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Don Carlos on Disc:
Random Jottings

 


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DON CARLOS ON DISC -- RANDOM JOTTINGS

--Geoffrey Riggs


[I've been obsessed enough over the years to indulge in various random jottings on a recording here, a recording there. There's no "rhyme or reason" to which ones I've scribbled on and on about. But on the offchance that some of my scribblings may be useful, I've assembled here, on a pretty arbitrary basis, some of the takes I have in various hideaway corners of my hard disk (from two or three different word processing aps!). Hope they make some sense as a whole. I hope I've combed out the more unclear topical references here to that exchange or this one, etc. But if there are still a few that are unclear, we can always put it down to this having been cobbled together from various sources in a tremendous (and probably inexcusable) hurry.]

French recordings (strictly a sampling):

"LIVE" (variously dated, most sources give 1976)
Generally thought to be the earliest French-language Don Carlos easily available, issued on VOCE and PONTO, among other labels. Maestro John Matheson is to be commended for being a virtual pioneer in restoring this original version to the light of day. With the lyric Andre Turp in the title role and with variable colleagues, this has definite vocal flaws. But it has the distinction of being possibly the only French-language version with an almost entirely Gallic and idiomatic cast, a notable exception being the very young Robert Lloyd in a supporting role. Matheson gives a reasonably strong spine to this literally complete performance, first act included.

STUDIO (1984)
The DG French recording under Claudio Abbado has often expressionless (or nearly so) singing with clearly phonetic (after a fashion) French that has not been internalized into an organic expression of poetry + music = drama at all. Domingo heads the cast. This set is textually probably the closest to what Verdi would have recognized as his own, following Modena 1886 (1884 revision + Act I restoration), his final thoughts. In fact, this is textually the edition that ultimately makes the most sense to me (some sources claim that even in his later revisions for Italy, Verdi was still working with the French text). Since this set, though, has no spine (surprisingly so, in view of Abbado's usually being stronger than this), IMO, I look further.

"LIVE" VIDEO (1996)
The CD edition of the Alagna shows Alagna sounding quite pressed and uncomfortable, IMO, which disqualifies this as any kind of first choice, in my view. The title role is the title role, after all. Oddly, the VIDEO edition of the same production seems to be made up of somewhat different material, where Alagna sounds more comfortable. Hardly a world-beater, mind you (and Alagna can be caught sounding _much_ better than even this in other repertoire that's out there), but at least plausible. The chief vocal problems that remain are the lack of true bel canto flexibility in Waltraud Meier's Eboli (although she still has her moments) and Eric Halfvarson's Inquisitor, which is unspeakably bad: no sense of poetry, no musical line, no vocal control whatsoever. In addition, the performing edition is just plain weird. It jumps from version to version with no textual consistency whatsoever. One must grant, though, that Pappano's conducting shows greater narrative strength than we have on either the DG or the earlier Ponto. [Since writing that paragraph, I have relistened to some of Meier's scenes, and I feel that perhaps I was a bit too harsh here; while her bel canto capacities may not be comparable to a Verrett or a Cossotto's, there is, in fact, more to admire than to regret in Meier's perf., IMO.]

Italian recordings (strictly a sampling):

"LIVE" (1950)
The "live" Met set from 1950 shows Bjoerling at his absolute peak. It was this revival (directed by Margaret Webster) and the Covent Garden prod. from '58 (directed by Lucchino Visconti) that finally put this masterpiece on the map in English-speaking countries, and one must be grateful for that (oddly, a starry Met revival in the '20s headed by Martinelli and Ponselle failed to score as decisively). Bjoerling and Merrill are the raison d'etre of this set. With the two of them sounding like demigods throughout, it would be hard for anyone else to match them here, and so it proves, IMHO. Not that the young Barbieri and Siepi are at all bad! They are in fact tremendously exciting. It's just that Barbieri does not have quite the bel canto ease of some other Ebolis (although far more than Meier's, IMO), while being just as overwhelming an interpreter, and Siepi takes quite a while warming up. But when we reach his great soliloquy in his study, his beautiful phrasing and endless breath control pay off handsomely. And the low tones are magisterial. Hines's Inquisitor shows off a healthy young voice, so perhaps it's ungrateful to point out that the Inquisitor should not sound the same age as the King. Sadly, it may not be ungrateful, though, to balk at Delia Rigal's vocal problems as Isabelle. Here is a committed artist of lofty intentions with a richly expressive instrument that, however, is under poor control almost throughout. She rallies somewhat in the last scene, and there are some lovely top notes and fine phrasing. But the basic instrument is still somewhat disjointed. Conducting is efficient here without being inspiring, but ultimately, though, I'm bothered by the absence of the first act. Yes, trimming it to four acts was once Verdi's own idea, but he thought better of it later, and he was right, I feel. For one thing, the poignant qualities of Isabelle's big aria in the last scene are compromised, IMO, if one has not heard the opening scene.

"LIVE" (1958)
We do have the first act restored in the Covent Garden b'cast under the (relatively) young Giulini ('58). Here, as one might hope, is the sort of reading of this masterpiece under a superb maestro that this work deserves. Energy, poetry, surge, nuance, shape -- and all this is combined with a distinct narrative strength that never flags. A worthy answer to Pappano, possibly its superior, in fact, although I'd be happy with either in an ideal set. Vickers is more moving an interpreter than Bjoerling, and, at his youthful best, the entire voice up to the top notes ringing and secure, but Bjoerling still has an affecting plangency that is unique. At the same time, the heroic qualities of the Prince's high-strung character come through better with a voice of Vickers' dramatic strength. The balance of the cast is more consistent here than at the Met, with Brouwenstijn(sp.?), Gobbi and Christoff in perfectly good voice. Barbieri, though, is no longer up to Eboli. She simply "marks" all the high notes as if in a rehearsal. Sad. Also, though one is grateful for the first act, there are numerous other cuts throughout that can grate exceedingly.

STUDIO (1965)
The Solti set from the mid-'60s was the first studio attempt to record a literally complete version, first act and much later material included (the earlier Santini version was the first studio set to include the first act, but there was no attempt at textual consistency or completeness for the rest, young Cossotto's astonishingly easy Eboli being its strongest asset). Solti -- and I'm aware that others already say this, but it's honestly my own impression as well -- is long on drive and energy, but short on poetry. That doesn't necessarily make him bad at all, but it does place him a rung or so below Pappano and the young Giulini, IMO. Bergonzi sings the Prince's music as beautifully as anyone on disc, even though his is not quite the bewitching beauty of a Bjoerling or the haunting loneliness of a Vickers. Tebaldi is heard somewhat past her best, though she has her moments, and Bumbry's Eboli is one of the most exciting to be heard. A highlight is the King/Inquisitor encounter with Nicolai Ghiaurov and Martti Talvela. One has to wonder when this scene has sounded more terrifying. Unfortunately, IMO, Fischer-Dieskau's Posa fails to convince on a vocal level. Yes, he sings the music adroitly, but the sound of the instrument simply strikes me as all wrong (my failing?).

"LIVE" (1966)
A "live" in-house performance of the Met on tour, 1966, showcases Franco Corelli's Carlo at its most sensitive and its most vocally assured. This may be my nominee for Corelli's finest artistic achievement. No crude, truncated phrases. No hectoring unmodulated tones. Here is tender, long-breathed singing and imaginatively shaped phrasing under superb dynamic control. Heart-stopping piano singing is integrated with an authentically anguished and heroic reading that does full justice to the closest that Verdi ever came to creating a Hamlet-like figure on the opera stage. The proper centrality of Carlo as the center of this overpowering work comes through here as nowhere else, IMO. Kabaivanska, Bumbry and Ghiaurov come through well here also, while the rest of the cast is at least effective on occasion. Guadagno's conducting, though, strikes me as strictly pro forma, the distant sound is also a problem (though rarely with Corelli:-), and once again, we have no first act.........

"LIVE" (1970)
The '70 Vienna revival is in better sound, with a better ensemble to boot. I have reservations concerning Waechter. Not good, IMO. More critically, I'm afraid that Corelli's Carlo here, while almost as engaged and inward, simply does not strike me as being so comfortable vocally as in '66. In absolute terms, it is a more than creditable job, yes. And considering the recorded competition, his is still a viable alternative in this role. But that uncanny sense of certain moments "singing themselves" is no longer his at this point. And he does not dominate this performance like some great tragedian the way he does in '66. But perhaps, that isn't really his fault. When one has the finest Eboli, King and Inquisitor on disc under the same roof, perhaps one is bound to be no more than one among equals. Verrett, Ghiaurov and Talvela surpass anyone else I've heard in these parts, IMO -- and Verrett and Talvela surpass here what they do elsewhere! Verrett is at her most towering and musically assured throughout, and Ghiaurov is starting to bring out more of the deep hurt in this role. With Talvela at his peak, he and Ghiaurov surpass what they gave under Solti. Unfortunately, we have no Act I -- again (is it possible that Corelli never sang that opening duet? what a loss). This has now been released in a superb state-of-the-art transfer on ORFEO.

STUDIO (1971)
The early '70s studio set under Giulini is looked on as a classic by many, and it is certainly the case that when it comes to an uncut performing edition of the Modena version in Italian (first act included) and consistently pleasant vocalism throughout, this set measures up with no serious lapses. I do, though, find Giulini slightly disappointing after his towering "live" reading from the late '50s. He still does much here that is moving, and there is rarely a moment when the greatness of Verdi's genius doesn't shine through. But the narrative strength of his "live" performance is not always his. This might be viewed as the yang to Solti's yin. Where Solti is more energy, Giulini is more poetry. Would we could have both. We do with the younger Giulini at Covent Garden. Just not here. Domingo is in healthy voice and his solid musicianship stands him in good stead, although his vocalism has less variety of color and dynamics to it, IMO, than, say, Bergonzi's, whose Carlo is arguably Domingo's closest counterpart, both in terms of finished musicianship and of vocal weight (Domingo sounds strictly like a lirico spinto at this early point in his career). The other principals overshadow Domingo, I feel, both in terms of distinct personality and in terms of vocal and dramatic imagination. We reverse the equation of Corelli's '66 perf.: vivid artists around an efficient professional rather than efficient professionals around one vivid artist. Verrett's Eboli is almost as incandescent as she is at Vienna, and Caballe's Isabelle (Elisabetta in the Italian version) is the finest I've ever heard. Having these two standard-setters together is luxury casting indeed. And I greatly admire Ruggero Raimondi's King. Recordings often don't do justice to the authentically basso resonance that Raimondi emphatically had during these early years, and in some respects this set is no exception. But in person, there was a true rolling quality to the tone that I treasured and that reminded me of Siepi! Moreover, his unfailing legato and steady tone were of a greater consistency than Siepi's, and those qualities come through clearly in this recording. The reason why I personally preferred Siepi still came down to Siepi's _slightly_ more imposing (but _not_ by that much!) lowest tones, and his superb imagination as an interpreter, and the fact that at his best he could combine Raimondi's impeccable legato and steady tone with a distinctive imagination and charisma and elegance that were all his own. On a good night, Siepi had it all. But Raimondi's was undoubtedly the more flexible voice, and if I had to nominate one singer who affected me in person as the most plausible successor to Siepi, it would be the young Raimondi in a heartbeat.

"LIVE" (1977) -- Top Choice
Then there is a "live" Scala b'cast from 1977. This one is under Claudio Abbado (paraphrasing Anna Russell, "do you remember Abbado?"). Forget what we hear on the French DG. Abbado is superb here. All the drive of the younger Giulini, all the imagination and poetry of any other maestro you might name. This is a reading on the level of the finest heard anywhere, IMO. And the edition, based primarily on Modena, is, in a way, completer than complete, although we don't have the ballet. Still, the full opening scene of an uncut Act I before Carlo's entrance is intact, the Queen's and Eboli's switch of the "cloaks" is intact, the King's and Carlo's lament over Posa is included, and so on. Luckily, unlike the Pappano, Verdi's last rewrite of each and every sequence (unless it involves a cut) is always used. The one exception is the ending, where the more extended, quieter ending is adopted instead. But there is a kind of logic here too, since one could argue that here we have a rewrite that also entails some cutting. As for the cast, it is mostly quite fine. To start with, the young Carreras is heard at his most beautiful. And his is a heartfelt and alert interpretation as well. It is geared more to a lyric style (matching his voice), similar in that respect to Bjoerling's, while there is never a sense the role is beyond him. Freni is deeply affecting as Elisabetta, although she takes some time warming up (she's fine by the time she and Carreras have their painful encounter in Act II). Cappuccilli's Posa is perfectly good, and Nesterenko's Inquisitor is suitably chilling. Ghiaurov is again heard as the King...........forget his relatively crude reading opposite the Corelli of '66 and his similar reading for Solti; forget even his more developed interpretation for Vienna. This captures him at the perfect moment, displaying superb vocal control and suave legato with a wrenching, but always musically poised, delivery of every nuance in this tortured part. Not playing down the terror that this role can evoke at all, Ghiaurov still lets us see into the vulnerable humanity that Verdi invested in the King's music. And Ghiaurov has complete mastery of his range, from easy, open top notes to authentically rich low tones that bring the music alive as no one else quite has, in my view. This strikes me as the finest Philip on disc. However, Obraztsova's Eboli is not the finest Eboli on disc: ungainly, approximate, she just about gets by on sheer verve. But she doesn't really sing the written music. It's a star turn with lots of vocal flailing around and some drama -- of a sort. But the rich inwardness of much of the music eludes her, since she has, IMO, neither the musicianship, the vocal flexibilty, nor the imagination to bring it out. Yes, one can be grateful that here is a dramatically engaged reading with a genuinely commanding instrument (she has the full range needed, from thundering lows to ringing highs), rather than a pro forma walk-through. Thus, listeners unaccustomed to other Ebolis could well get caught up in all the excitement. Why not? The Scala audience here certainly does. But it remains musically uneven.

STUDIO (1978)
This posting has gone on TOO LONG(!), so I'm going to close (arbitrarily) with a studio set from 1978. I've simply run out of time(!) (my own dumb fault), and I don't know when I'll be able to get back to this. The '78 studio set, happily, features the same principals as the '77 b'cast, with the exception of the faaaaaar more musical Agnes Baltsa replacing the uneven Obraztsova and Ruggero Raimondi's Inquisitor replacing Nesterenko's. There is no question in my mind that, as a whole, this features an even more consistent lineup of principals than in the studio Giulini, even though neither Freni nor Baltsa (no world-beater, but at least a conscientious musician) may match Caballe and Verrett. Still, hearing these fine principals of the '77 Scala production as a whole buttressed with a more musical Eboli than Obraztsova makes for a richer ensemble in general than Giulini's, IMO. Among studio sets, this is therefore special. Unfortunately, where it defers to the Domingo/Giulini is in Karajan's decision to forego Act I! Act I happens to be one of Carreras's most affecting scenes in '77, and it's extremely regrettable that he's not given a chance to do it again here. Moreover, for me (as is probably tediously clear by now), I tend to relegate four-act sets to Honorable Mention. I don't really feel I've heard this work without that opening scene and its haunting duet. Karajan's conducting brings out the terror in this score better than anyone, but he is not as wide-ranging in his mastery of the many different moods in this piece as is the young Giulini and the "live" Abbado.

WRAP-UP

In conclusion (I can hear the groans of relief;-), what I seek is an uncut performance with a maestro who can bring out the Shak[e]spearean variety in Verdi's masterpiece, featuring a lineup of principals who are as uniformly undaunted by the sheer vocal range of these parts as they are genuinely imbued with the full dramatic genius of Verdi's inspired characterizations.

Among the sets arbitrarily summarized here, the only maestri who, IMO, attempt to encompass the full variety of Verdi's score rather than frame it with a distinct emphasis (hardly a bad thing either, just not what I prefer) are Pappano, the young Giulini and the "live" Abbado. Of these three, Pappano uses a pretty whimsical performing edition, although he has the conviction and the vision to make it (mostly) plausible, the young Giulini adopts many cuts, and the "live" Abbado thankfully adopts the closest approximation to Modena, although even he makes a few choices that lie outside it. Since the Pappano VIDEO has not one but two problematic principals (the Eboli and the Inquisitor), and since the many cuts in the Giulini Covent Garden are compounded by the inadequacies of the struggling Barbieri's Eboli (in this perf.), that leaves only the "live" Abbado as a performance with but one flaw, IMO: Obraztsova's Eboli (even she, at least, has the range, unlike the struggling Barbieri). So the "live" Abbado has become my personal favorite for now, even though it is not ideal in every respect.

[A caveat from today: now that I have revised upward my estimate of Meier, that means there is only one untenable principal in the Pappano VIDEO: the ludicrous Halfvarson as the Inquisitor; so we have in the "live" '77 Carreras/Abbado a reasonably viable performing edition with but one questionable principal {the Eboli}, in the Pappano VIDEO, a somewhat strange perf. edition by contrast, also with one unfortunate principal {the Inquisitor}, and in the Covent Garden Giulini, an edition with lots of cuts here and there and also one unfortunate principal {a past-her-prime Eboli} -- With both the Pappano VIDEO and the Covent Garden combining a partly unsatisfactory edition with one disappointing principal and with the '77 Abbado using a somewhat preferable edition leaving it with only one disappointing principal as its one flaw, the '77 Abbado remains my {grudging} Top Choice, and since Eboli is more critical than the Inquisitor, I'd slot the Pappano VIDEO with its inadequate Inquisitor next, with the Covent Garden slotted third.]

 

-- Geoffrey Riggs

 

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