Verdi Don Carlo

The night of nights: this archive Don Carlo brings it all back vividly

Author: 
John Steane

Verdi Don Carlo

  • Don Carlo

For those of us who were there then and are still around, this (or another in the series) was the night of nights. Certainly as far as Italian opera is concerned it marked the summit of my experience, and it still does. Like many in the audience, I had not seen the opera before and it made a huge impact both musically and dramatically. Then there was the sense of occasion: it was chosen to honour the present theatre’s centenary. The prestige of conductor Giulini and producer Visconti was of a special type: they were the aristocrats of their kind. And the cast, particularly with Gobbi and Christoff in their already famous roles, was as distinguished as any we had encountered at Covent Garden since the war. This recording from the Opera House Archive brings it back vividly and is so clear and faithful that it recreates in large measure all that we heard in these great performances. Chorus and orchestra must take a generous share of the praise. The recording also compels some adjustment of the remembered credits. Barbieri’s Eboli seemed at that period not quite to rank with the other principals. This was partly because it lay high for her voice and, though she comes through “O don fatale” to win some of the evening’s most enthusiastic applause, it was done only by omitting some top notes, and the recording suggests (as was probably not evident in the theatre) that at the end she had come very near to the limit of her resources. But, as we can hear now, it really was a magnificent performance of the part as a whole, and in dramatic commitment the intensity of the others is fully matched by her own.

Gobbi, so thoroughly identified with the role of Posa, is neither the most elegant of Verdi baritones nor the most lustrous in his production of the high notes, but his tones are so personal, the expression so warm in humanity, that he remains the great Rodrigo of memory. And Christoff is greatness itself. He too is utterly irreplaceable, so individual is the timbre and so authoritative the utterance. He sets a daunting standard for his fellow basses in the cast, but Langdon (Inquisitor) and Rouleau (monk or Charles V) prove worthy colleagues.

But the opera, after all, is called Don Carlo, and Jon Vickers is its hero. Nothing about this recording is more moving than to hear again this extraordinary singer as he was at that time. Nothing, that is, unless to find Gré Brouwenstijn so wonderfully brought back to life. She too was an aristocrat among the artists of her time. The duets of Elisabetta and Carlo are of the opera’s essence, almost unbearable in their poignancy.

The omission of the Insurrection scene following Posa’s death is regrettable: Lord Harewood explains in an illuminating interview with Roger Beardsley the thinking behind it, and in those days very few in the audience would have missed it, because they didn’t know it existed! But this is not an occasion for regrets. Andrew Porter sums it up in his introductory essay: “It does much to recapture the excitement of being there in 1958 and of demonstrating in a realisation at once scrupulous and impassioned a great opera that had been for too long undervalued”.

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