divides opinion and is often maligned, unfairly for the most part. He performs outstandingly here, ideally suited to the heroic role of Don Carlo the heir to the Spanish throne. Parisian born, of Sicilian heritage Alagna is at home with the language and his portrayal of the young hero is convincing enough. In 1996 at the time of this recording his voice was probably in its prime. I especially enjoyed Carlos’s renowned Romance Je l'ai vue, et dans son sourire where in the forest he has seen Elisabeth the daughter of the King of France and imagines a life with her. Alagna shines throughout this significantly challenging aria that comes early in the opera before he has hardly had time to get into his stride. His heroic quality is worthy of admiration together with his sweet-edged lyrical tone. Alagna’s appealing tenor conveys innate emotional intensity and at this point in his career he is able to hold his high notes reasonably well. Karita Mattila in the part of Elisabeth de Valois demonstrates the experience and mastery this consummate artist has gained over the years. A highlight is Elisabeth’s act 1 aria De quels transports poignants et doux expressing her joy at discovering that Carlos loves her. Worthy of special praise are Elisabeth’s act 2 goodbye-aria Oh ma chère compagne comforting her lady-in-waiting and giving her a ring to return to France. I would also single out from act 5 the affecting aria Toi qui sus le néant at the tomb of Charles V where the character imagines her heart’s desire to find peace in death. As the anguished heroine the Finnish soprano is entirely convincing, giving a magnetic performance. Mattila’s ripe, peachy vocal presence blends with her beautifully expressive singing and fluid tone. Mattila’s acting is outstanding and she is able to deliver her text with absolute clarity.

I have heard various claims for bass-baritones/basses who should have been cast here in the role of Philippe II. Belgian bass-baritone José van Dam acquits himself remarkably well as the King of Spain giving the impression of having lived the role. Early in act 4 Philippe’s soliloquy or monologue Elle ne m'aime pas! where he laments that Elisabeth does not love him, is rendered with great passion. At the close he repeats the words Elle ne m'aime pas! with compelling despair as he holds Elisabeth’s bed-sheets to his face. A singer of innate musicality, noticeable throughout is van Dam’s pleasingly consistent voice control and the emotional depth he brings to this challenging role. Where Thomas Hampson’s acting is concerned the word ‘ham’ is frequently used and not just jokingly as a play on words from his surname. The American’s acting may be suspect at times but his singing as Rodrigue, Marquis of Posa is remarkably successful, expressively virile with the ability to move the listener. Posa has three major arias with the noted act 4, scene 2 Ah, je meurs, l'âme joyeuse which he sings as he lies dying after being shot, an especially moving episode. My highpoint is the aria C'est mon jour suprème sung as Posa visits Carlos in prison. Hampson’s baritone is in excellent condition, lovely, expressive, smooth and strongly projected. Hilarious however is the ridiculous wig Posa wears that has to be seen to be believed. Untrustworthy and scheming Princess Eboli sung by the indomitable German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier has two wonderful arias. From act 2, scene 2 there is Au palais des fées known as the ‘veil song’, a teasing example about a veiled maiden who captivates Achmet the Moorish King. The second from act 4, scene 1 contains the arresting aria O don fatal et détesté as Eboli curses her beauty, the cause of her demise, and having to choose between exile or a convent. Totally assured the compelling Meier, scratching her face with her nails and drawing blood, elevates her singing of passionate emotional intensity to a spine-tingling level. Some harshness when forced may not suit every listener’s taste but the quality of performance more than compensates.

Leaving a chilling impression is the sombre and highly dramatic act 4, scene 1 between the elderly Grand Inquisitor and Philippe identified by Verdi scholar and biographer Julian Budden as “what must be one of the most chilling dialogues in all dramatic literature.” With the Grand Inquisitor representing the authority of the Church, Philippe has the moral dilemma of saving his son Carlos from death and condemning Posa to a heretic’s death instead, while risking his own safety. Played by Eric Halfvarson the blind, crippled Grand Inquisitor with his face concealed by the hood of his monk’s habit awkwardly pulls himself along on sticks. American bass Halfvarson’s performance of Dans ce beau pays has genuine authority and disturbing drama. Antonio Pappano who has gone on to become a distinguished opera conductor directs the Orchestre de Paris with his usual keen assurance. A prominent Verdian, Pappano’s reading whilst ensuring musical values are paramount takes a spacious view of the score pulling everything together successfully and keeping the drama moving.

The video direction by Yves André-Hubert is commendable, with the cameras active although using fewer close-ups than is usual today. Emblazoned on the front of cover of the original Blu-ray release is Remastered in High Definition from the Original Master Tape which was a non HD source (probably not too well lit either). The picture is no improvement on the DVD. Converted to a 16:9 aspect ratio, which fitted nicely on my screen, the picture quality is muddy rather than focused as if playing a DVD on a Blu-ray player. Getting over the initial dissatisfaction and my eyes adjusted the picture became easily watchable. However, I’m sure many viewers will expect high definition picture quality from this Blu-ray release and will be disappointed. There is only a single sound format LPCM 2.0ch, 48 kHz/16 bit which does not seem to be stereo as claimed. The best description of the sound on this release I have come across is “double mono”. Nonetheless I find the sound quality completely acceptable. An early Blu-ray release of this Don Carlos presented in a blue plastic case does not contain a booklet, only a poorly presented paper insert of the track-listing of the acts, scenes and cued arias. This more recent 2014 re-issue on Blu-ray is presented in a cardboard case with a vastly improved booklet having a detailed track-listing of the acts, scenes and indexed arias. There's also a list of the cast and production team and a synopsis.

Michael Cookson

Performance and recording details
Don Carlo, Infante of Spain – Roberto Alagna (tenor);
Rodrigue, Marquis of Posa – Thomas Hampson (baritone);
Elisabeth de Valois, Philippe’s Queen – Karita Mattila (soprano);
Philippe II, King of Spain – José Van Dam (bass-baritone);
Princess Eboli, Elisabeth’s lady-in-waiting – Waltraud Meier (mezzo);
Grand Inquisitor – Eric Halfvarson (bass);
Thibault, Elisabeth’s page – Anat Efraty (soprano);
The Count of Lerma – Scot Weir (tenor); An Old Monk – Csaba Airizer (bass);
A Voice from Heaven – Donna Brown (soprano);
Flemish Deputies – Laurent Austry, Paul Gay, Andrew Golder, Paul Medioni, Joel Mitchell, Guillaume Perault;
Countess of Aremberg – Marie-Louise Bondy;
A Lady of the Court – Armelle Berengier;
A Lord of the Court – Jérôme Nicolin
Director: Luc Bondy
Video Director: Yves André-Hubert
Photography: Michael Lidlav
Set Design: Gilles Aillaud
Costume Design: Moidele Bickel
Lighting Design: Vinicio Cheli
Choreography: Lucinda Childs
Chorus master;: Andrea Giorgi
Chœur du Théâtre du Châtelet; Orchestre de Paris/Antonio Pappano
rec. live, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, March 1996
Region-free NTSC 4:3
Sound format:
LPCM 2.0ch, 48 kHz/16 bit
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Re-mastered in HD from the original master tape


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