Verdi Don Carlos
This completes Opera Rara’s invaluable issues of first versions of Verdi’s operas, broadcast on Radio 3 in the 1970s. In some ways it is the most important: it comes closest to what Verdi had in mind for his extended masterpiece. What is more, it is given by a cast of largely Francophone singers, who make it sound – at last – like the truly French work it is.
Text first; we have the complete Fontainebleau scene, a short solo for Posa at the beginning of Scene 2, a longer version of the Posa-Philippe scene in Act 2, the costume-changing of Elisabeth and Eboli, their duet before “O don fatal” in Act 3, the whole of the ballet, the full Insurrection scene, and the longest version of the finale. That adds up to almost four hours. No wonder Verdi either made or sanctioned cuts. However, this enthralling set makes out the best case for this fullest of all versions, its considerable length quite forgotten on account of John Matheson’s thoughtful, vital direction, every detail of the vast canvas given its due and played (and sung) finely by the assembled BBC musicians.
All the cast seem wholly dedicated. I heard the Carlos, André Turp, often at Covent Garden but he did nothing better than his portrayal of the sorely tested and unhappy Infante. His voice, full of emotional plangency, his well crafted phrasing and the sheer passion of his delivery make him ideal. As the tormented, dictatorial Philippe, Joseph Rouleau also surpasses himself vocally and dramatically, so we are at once angered by his tyrannical ways and saddened by his inner misery. Robert Savoie, the Rodrigue/Posa, does not have quite the vocal resources of his confrères, but he gives an honest, deeply felt account of a taxing part.
Edith Tremblay is a gloriously committed Elisabeth. She does not give a traditionally “star” performance but one that is ideally aligned with the character. Her singing, especially of her big Act 5 solo, is full of natural, true feeling. The Eboli of Michèle Vilma is also a reading to treasure, replete with all the equivocal feelings of that erring character and sung with gratifying confidence. Richard Van Allan, the sole “foreigner” in a main part, commands the French language and, with Rouleau as antagonist, makes the scene of the Grand Inquisitor and King, the clash of Church and State, the riveting confrontation it should be.
The recording is well balanced and has plenty of presence but careless digitalisation can lend a rather hard quality to some of the voices, although that is easily forgotten in the dedication of a unique occasion. Would that Radio 3 did things like this today.