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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Don Carlo on Disc: An Audio-da-fé.

Maybe I just like it for the cover art.
Don Carlo (in French, Don Carlos) is Verdi's longest and darkest opera. It's also beset by textual questions. Sing it in French? Italian? English? Five acts? Four acts? Add the ballet? Cut the first scene? All these versions are available on CD in one form or another.

There's something about Don Carlo that appealed to label execs and maestri. (Could it be the smell of burning heretics?) Some conductors (Riccardo Muti) tried to turn a mis-casting into compact disc gold. Example: the disastrous La Scala recording on EMI starring an out-of-his-depth Luciano Pavarotti in the title role. Others (James Levine, Bernard Haitink) went with lesser singers, with mixed results.

Either way, there's a lot of Don Carlos on disc. The really good ones are sung in Italian, and are the five-act versions. Considering that a four-act Don Carlo will also fit on the same number of discs (three) we can quickly eliminate the sets by Muti and Herbert von Karajan.

Two in Italian

Royal Opera House of Covent Garden cond. Carlo Maria Giulini
Don Carlo: Placído Domingo
Elisabeth: Montserrat Caballe
Eboli: Shirley Verrett
Rodrigo: Sherrill Milnes
Philip: Ruggero Raimondi
The Grand Inquisitor: Giovanni Foiani

This is a pretty definitive recording of the five-act version with a great Verdi conductor who knows the opera back-to-front. Placído Domingo and Montserrat Caballe are appealing together in the first two acts. Milnes and Domingo are a great pair in the big duet scenes. The late Shirley Verrett rocks the "Song of the Veil" and "O Don Fatale." Raimondi is great casting as the King, and his duet with Giovanni Foiani is kick-ass.

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Gabriele Santini
Don Carlo: Flaviano Labo
Elisabeth: Antonietta Stella
Eboli: Fiorenza Cossotto
Rodrigo: Ettore Bastianini
Philip: Boris Christoff
The Grand Inquisitor: Ivo Vinco

(The Solti recording is most people's choice for an alternate. But I don't like his Verdi. I like this one!)

This long-out-of-print DG recording has Boris Christoff as King Philip and great stereo sound. The choral singing is a little rough, as is the erstwhile Carlo of tenor Flaviano Labo, but this version of the five-act score has a raw edge and vitality that makes it an intriguing alternative to the Giulini. It's been reissued as part of a mammoth (and dirt cheap) DG box set: Verdi: Great Operas From La Scala. If you spot the old set in the original red slipcase with the cool album art, (see above) grab it. No, you can't have mine.

And one in French:
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Claudio Abbado
Don Carlos: Placído Domingo
Elisabeth: Katia Ricciarelli
Eboli: Luciana Valentini-Terrani
Rodrigue: Leo Nucci
Philip: Ruggero Raimondi
The Grand Inquisitor: Nicola Ghiaurov

On the plus side, it's in French. On the minus, this gigantic four-disker features an Italian conductor leading an Italian orchestra with a (mostly) Italian cast. Domingo sounds terrific, as do the duelling "all-star" bass pair of Raimondi and Ghiaurov. Ricciarelli and Valentini-Terrani act well, and their singing is just passable. But the reason to track this relic is for the fourth disc, which features an appendix of six scenes that are standard cuts. The famous "Woodcutters" opening is presented here, along with the gorgeous (if long) ballet music and the original ending featuring a chorus of shouting Inquisitors putting poor Carlos through the wringer.

This is NOT a first choice. But if you fall in love with this opera (and I did, back in 1995) this is an interesting, if not essenital set to listen to. Especially because you can load it into a computer and program your IPod to play the "cut" scenes in the correct order. The booklet even shows you where to insert them--something that was technologically impossible when this set was originally released--if you were willing to stay up all night programming your CD changer. Not that I ever did anything like that of course....*ahem*.

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