Verdi Don Carlo
There can never be enough recordings of this endlessly fascinating opera. Haitink’s new set was recorded simultaneously with a live concert performance at the 1996 BBC Proms, but it did not feel a particularly theatrical evening at the Royal Albert Hall, and that impression is reinforced here. Haitink is a lover of Verdi the musician, rather than the man of the theatre.
For better or worse it is the conductor’s personality that sets the tone. What we have here is more a celebration of Don Carlo, affirming its humanity and compassion, than the vital re-creation of its drama that would catch fire in the opera house. It is not in Haitink’s nature to stir up confrontation and the scenes in which Verdi pits adversaries against each other do not have a great deal of punch: neither of Philip’s great duets, facing down first Rodrigo and then the Grand Inquisitor, really crackles with tension. The speeds throughout are leisurely, though at its low level of intensity the orchestral playing does glow beautifully. I made my initial comparisons with Levine’s Sony set, the most recent five-act Don Carlo in Italian. After hearing this new set Levine can seem heavy-handed, but he is living the drama, while Haitink is watching passively from the wings. The recording quality of each reflects its conductor’s priorities: the Philips natural and spacious for Haitink, the Sony cramped and immediate for Levine.
The link between Philips and the Kirov Opera has brought three important Russians into the cast. Olga Borodina’s Eboli is sung by one of the most regal mezzo voices of our generation, its opulent tone swathed in glowing silks and comforting velvet. Maybe there are moments when one might appreciate a harder-edged attack (it is difficult to forget Shirley Verrett’s combative mezzo in the garden scene) but the sheer class of the singing is simply glorious. The central section of “O don fatale”, subtly coloured and aristocratically phrased, is Borodina par excellence.
The other two are a mixed success. Of all the Verdi baritone roles, Rodrigo is the one best suited to Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s talents and there are moments in his performance that are literally breathtaking. Few singers can ever have phrased Rodrigo’s plea to the Queen or his “Per me giunto” in more ample single breaths (even better when one knows that he did the same at the Royal Albert Hall, so the effect is not just a product of the editing process). Hvorostovsky has an old-fashioned care for the vocal line that is precious today, but the voice itself is starting to sound soft-grained under the microphone. Chernov (for Levine) is brighter, stronger, and not much less stylish.
Galina Gorchakova’s glowering soprano, which was so well suited to the tragic Leonora in Philips’s recent La forza del destino (4/97), sounds out of place in the elegant lyricism of Elisabetta’s court. An animal voice like hers is uncomfortably caged within this role’s limiting compass and withdrawn personality. The romanza seems to lie awkwardly for her (disturbing to hear a singer struggling with intonation so early in her career) though “Tu che le vanita” fares better. Gorchakova has found some piano top notes since her operatic recital disc (Philips, 3/96) but her words are still cloudy and indistinct – that in an opera for which Verdi demanded clarity of enunciation above all.
The gleaming tone and generosity of Richard Margison’s Don Carlo endeared him to the live audience. He is similar to Levine’s Michael Sylvester, a bright-voiced North American tenor with the same verbal clarity and the same (less welcome) constriction at the top, but at a lower level of accomplishment. Roberto Scandiuzzi offers a Philip II in the making. This thoughtful, young basso cantante sings with real sensitivity and may well mature into a formidable Verdian, but as yet his portrait of the King is rather callow: one does not sense the years of responsibility weighing down on his shoulders. Robert Lloyd’s bully of a Grand Inquisitor sounds his match. Sylvia McNair’s angelic soprano floats down sweetly from on high and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo makes another promising addition to his discography as a firm-voiced Monk, who for once is exactly in tune.
How does this new arrival affect the complicated web of recommendations for Don Carlo? A straight choice between the sensitive Haitink, whose flame burns so slowly, and the theatrical but obvious Levine is not easy. For a recording of the five-act Don Carlo in Italian, the real competition comes from the LP era. Neither the Giulini set nor the Solti has subsequently been surpassed. All the important work on disc since then has been involved in investigating the original score in French and those who want to supplement their collections with a recent recording might well consider Pappano’s EMI set (10/96), not just a different version in French, but also imaginatively sung and excitingly conducted. Of course, a true lover of Don Carlo will want them all.'