Verdi Don Carlo
The new Sony set comes tantalizingly close to being an unqualified recommendation. Levine realizes the nobility and inner intensity of Verdi's broad concept. On this occasion there's little to cavil at in his speeds and his attention to detail, as for instance the mournful string figure that underpins Eboli's confession in Act 4 and the reflective accompaniment to the Queen's recollections of happier times at Fontainebleau in her Act 5 aria, is as discerning as ever. The only criticism is the familiar one: he once more over-emphasizes the double-forte effects in a vulgar way; do the beginning of the Inquisition scene and the death of Posa really need to sound so blatant? The fault may lie with the engineers as much as with Levine. Is an orchestra really given this much prominence in the theatre? It quickly leads to ear fatigue here. You need only listen to the sensitively balanced Giulini version (EMI) to hear a fairer balance, although that set has nothing like the range of dynamics or clarity of the new one. I don't think that fault is serious enough on this occasion to worry many collectors, since the moments of overkill in this score are few and far between. More worrying is the frequent change of levels, possibly signifying different sessions, most marked in the last scene where, after a too prolonged pause as if the performance had come to a dead end, the music resumes at a lower level at ''Ma lassu''.
Levine opts for the five-act Italian version of 1886 given in full with the addition of the opening chorus from 1867, which is what he performs at the Metropolitan. His singers are substantially those who appeared in a recent revival in that house and, with one exception, would be hard to surpass today. They make a substantial case for preferring this to any of the other five-act versions listed above. Millo, after a somewhat unsatisfactory Luisa Miller for Levine (9/92), here returns, as Elisabeth, to the superb form she showed in the Sony Aida (5/91). There are those who are troubled by the occasional beat in her voice, but that seems to me as nothing set against her many virtues. Where is there a soprano in recent times who has such strength and authentically Italianate bite, such understanding of Verdian style in this type of role? Not even Freni (Karajan/EMI) sings with such spinto attack, yet at the same time Millo can fine away her tone exquisitely. All these virtues are exemplified in the touching farewell to the Countess of Aremberg, Elisabetta's duet with Carlos in Act 2 and, most potently, in ''Tu che le vanita'' where Millo combines broad phrasing in the grand manner with a deal of sensitivity. By her side Caballe (Giulini) sounds under-powered and self-regarding. As Millo also offers a vulnerable portrait of the distraught Queen her assumption here can be counted a complete success.
So can that of Zajick as Eboli, another singer with power and sensibility held in equal parts. She sings a carefully crafted, accurate (especially as regards dynamics) account of the Veil Song, where she really tells a story, and makes light of the exorbitant demands of ''O don fatale'', offering a truer chest tone than her rivals, a good legato and a proud, unflinching top, high C flat. She too sounds convincing as an interpreter. Even better is the Rodrigo of Chernov who bids fair to be the leading Verdi baritone of the next ten years and more. It's worth making comparisons here with contenders of recent years. He has a voice that rivals Bastianini's in beauty with the intelligence and vocal character of Wixell; not a bad combination, while his general style and long breath are in the Cappuccilli manner. In his faultlessly sung and phrased reading I miss just one quality Gobbi, on the newly reissued EMI brings to the role, a plangent timbre that makes the death scene even more moving than the exemplary delivery of the notes Chernov gives it.
Sylvester copes accurately and securely with Carlo, one of Verdi's most demanding tenor roles, and exhibits plenty of squillo. Only the topmost notes sometimes sound a shade tight and forced. What I miss in his performance is wholly idiomatic Italian and the sense of inner desperation so finely expressed by Carreras (Karajan). With Bergonzi (Solti/Decca) and the young Domingo (Giulini) as his other rivals one can only praise Sylvester for not paling before their shining example. By contrast, Furlanetto has—of course—pure Italian, but few of the other qualities a Philip II demands; his tone is poorly focused and gritty in timbre: he is the exception mentioned above that lames this set. Ramey, a highly accomplished Philip ( a role he has recently recorded for EMI), is here assigned to the lesser, though important, part of the Grand Inquisitor. Immediately he begins to sing, the faults in Furlanetto's performance are made manifest. Still, it is good to hear the Inquisitor sung with such authority and Furlanetto, whatever his vocal failings, makes plain the king's inner agony here and elsewhere—this encounter goes splendidly under Levine's direction. Furlanetto's failings are further emphasized by comparison with Christoff's sovereign performance on the newly reissued Santini set, a true memento of his commanding portrayal on stage.
The smaller roles are all filled adequately, no more. By a short head, I would now give the new version preference over the Giulini. It isn't quite so lovingly conducted, but the immediacy of the recording, excellent apart from the big proviso already referred to, and the general dedication of the whole unified cast creates a compelling experience.
The reissued EMI isn't strictly competitive as it opts for the four-act version of 1884 and that is substantially truncated in a manner not tolerated today—rightly so. But it is an essential supplement to any other version because of the incomparable performances of the lower voices. No decent collection should really be without Gobbi's eloquent Rodrigo and Christoff's deeply expressive, subtly shaded king. Their encounter at the close of Act 1 (in this version) is one of the classics of recorded history, not be missed. Their attention to phrasing and word-painting and the individual character of each voice are in a class of their own, superior to anything on the new issue or on any other. To hear Christoff utter such lines as ''sgraziato genitor! sposo piu triste ancor!'' is to be reminded of a school of acting with the voice and through the words that seems dormant today. The confrontation between Christoff's Philip and Neri's towering Grand Inquisitor is almost in the same category. After hearing these interpretations, I felt that I might exchange the whole new set for these precious insights.
The other singers are much more ordinary. Filippeschi is steely, somewhat untutored as Carlo, likewise Nicolai as Eboli. Stella defines many phrases unerringly, but isn't technically in the class of her rivals. Santini is a capable routine conductor, no more, though one sometimes admires his self-effacement compared with Levine's interventionist approach, and appreciates the authentic command of Clabassi's Monk against Plishka's more ordinary tones for Levine.'