Verdi Don Carlos
Bertrand de Billy set out in Vienna to perform just about every bar written for Verdi’s first, French, version of this work. Although he seems to be claiming this as a first, in fact Abbado presented virtually the same edition back in 1983/84. It is a questionable practice in that it makes for an extraordinarily long evening in the theatre not alway justified by the quality of the restored music. Verdi’s cuts before the premiere were sensible ones, such as the shortened Rodrigue/Philippe Act 2 duet, which seems here to go on for ever, tightening a structure that even with the excisions can seem sprawling. The length involves no fewer than four CDs. Were it not for the existence of the more strongly cast and conducted DG set, I might be more indulgent to the failings of the new version.
Richard Fairman was there on the night this recording was made and reviewed the performance. Besides not caring much for the staging (which seems to include bits of business that distract from the music) he found the singers’ contributions unimpressive, while liking Bertrand de Billy’s reading. I share his opinion except that I found de Billy inclined to linger too long over over slower passages such as the Carlos/Elisabeth duet in Act 2. Still, it is a worthwhile achievement from this talented conductor.
It is strange that neither in the new set nor in the Abbado is there a single French singer. Abbado’s version was criticised for the poor French on display but it is often more comprehensible from a predominantly Latin cast than here from a polyglot one. Alastair Miles, a late replacement for René Pape, is just about the most successful as regards singing and acting with the voice in a thoroughly workmanlike portrayal of Philippe. The rest sound in one way or another overparted. Although I like much of what Iano Tamar achieves as Elisabeth, her words are often occluded and her soprano lacks Italianate thrust. Ramón Vargas’s voice sounds at least a size too small for Carlos, but he does know how to shape a phrase. As Rodrigue, Bo Skovhus begins unsteadily, but improves enough to give an affecting account of his death scene. Nadja Michael is a dramatically effective but vocally blustery Eboli. All these parts are better taken chez Abbado. It is regrettable that no text or translation is provided at full price.
If you want the opera in French you will be better off with the EMI or an Opera Rara version due for release in the spring. Neither offers quite such a complete edition – that is no bad thing in my book – but both have singers that are more aware of the French style of singing and both are splendidly conducted.