Verdi Don Carlos

Author: 
Alan Blyth

Verdi Don Carlos

  • Don Carlos

Don Carlos in French at last! That is news to rejoice the hearts of all true Verdians. So will this dedicated performance which follows the sensible policy of playing the 1886 composite version, first performed at Modena with (apparently) the composer's consent, and thus including the Fontainebleau act excluded in 1884 in the composer's last and tautest revision of his much travelled and altered score. Better still, the scenes originally composed in 1866 but cut before the premiere in 1867 are here presented in an appendix, to be inserted in their appropriate place in the recording should the listener feel minded to hear passages uncovered only in the 1970s by Andrew Porter in the bowels of the Paris Opera. Whatever strictures I shall make as this review progresses, nothing can detract from the achievement as a whole, something for which we have to thank Claudio Abbado and Deutsche Grammophon.
And it is his conducting that deserves the most full-hearted praise. He matches both the grandeur of the public scenes and the inner tensions of the private ones through his taut yet always flexible control of the vast enterprise. Nothing in the orchestral tissue escapes him; he is wholly aware of the importance of the many rhythmic figures and instrumental colours that give this work its special sound, sombre, disturbed, ultimately sympathetic to the troubled hearts of its principals. He measures up to the grandeur of this grandest of French operas, terrifyingly so in the auto-da-fe scene and the incursion of the Inquisitor, yet he is quite able to relax into the middle-eastern exoticism of the Veil song and the exuberant charm of the seldom-heard ballet music (appendix). Indeed, he does everything in his power to unify what can seem a long and slightly sprawling work. Recently it has rated almost too high in the canon. For all its moments of greatness and the sweep of its concept, it never seems to me to have quite the consistent inspiration of the famous middle-period trio, which includes Ballo, or, of course, the final masterpieces, let alone the Requiem. At times, it can surpass any of them in eloquence; at others it tends to the ponderous. It is Abbado's achievement to avoid most of the longueurs and bring out its splendours.
As for the language question, as Julian Budden points out in the third, magisterial and exhaustive volume of The Operas of Verdi (Cassell: 1981—an essential companion when hearing this set), the composer hardly expected the work to be performed in anything but Italian outside France, and Budden himself adds that ''the best Verdi singers are rarely the best singers of French''. That opinion is hardly denied by the efforts of the Italians here; but that doesn't alter the other Budden dictum that a French performance is to be preferred because ''words and music fit better together . . .''. All the singers here have made a valiant attempt to sing idiomatic French but none, I feel, Domingo possibly excepted, actually makes much of the language.
Domingo's Carlos is all one would expect from this tenor—indeed something more—for in his first recitative and later in the final duet with Elisabeth, he produces a honeyed mezza-voce the like of which I have seldom heard from him. He encompasses every facet of the role—sympathetically lyrical in the famous friendship avowal, heroically ardent in his encounters with his stepmother, forcefully defiant before his father outside the cathedral. In every respect he surpasses his achievement (in Italian) on the Giulini set (HMV SLS956, 7/71), not least in his vital declamation of the French, as at ''Je suis Carlos'' in revealing his identity to Elisabeth in Act 1. Ricciarelli, as on stage, evinces much sympathy for Elisabeth's plight. In the farewell to the Countess of Aremberg (which she offered on her very first RCA recital: SB6863, 9/72—nla), and the duet with Eboli (a beautiful page cut before the premiere), her soft-grained, gentle singing is just what is needed, but much else in the role, most of all the great Fifth Act scena, really calls for a more genuinely spinto voice, with more fibre in it. Ricciarelli is never less than sensitive, but that is not always quite enough here.
Valentini Terrani's Eboli is also a little under-powered. Her Rossinian flexibility suits her excellently to the Veil song and to the more frothy moments of her part, as—for instance—the exchange-of-clothes scene (Act 3, scene 1) in the appendix, and she obviously understands Eboli's complex nature, but the sweep of the fiendishly difficult ''O don fatale'' eludes her and its high notes stretch her uncomfortably. Leo Nucci is a stalwart, accurate Posa, not out of his metier in French, but memories of Gobbi, not to mention Battistini's records, come flooding back to remind us that there is a plangent quality in Rodrigue's music not suggested in Nucci's all-purpose singing. Raimondi makes a predictably sombre, dour Philip, catching much of the heartbreak of the old man's insoluble predicament. Others may find his tone less woolly and ill-defined than I do; again, the performances of others in the past hinder acceptance of anything less memorable (among them Vanni-Marcoux's searing account of ''Elle ne m'aime pas''—in French, where a more tangy voice precisely defines language and note). Ghiaurov's Inquisitor is formidably menacing—he and Raimondi have exchanged roles since the Karajan/HMV set (SLS5154, 10/79). Small parts are well taken, particularly Nikita Storojev's imposing Monk (you can really believe he is Charles V returned to earth) and Arleen Auger's Heavenly Voice.
The playing of La Scala orchestra is throughout the long work on a sustained level of virtuosity, and their partners in the chorus are no less involved in the huge project, though not always so steady in tone as one might ideally wish. I have reservations about the recording, which is uncomfortably reverberant, sometimes to the detriment of instrumental detail. It also gives to the orchestra an undue prominence that may overwhelm the unwary listener. I have tried the LPs and CDs on two sets of speakers, and in both cases I have to report that the mixing has produced anything but a natural sound in the passages where large forces are employed. In the intimate scenes, the results are far happier, and fairer balance is achieved.
In spite of my criticisms, I found listening to this set an absorbing experience. Comparisons with older sets are, for once, hardly relevant as none is strictly comparable. Although Giulini's famous recording is, on its own terms, still competitive, newcomers will doubtless choose the Abbado, most of all for his direction and discernment.'

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