Verdi Don Carlos
Before adjudging this eloquent and inspiriting performance of Verdi’s singular music-drama depicting private tragedy within public conflict, I should touch on the current state of recordings. This recording of the French version was made by EMI at the Theatre du Chatelet during performances last March of a new production by Luc Bondy with Pappano conducting. The staging moved to Covent Garden in the summer when Haitink was in the pit and with one major change of cast (Martine Dupuy for Meier). Then, in July, Haitink recorded the opera for Philips using the five-act Italian edition (1884 plus the Fontainebleau scene at the start) and a wholly different, Russian-orientated cast. After the sessions, he brought the work to the Proms (with Valayre replacing Gorchakova as Elisabeth): it was an exhilarating performance, more exciting than Haitink’s direction of the French recension at the Royal Opera. So that eagerly awaited, well-cast set should be borne in mind when considering this one, but for anyone wanting the original French, which is, after all, the text Verdi adhered to throughout myriad versions, the only rival to this new set is the Abbado version listed above.
Text-wise, Pappano excludes the opening scene for the chorus at Fontainebleau, cut by the composer before the first night; he includes the important dress-changing scene at the start of Act 3 (which explains Carlos’s ardour towards the ‘wrong’ woman), a snippet of the Elisabeth-Eboli duet in Act 4, and the whole of the Carlos/Philippe duet after Posa’s death (the theme of which was reused in the Requiem). Pappano also chooses some of the alternative settings, notably in the Posa-Philippe duet in Act 2 and the farewell encounter of Elisabeth and Carlos in Act 5, amendments that Verdi made for the neglected 1872 Naples revision. Neither seems to me an improvement: you can judge for yourself by listening to the Abbado which remains faithful to what we usually hear – and what Verdi finally decided on his last revision. Indeed on the Abbado we hear the ‘orthodox’ version throughout the main recording: alternatives are consigned to appendices which you can then programme in at your own discretion.
On practically all counts Pappano stands comparison with his senior Italian colleague. His is a subtly shaped, superbly paced and vital interpretation from start to finish. He is as able to encompass the delicacies of the Veil Song and the succeeding exchanges as he is to purvey the grand, tragic passion of Elisabeth and Carlos in Act 2, the intricacies and changes of feeling in the colloquy between Rodrigue and Philippe, the terrible menace of the Grand Inquisitor. The Orchestre de Paris support him with playing of dedication and sensitivity. Giulini’s noble conducting of the Italian version (EMI, 7/87) comes to mind when listening to Pappano and his players. Praise cannot be higher.
By and large he has singers who can sustain his vision. Mattila, who sometimes sounded out of sorts at Covent Garden, here sings a lovely Elisabeth. Her soft-grained yet strong tone and exquisite phrasing in all her solos and duets is balm to the ear, crowned by her deeply appealing account of Elisabeth’s Act 5 Scene, most touching in the recollection of Fontainebleau happiness. One or two moments of questionable intonation in the farewell to the Countess of Aremberg can be excused in a live performance. Ricciarelli (Abbado) is also affecting but not so secure and at times too moony. By Mattila’s side Alagna offers an equally involving Carlos. Without quite the fullness of voice or sheer vocal opulence offered by Domingo (Abbado), Alagna presents a more vulnerable picture of the unbalanced infante with the larmes dans la voix so essential to the part heard at “Au couvent de Saint-Just” at his entry in the first cloister scene, again at “parlez, parlez” when intoxicated by Elisabeth’s voice in their private colloquy in Act 2. His is a fully rounded portrayal that will please his many admirers, the difficult tessitura seldom troubling him and his French, of course, is impeccable.
As Rodrigue, Marquis de Posa, Hampson also has idiomatic French as his discs of melodies have already shown. His mellifluous baritone well suits this French version and he provides many moments of vocal beauty, not least his solo addressed to Elisabeth in Act 2. His elegiac account of Rodrigue’s famous aria in the Prison scene is, sensibly, taken faster by Pappano than by Haitink, never allowing it to drop into sentimentality. Arguably, the death needs a more imposing voice but the added decibels can easily be borne to appreciate Hampson’s intelligence. By his side, Nucci (Abbado) sounds cool and uninteresting.
Meier’s Eboli is more uneven. Few singers can encompass both the Veil Song and “O don fatale”. Meier is awkward and blowzy in the first but, with her dramatic presence to the fore, sings her challenging aria of remorse with tremendous panache and intensity. Van Dam nicely balances the exterior authority and interior agony of Philippe, everywhere in command of line, language, phrase, much more incisive than Abbado’s woolly Raimondi. His encounter with Halfvarson’s frighteningly dour Inquisitor is rightly at the very heart of the drama (Pappano is superb here): church and state are admirably represented, neither winning the battle of wills. There’s a good, strong Monk, and sure support in even the smallest roles. I like the smooth sextet of Flemish deputies in the Auto da Fe scene, a great improvement on the usual unsteady drone of played-out basses.
The recording catches the frisson of the theatrical experience. One can easily bear a few moments of stage noise and properly enthusiastic applause in the cause of capturing the atmosphere and immediacy of an evening in the opera house that cannot be simulated in the studio, as for example the desperate passion van Dam puts into his part. The positioning of the singers on stage never causes problems; everything is clear and in its place, and the balance with the pit sounds natural. As a whole this must now take preference over the Abbado version (which takes four CDs against EMI’s three) except for those who want more of the alternative music. The Abbado has certainly been underrated in some quarters – it is a formidable achievement as a whole and a trail-blazer – but this one catches more truly the surge and swell of emotional and dramatic tensions so vital in the work’s interpretation. It is a landmark in the Don Carlos discography.'