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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Sending Don Carlos To Therapy

An in-depth look at Verdi's longest and most troubled opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Placido Domingo in Don Carlos.
Cover art © 1990 Deutsche Grammophon/UMG
Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlos is an opera that is beloved by Verdi lovers, but one that took a very long time to find its audience. Based on a searing play by Friedrich Schiller. Don Carlos was originally composed for the 1869 season for the grand stage of the Paris Opera. The premiere of its initial French version was a late-career failure for the Italian composer, one of three largely unsuccessful attempts that Verdi made in his life to conquer the hearts of Parisian opera-goers. (The other two, Gerusalemme and Le Vepres Siciliennes are less well known.

Verdi was forced to make compromises and cuts in his score even before the opera took the stage. At the final rehearsal, a ten-minute curtain-raising chorus for a group of woodcutters in the forest of Fontainebleau got the ax. It was discovered that the full opera ran past the time that Parisians could get trains out of the French capital following the performance, necessitating the cut. An Act IV confrontation between King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor drew the ire of the French empress, a staunch Catholic. The drama's somber tone, complicated plot and grim spectacle (a huge Act III auto-da-fé) was not the entertainment French audiences were looking for.

Ever the practical man of the theater, Verdi began revising Don Carlos in 1875. He translated his new opera into Italian, trimmed off the entire first act (sacrificing some lovely music and plot exposition) and moved the lone tenor aria to the "new" first act, having the newly named Don Carlo sing of his lost love while surrounded by monks. The ballet was cut. The ending was also revised, with Verdi axing a chorus of inquisitors (an idea he had recycled for Aida.) In total, he excised about an hour of music. This version bowed in 1884 to some acclaim. In 1886, Verdi relented, creating a five-act Don Carlo that restores the opening act and is generally considered a satisfactory solution and is the one the Metropolitan Opera currently performs.

In 1990, the record industry was riding high on its own long success, and conductors and tenors were allowed to indulge in their passion projects. That year saw the release of a huge four-disc Don Carlos on Deutsche Grammophon, conducted by Claudio Abbado, featuring the chorus and orchestra of La Scala and starring an all-Italian cast. However, the conductor chose to record the 1886 five-act version, albeit in the original French. This international hybrid included the first act and an appendix with (almost) all of the cut scenes from the Paris version of the opera. With today's digital technology, it is possible to use this recording to program a "mega" Don Carlos, with all the scenes (including the woodcutters) restored to their proper place.

The Abbado recording is not the best Don Carlos on the market, and not even Mr. Domingo's best recording of the role. It's worth hearing though. The Spanish tenor and Verdi veteran is in excellent form in the title role, even though his French is not idiomatic. Ruggerio Raimondi is an imposing, dark-voiced King Philip, paired with the veteran Nikolai Ghiaurov as the Grand Inquisitor. The ladies are less well served.  Katia Ricciarelli near the end of her salad days here. She is a squally, and whiny Elisabeth, but she rebounds in the final act with a magnificent "Toi qui sus le néant." The late Luciana Valantini-Terrani is a small-voiced, but competent Eboli. She sings a coquettish Princess and is helped by the restoration of the brief scene between her and Elisabeth in Act III.

There are a number of reasons for listening to the opera as Verdi ultimately conceived it. First, language. The French libretto of Don Carlos has its plot problems, but it is something of a masterpiece, with each word molded expertly to the musical line. In the Act II monks' chorus, the basses sing "Charles l'empereur suprême" (six beats) as opposed to the Italian "Carlo il somm'imperatore" (nine beats.) Carlos' aria "Je l'ai vu" is much more musical than Io lo vidi, as is Philip's monologue "Elle ne m'aime pas!" (the Italian is "Ella giammai m'amò!").

A second consideration is plot and exposition. Verdi's chopping out of his woodcutters was seen as a wise move in 1869, but the scene is important. It shows the suffering of the French people in time of war, and it shows Elisabeth de Valois why she must accept Philip's hand in marriage--to save her people. Don Carlos is all about the needs of the state taking precedence over personal happiness, and nowhere is it better illustrated than here. (Point of fact: the old Met production by John Dexter included the woodcutters, making for a longer but more coherent evening.)

Third, the ballet. "La peregrine" is a difficult and demanding number to stage, to the point that a modern Vienna production of the opera set the music against a sort of "sitcom" dream sequence. However, more important than the ballet itself is the scene before it, where Elisabeth (now the Queen and married to Philip) gives her veil to Eboli, setting up the moment when Carlos woos "Elisabeth" and Eboli realizes that he is in love not with her but with the woman who is (technically) his mother. When you lose this bit of business, the rest of the third act makes a lot less sense--it just looks like poor Carlos can't tell the leading ladies apart.

The chorus and orchestra of La Scala is in good form here, although the auto-da-fé scene suffers from too much knob-twiddling by the Deutsche Grammophon engineers. However it's worth hearing (and programming) to put the appendix tracks in their proper sequence and get some idea of what Verdi planned when he wrote his longest, and grandest opera.

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