For Don Carlo is one of my most favourite Verdi operas. If Otello is hors concours for me, the chasing pack include Don Carlo, Boccanegra, Rigletto and Trovatore (clearly there aren’t enough dead bodies in Falstaff to satisfy me !). However, Don Carlo is definitely the most complicated for the collector, as Ralph explains, being available in Four or Five Acts, French or Italian. Even then, there are further subtleties of difference – the famous 1961 DG recording under Santini purports to be the 1886 Five Act Modena version, or so I thought until the end when after Elisabetta's final note - instead of the usual terrifying orchestra coda, the music cut to the monks chorus heard earlier from the Monastery of Saint-Just and the music dies out serenely. If my memory serves correct, all the other studio recordings of the Five Act version end the more “traditional” way. Indeed, the noteworthy Stein live performance with Gundula Janowitz from the Vienna State Opera in 1970, dispenses with the return of the Monk/Carlo Quinto by cutting out his music at the end entirely ! As Ralph concludes, it is virtually impossible to establish a definitive performing version of the work.
Happily, I am also largely in agreement with Ralph's own conclusions of the performances under consideration, albeit not entirely. I agree though with his conclusion to the Solti/Decca set from 1965. Solti is of course, Solti – his conducting is much more sensitive here than you may expect, but some of the usual faults are there - at the beginning of the Garden Scene, for example, there is a small orchestral introduction which ends with a forte chord for full orchestra; Solti obtains some wonderfully detailed and delicate playing from the ROH band here, yet he just cannot resist landing a knock-out punch at the end, forte being raised to fff - "and he's out for the count" !! However, I think in spite of the vocal and sonic glories elsewhere in this set, i completely agree that one’s overall reaction will almost entirely depend on your feelings towards DfD in the role of Posa - some find his portrayal infinitely interesting and characterful, in which case this could well be the reference set; others, myself included, may think he's over-the-top and just doesn't have the correct timbre for the role and as such, is a major flaw. Strange, when I count the Bernstein Falstaff as being my favourite version of all and there, DfD is genuinely funny ...
I’m less in harmony with your conclusion to the Giulini/Emi recording though, Ralph ! I don’t know quite what it is about Giulini’s conducting in Verdi’s operas – his DG recordings of Trovatore and Rigoletto have some wonderful things about them, but all ultimately fall short due to the lack of fire from the podium. My reaction was markedly different to Don Carlo however – there is a strange alchemy to Giulini's conducting here - it is very beautiful, a little slow perhaps, noble rather than dramatic, yet it never hangs fire. You could say the same perhaps with regards to the other two DG operas mentioned, but for some reason it works for me in Don Carlo. We’ll have to beg to differ on this one !
Still, I agree with you with regards to the comparatively disappointing Levine, Farnes and the studio Abbado sung in strange Fritalian. I was less convinced by the Haitink than yourself, likewise the Muti – strange that a conductor who can be so obstinately a stickler with regards to small detail (the absolutely original Ernani, shorn of later arias, for example), that he opts for the Four Act Milan version as late as 1992. I’m not convinced that DC is quite Muti’s opera and feel this can be demonstrated by his approach to the sonorous opening of the Monastry Scene, which Muti takes more tense and dramatic compared to the more noble and mysterious approach of everybody else. Still, as you rightly say, it deserves higher praise than it usually gets, not least for Pavarotti and Samuel Ramey’s King.
Now, I know it was a partial survey, but there are three other recordings I’d like to bring to the party as it were. The first is from the Vienna State Opera in May 1979, during a time when Karajan made an annual return to his old house. This performance is from a year after the EMI recording and features many of the same singers from that set, with a couple of notable exceptions. Luigi Roni here replaces van Dam’s haunted Monk/Charles V, which was always going to be a pity since I consider van Dam the best of all, and Ruggero Raimondi, who was the Grand Inquisitor in the recording to Nicolai Ghiaurov's King Philip, is now the King with the young Matti Salminen's black and evil tones singing the role of the Inquisitor. Still, their confrontation in the King's study is well worth the entrance fee ! More significantly perhaps, in the pit is the Vienna rather than Berlin Philharmonic, more elegant and less intrusive than their more testosterone-fuelled brethren from across the border. This could be a plus for some who, as mentioned by yourself find the orchestra a bit too closely balanced on the EMI recording, maybe a negative for others who revelled in the Berlin orchestra's insouciant grandeur. The sound is full and decent, a couple of small miscalculations apart from the austrian radio engineers, which are slightly disappointing when you consider they were on better form in the 1958 performance with this conductor in Salzburg. There are few surprises here for those familiar with the studio account and maybe one should be grateful for to hear such a cast delivering excellence in this work – Gruberova is the voice from heaven, astonishingly luxury casting ! – and Baltsa brings the house down, rightly, after her Veil Song. However, if the orchestra was too closely balanced in the studio for you, this is a must hear.
I suppose most people probably wouldn’t have taken much notice of a recording of DC from the Hartford Opera in 1966 – and nor did I, until a wise old friend told me I’d be daft if I did ! However ( and I stand to be corrected on this), in the mid-1960’s Hartford was a big financial powerbase in Cnnecticut, which would perhaps go some way in explaining the line-up of Corelli, Louis Quilico (Posa), Ghiaurov, Kabaivanska, Dominguez and Ghiuselev (the Grand Inquisitore), which is remarkable by any standard . In the pit is Anton Guadagno, who leads us, intentionally or otherwise, in an electrifying evening, full of thrills and spills, the big moments skidding around the musical corners on two wheels, but all the more exciting for being so ! The sound is likewise a little coarse, but more than listenable and I suppose if you are going to listen to Corelli's Carlo, then this is it at its best. There's a slight lack of refinement with this one, but it's more than made up for by the excitement of the moment ! Do you know it Ralph ?
The last version of this opera I would like to talk about is the one conducted by that stalwart of Italian opera, Francesco Molinari Pradelli at the Met in April 1972. The sound is poor, much of the scene in the monastry sounding as if recorded in a washing-up bowl, with ample "swish" to try one's nerves; the version used is the Four Act Milan one, complete with loads of cuts, but, the cast promises much. However, it was rather late in the careers of Franco Corelli (Carlos), Grace Bumbry (Eboli) and Cesare Siepi (Filippo), the latter two both being heard to better effect elsewhere, as above. Corelli though ... in 1972 he was still able to conjure up a nice noise, but his phrasing is often choppy and he is not adverse to his usual grand-standing effects, which neither sound right for the role, nor his interpretation. Milnes offers a "professional" interpretation of Rodrigo, especially affecting in his final scene, but again is better on the Giulini studio performance. John Macurdy, is the Grand Inquisitor; okay, he isn't quite Talvela, or Salminen, but he's very good nonetheless, holding his final note in his confrontation with the King seemingly forever and without a wobble. However, this recording is mandatory listening for one reason: Montserrat Caballé.
There is an English saying, quite politically incorrect, that "the show ain't over until the fat lady sings". Whilst I have no intention of insulting that magnificent creature which is the Diva from Barcelona, I've no idea from where this saying originates, but this night at the Met in 1972 is as good a place as any, for Caballé, astonishingly, holds her final note, the last one in the whole opera, a top B, for a full fifteen seconds - all the way through until the final, crashing orchestral chord. And don't get me wrong, this isn't Pavarotti in "Nessun Dorma mode", engineering and conserving everything until that final climatic note, for Caballé's phrasing and breath control throughout the whole of that final duet with Carlos, is if anything, equally as breathtaking (as is much that has gone before). Don't believe me ? Well, here is that final duet:
So, apologies for the delay with this, but I felt your own magnificent review deserved serious consideration and an equally serious response. In the Venn Diagram of Lee’s and Ralph’s Don Carlo recordings, there’s much that’s in the middle – but I couldn’t resist talking about the ones that weren’t !
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