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Friday, June 12, 2009

Recording Recommendation: Putting Don Carlos in Order

Released in 1990, the Claudio Abbado/Placido Domingo version of Don Carlos (DG) was the first commercial recording of this opera in its original French. Along with the five-act version of the opera (with the often-cut first act put back in its proper place, complete with "Je le vieux") the hefty four-disc set included the opera's famous "cut" scenes. However, in a classic example of record company weirdness, the cuts were relegated to the end of the fourth disc, as a series of extras. So with CDs or cassettes, it was almost impossible to listen to the full score of Don Carlos in order.

These trimmed scenes are pretty substantial--and include:
  • The opening scene of the opera, where a chorus of woodcutters in the forest of Fontainebleau bemoan their hunger, and then encounter Elisabeth de Valois. Verdi cut this on opening night for length, but it puts the events that follow (particuarly Elisabeth's decision to marry her fiancee's father, Philip II) in context, and changes the whole tone of the opera. The Met performs this scene, albeit in Italian.
  • The "Ballet of the Queen". A spectacular Paris Opera ballet, this has no effect except stopping the action in the middle of Act III for some nice music. Cut when the opera was revised for Italian performance.
  • The original "Insurrection" scene complete with thundering chorus of inquisitors. Trimmed down in performance, here it is similar to the "Radames Radames Radames" scene in Aida.

The Abbado recording is not the best Don Carlos on the market (Domingo's earlier recording with Giulini wins that particular bowl of nachos) but it is a solid enough performance, despite the oddity of an Italian cast and chorus singing in French. Domingo is in excellent form as the Infante, and Ruggerio Raimondi is an imposing King Philip. The ladies are less well served. The late Luciana Valantini-Terrani is a smallish, but competent Eboli. Katia Ricciarelli is past her prime here, a squally, and whiny Elisabeth--but she rebounds in the final act.

The chorus and orchestra of La Scala is in top form, although the whole recording suffers from too much knob-twiddling by the Deutsche Grammophon tonmeister. What's neat though, and what makes this recording worth revisiting is the IPod. If you upload the four CDs into your ITunes, you can then make a playlist and ut all the missing pieces in the correct order. Now, with the Woodcutter's Chorus at the opening, the ballet in its proper, interruptive place, and the Inquisitors back to work shouting at Carlos and Posa, this finally sounds like a proper Don Carlos. And best of all, the missing pieces fit perfectly, unveiling the breadth and scope of Verdi's grandest opera.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats