Verdi Don Carlos
Luc Bondy’s staging of the five-act French version of Verdi’s masterpiece (already on CD; EMI, 10/96) received mixed reviews when it was seen at both the Chatelet in Paris (from which this video derives) and Covent Garden. In London it was certainly a shock to those of us brought up on Visconti’s marvellously evocative production of 1958, preserved – though not quite in pristine form – on the 1985 Castle video. While the simple decor of Gilles Aillaud has something to be said for it – a small amount of scenery and props manages economically to suggest the various milieux and keep the action flowing – Bondy’s direction of the principals leaves much to be desired in the opening acts, and the exterior scenes are tame indeed, especially when compared with the Visconti inscenation or even that of Zeffirelli in the 1992 La Scala production (Muti).
Suddenly in Act 4, the work’s greatest, everything falls into place. The spare walls of the King’s study, the atmospheric lighting and Jose van Dam’s searing portrait here of the King’s misery are riveting (though I am not sure whether the Queen’s presence on stage at this moment of the King’s loneliness is a good idea), the scene with the Grand Inquisitor even more so with Halfvarson’s gnarled, toad-like old cleric lumbering menacingly about the stage, a superb antagonist for this Philippe. The rest of the act is hardly less compelling.
Although the cast is clothed in handsome period dress, with one exception they appear to be bereft of wigs which leaves them looking curiously modern. The exception is the now infamous wig for Thomas Hampson, which makes him look like a cross between Charles II and Tiny Tim. His acting is often plausible, occasionally a shade exaggerated. Van Dam is in all respects a magnificent Philippe II, his pain exhibited in his taut, strained body language as much as in his superbly articulated singing. Meier acts Eboli, a scheming, seductive presence, more successfully than she sings the role. Mattila is a lovely Elisabeth in both aspects of her portrayal, conveying the unhappy Queen’s agony at being torn between loyalty to the King and love of his son. Alagna is the fierily impetuous Carlos to the life and vocally absolutely right for the part, particularly when supported by his lithe, personable presence. I once more admired Pappano’s pacing of the long work, his conducting keenly focused from start to finish. The video direction is a shade wayward, not always sensitive in choosing between close-ups and the longer view.
The performance, lasting 211 minutes, is spread over two videos, an odd fact given that the equally long Theodora from Glyndebourne (reviewed last month) takes only one. As this is also an HDV issue, the top and bottom of the pictures on VHS are black. The picture and sound quality are excellent; subtitles are provided. As a whole, this performance at the very least allows us to see and hear what is basically Verdi’s original concept of a French opera as he intended it to be, give or take a few strange decisions on variant readings.
The other versions, all in Italian, are not strictly comparable. The Karajan has some fine singing but is feebly staged and rudely foreshortened. The Haitink suffers from his ponderous conducting and indifferent sound but has an interesting cast (Cotrubas, Baglioni, Lima, Zancanaro, Lloyd), but for an Italian version I would go for Muti with Dessi, Intino, Pavarotti, Coni and Ramey all very much inside their parts and Muti rousing them to great things within Zeffirelli’s grand staging.