Verdi Don Carlo

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Verdi Don Carlo

  • Don Carlo

Forget the boos that made the headlines on the first night, as they seem to do every year at the opening of the La Scala season. By the time of the subsequent performances from which EMI have produced this set, Pavarotti had sorted out the problems that he had been having earlier and there is only cheering to be heard when the curtain comes down at the end.
It was at La Scala that the four-act version of Don Carlo was first performed in 1884. Hearing Verdi's revision performed by Italians, in Italian and in front of an Italian audience, one appreciates how deeply the Italian spirit permeates the opera-not just in its new-found brevity and dramatic tautness, but in the speeds, the colours, the atmosphere of the whole performance. Even the sombre brass invocation which opens the opera in this version has a distinct rhythmic clip, accentuated by the dry La Scala acoustic. Muti has rehearsed his players thoroughly and keeps them on a tight rein. Under his direction the music feels consistently tense and alert in a way that sets it a world apart from Karajan's set, the only other recent recording of the four-act version. There, a male chorus of Wagnerian grandiloquence echoes awesomely in the cloisters of San Yuste. One half expects Parsifal to walk in.
In Muti's set it is a golden-voiced Pavarotti who makes his entrance, the unhappy experience of the opening night apparently put behind him. It is surprising to find how much better focused vocally Pavarotti is than Carreras, even though the latter was in his prime when he recorded the title-role for Karajan. As always, the joy of Pavarotti's singing comes from hearing Italian words perfectly enunciated on a liquid, flowing line. Moments such as Carlo's shame at the auto-da-fe and the tenderness of the final duet are beautifully caught in the voice, not least because he seems so willing (doubtless at Muti's behest) to sing quietly at these performances.
While it is good to have a nearly all-Italian cast, both the soprano and the baritone are overparted. At her best Daniela Dessi sounds similar to Freni on the Karajan set, a bright, sharply focused Italian soprano. Unfortunately, her best only accounts for about half the role and a lot of her singing is strained, especially at the top. Freni has more body to her voice and better control over it. Paolo Coni's Rodrigo is similarly firm and stylish while he is singing in the middle of the voice, but the higher the music goes, the more his attractive, youthful baritone sounds out of its depth. Luciana d'Intino's Eboli makes a better impression, at least once past a Song of the Veil in which she wrestles unhappily with the high cadenzas. The dramatic outbursts of the later scenes lie better for her voice. Among the younger Italian mezzos, she looks the most likely to mature into a formidable Azucena and Amneris. Andrea Silvestrelli is a reedy, but fairly authoritative Monk. Nuccia Focile's Heavenly Voice floats a suitably heavenly high B flat.
Apart from Pavarotti, the best performance among the five principals comes from the only non-Italian, Samuel Ramey as Philip II. He is not a mighty-voiced King Philip, but the well-contained focus of his bass, which has stood him in such good stead in Rossini, is appropriate for Muti's sharply focused performance. This is a fine example of polished singing, though to probe below the crusty exterior of this fearsome monarch we still have to go to Christoff (with Santini on either EMI or DG, 10/62-nla). Alexander Anisimov's Inquisitor is no match for Ramey in their scene together. The sparks do not really fly between these two singers, and it is left to Muti to give the scene its tension. By and large, however, the drama does have an extra adrenalin, as one expects from a live recording-compensation for the prompter joining in from time to time and hordes of feet processing up and down during the auto-da-fe.
Any true lover of Verdi will surely want to have all five acts of Don Carlo, either in French (with Abbado, DG, 12/85) or Italian (Giulini, EMI, 7/87-probably still in the lead). Among the four-act versions, the Santini on EMI has some great creative personalities but is cut, the Karajan is a Teutonic epic with lustrous voices, this new Muti is the most idiomatic and alive. Of course, Pavarotti fans will not care about any of this. All they want to know is that their hero is in fine voice. No boos likely from prospective purchasers.'

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