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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Don Carlo, opera in four acts (Milan version, 1884) – Sung in Italian [175.00]
Philip II, King of Spain – Michele Pertusi
Don Carlo, Infante of Spain – José Bros
Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa – Vladimir Stoyanov
The Grand Inquisitor – Ievgen Orlov
A Monk – Simon Lim
Elisabeth of Valois – Serena Farnocchia
Princess Eboli – Marianne Cornetti
Tebaldo, Page to Elisabeth – Lavinia Bini
Count of Lerma/ Royal Herald – Gregory Bonfatti
A voice from Heaven – Marina Bucciarelli
Coro del Teatro Regio di Parma/Martino Faggiani
Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini/Daniel Oren
Stage director – Cesare Lievi
Set and costume designer – Maurizio Balò
Lighting designer – Andrea Borelli
Video director – Tiziano Mancini
rec. live, August 2016 Teatro Regio di Parma, Italy
Sound format: LPCM 2.0ch, 48kHz/24 bit; DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch, 48kHz
Picture format: All regions – 1080i60 – 1 BD 50
Subtitles: Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, Korean, Japanese
DYNAMIC 57776 Blu-ray [183 mins]

The latest opera release on the Dynamic label is Verdi’s epic Don Carlo filmed live at Teatro Regio di Parma in 2016. This new staging by Cesare Lievi is one of several productions on DVD/Blu-ray available in the Italian language, four act version.

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 full of political intrigue and searing romantic passions that grip like a vice. In addition the work is not too frequently staged so performances invariably feel like very special occasions.

Like many Verdi operas the journey of Don Carlos from conception to staging was certainly not straightforward and there are several versions in existence. An opinion underlined by Verdi authority Julian Budden whose opening words in his article A Grand Opera with a Difference are “Non 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 following the 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 actually authorised the removal of more following the first run. Don Carlos at its première in March 1867 for the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra (Paris Opéra) at Salle Le Peletier was only moderately received. It wasn’t long before it was decided to exploit the Italian taste for opera and the libretto of Don Carlos was translated into Italian as Don Carlo by Achille de Lauzières. There are four primary versions namely the standard Paris edition (1867), Naples (1872), Milan (1884) and Modena (1886). Staged here at Teatro Regio di Parma is Don Carlo in four acts known as the Milan version (1884) that was premièred at La Scala, Milan in January 1884.

For this 2016 Parma production stage director Cesare Lievi uses the 1884 Milan version for which Verdi essentially omits the first act set in the Forest of Fontainebleau in winter and also the ballet, and Angelo Zanardini revised de Lauzières’ Italian text. Lievi’s staging, set originally in mid-sixteenth century Spain but looking more like a couple of centuries later, eschews a lavish visual spectacle adopting a sparer approach which works most effectively and doesn’t provide too many distractions. The experienced Italian’s directorial concentration is focused almost exclusively on emotion and character set alongside the constraints of the Roman Catholic Church.

Realising Lievi’s overall vision, set and costume designer Maurizio Balò has excelled establishing a fertile collaboration. Toning down slightly the excessive aristocratic flamboyance one would expect to see at the Spanish court Balò’s scheme is fundamentally one of religious fervour and obedience with a sense of mourning never far away. For example in the first scene of the opera various male pilgrims can be seen trudging a path in front of the tomb of Carlos V involved in various acts of mortification such as self-flagellation.

The stage format consists mainly of solid looking scenic backdrops and flats that resemble white marble streaked with grey. Most notably in the centre of the stage the marble wall in some scenes serves as the tomb of Carlos V at San Giusto, Estremadura with a large engraved inscription and a massive vine wreath, like a bulldozer tyre, draped in crimson and gold braid; the royal colours. Prominent are the sets of the Queen’s gardens in Valladolid with their exceedingly tall hedges, the scene at the front of the Square of Notre Dame d’Atocha, Madrid in preparation for an auto-da-fé and a large sun-ray crucifix on the back wall that opens down the centre from floor to ceiling. In one scene on the back wall there is what looks like a large engraving of a map of the known world. The stage employs props sparingly in particular scenes: notably four marble church kneelers and a long stone table that looks like a catafalco. In the prison scene eye-catching is a high, iron lattice barrier casting long shadows, together with a couple of large wooden chests.

Lacking bright colours Balò’s costumes set against a rather unfussy background look quite striking together with an underlying mourning theme. Notably both Elisabeth and Eboli in mourning are robed in heavy black dresses wearing crucifixes on chunky chains complete with black mantillas and combs. Conspicuously Don Carlos is wearing black clothing too. Balò puts emphasis on fashions of the day with Don Carlo, Philip, Rodrigo and even the Grand Inquisitor all sporting short boxed beards.

For this Parma production the generally well chosen international cast display well differentiated voices fully able to deliver substantial dramatic insights to their parts. In truth some imagination is necessary on the part of the viewer in particular José Bros as Don Carlo, the Infante who in age looks more like King Philip’s brother than his son.

Don Carlo, Infante of Spain, wears a black velvet frock coat over a white blouse with dark breeches and black riding boots. Dark haired Spanish tenor José Bros is well suited to the heroic role as heir to the Spanish throne. Whilst Bros’ mature voice may no longer have a youthful freshness it has an attractive lyrical tone and his heroic quality is worthy of admiration. Noticeable is Bros’s wide vibrato yet it doesn’t intrude too much and although a touch unsteady at the top of his register he generates considerable emotion. A highlight is Carlos’ renowned act one aria Io l' ho perduta! expressing his love for his fiancée Elisabeth who is being married to Philip his father which is most movingly sung by Bros with compelling feeling for the text. Having mousy coloured wavy hair with fair streaks Italian born soprano Serena Farnocchia an accomplished artist demonstrates her understanding of the role of Elisabeth of Valois. A highlight is Elisabeth’s affecting act four aria Tu che le vanità conoscesti del mondo at the tomb of Carlos V imagining her heart’s desire to find peace in death. With good stage presence Farnocchia’a clear and engaging voice capable of wide emotion delivers the text so impressively.

Tall and distinguished Philip II, King of Spain is dressed suitably augustly with a long, fur collared chamarre over a brown breastplate with black thigh boots. Whilst in his study Philip wears an eye-catching, ornately patterned, grey dressing gown. As Philip bass-baritone Michele Pertusi, born locally in Parma, acquits himself remarkably well displaying impressive characterisation. Early in act three Philip’s soliloquy or monologue Ella giammai m'amò where he laments that Elisabeth does not love him is sung with an abundance of passion. A singer of notable musicality and imposing stage presence, noticeable throughout is Pertusi’s pleasingly consistent voice control and the strong emotional feeling he brings to this challenging role. Disloyal and scheming Princess Eboli, lady in waiting to the Queen of Spain is played by American mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti an experienced Verdian. From act three, scene one comes the arresting aria Ah! più non vedro la Regina!… O don fatal as Eboli curses her beauty, the cause of her demise, and having to choose between exile and a convent. Pleasingly assured Cornetti, scratching her face with her nails and drawing blood, provides singing of passionate emotional intensity if without generating a spine-tingling effect. Some unevenness and an occasional touch of harshness when forced from the mature voiced Cornetti may not suit every listener’s taste or be an ideal casting yet the standard of her performance does provide sizeable compensation.

More plainly dressed the non-Royal Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa is dressed in a long blue-grey coat over a black doublet, matching knee breeches, socks and buckled shoes. Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov copes well with the demands of the role yet he communicates little in the way of personality and innate stage presence though his voice sounds in fine condition, attractive, steady in tone and incisively expressive. Stoyanov sings with affecting expression one of the most moving episodes in the whole opera the act three, scene two aria O Carlo, ascolta… Io morrò, ma lieto in core as Rodrigo lies mortally wounded after being shot. Adopting rather plainer dress the Grand Inquisitor dons a red/purple velvet, ecclesiastic vestment and matching biretta, wearing a large gold crucifix on a chain and carrying a seven foot tall processional crucifix. Ukrainian bass Ievgen Orlov plays the elderly Grand Inquisitor with reasonable assurance and is able to create a reasonably unnerving atmosphere of menace. Leaving a convincing impression is the sombre and highly dramatic act three, scene one encounter between the Philip and the Grand Inquisitor identified by Verdi biographer Julian Budden as “what must be one of the most chilling dialogues in all dramatic literature.” Pertusi as Philip is on excellent form and Orlov as the Great Inquisitor sings his aria Nell'ispano suol most capably if without any particular sense of individuality. When compared to Luc Bondy’s Paris staging it’s hard to forget the excellent Eric Halfvarson such a chilling Grand Inquisitor, blind and crippled with his face concealed by the hood of his monk’s habit awkwardly pulling himself along alarmingly on sticks. In a model performance of Nell'ispano suol American bass Halfvarson’s has genuine authority, containing remarkable disturbing drama. In the smaller roles young Italian soprano Lavinia Bini, as a blonde haired Tebaldo, Page to Elisabeth, buzzes around the stage with high energy and her appealing voice displays great promise. In remarkable voice as the Monk (the apparition of Carlos V) is South Korea bass Simon Lim exhibiting a resonant and characterful tone sending a shiver down the spine.

Balò dresses the Coro del Teatro Regio di Parma in rather nondescript grey/blue, long linen tunics and matching caps carrying metre long wooden crosses that can be turned round to serve as imaginary swords. Undoubtedly the Teatro Regio chorus has been coached well by master Martino Faggiani. Conspicuous wearing a light coloured kippah Israeli conductor Daniel Oren ensures that musical values are high, pulling everything together successfully and keeping the drama moving well with the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini playing impressively. The high definition picture quality from this Blu-ray release is pleasingly focused with an interesting variety of shots and experienced video director Tiziano Mancini is accomplished although he avoids getting up real close. There is the usual choice of sound formats of both stereo and surround sound which are engineered to a high standard. Sadly there are no on-screen bonus features included, such as interviews with principal soloists and the creative team. In the accompanying booklet indispensable is the track listing of the arias, a short but helpful essay titled From Don Carlos to Don Carlo by Danilo Prefumo and a valuable synopsis.

Unquestionably my first choice film of Verdi’s opera Don Carlos is Luc Bondy’s 1997 Paris production of the restored original 1867 Paris version in five acts with a stunning cast featuring Roberto Alagna in the title role. This is a riveting performance of high drama displaying the splendour of the original Grand opera conception containing the opening ‘Fontainebleau’ act on Warner DVD/Blu-ray. Worthy of considerable praise too is Hugo de Ana’s compelling 2013 Torino revival of Don Carlo a traditional staging of the four act 1884 Milan version with Ramón Vargas in the title role on Opus Arte DVD/Blu-ray. Without a starry cast on the Dynamic label this Cesare Lievi production at Teatro Regio di Parma is a model example of the high quality work achieved by a regional opera house.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Robert Farr



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