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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.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Verdi Project: Don Carlos

Verdi's last opera for Paris has a complicated history.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Troubled youth: the not-so-youthful Placido Domingo as Verdi's Don Carlos.
Photo © 1982 The Metropolitan Opera.

After the experience of Un Ballo in Maschera, Giuseppe Verdi found himself increasingly withdrawn from the world of opera. His hiatus was interrupted for the commissioning and premiere of La Forza del Destino, but the problems surrounding that opera did not encourage him to continue composing. However, he received a commission for the Paris Opera, to write a five-act grand opera in French for the 1866. That opera would be Don Carlos, and its genesis would be the most difficult of any major Verdi work.

Don Carlos (or Don Carlo as it is billed when the opera is performed in Italian) is the longest and most ambitious of Verdi's operas. Based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, it tells the story of the historical Don Carlos, son of Philip II, the King of Spain, and uniquely unqualified to rule. The opera tones down Carlos' malady. The real Infante suffered from mental instability, outbursts of violence and possibly epilepsy, and once tried to attack his father with a sword. In the opera, the prince becomes a lovesick romantic hero, tormented by his father's decision to marry Elisabeth de Valois, the French princess. The problem: Elisabeth was originally engaged to Carlos.

This conflict between political expediency and personal need is the driving force of Verdi's opera. Its complex plot features a double love triangle. Following her marriage to Philip, Carlos is still hopelessly in love with Elisabeth, who is married to Philip, his father. Philip is in turn cheating on Elisabeth with the glamorous Princess Eboli, who is in love with the supposedly available Carlos. All this family drama plays out against the ever-growing threat of the Spanish Inquisition, which wants to consolidate Philip's power by eliminating dissent: specifically that of Carlos and his free-thinking friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa.

The Inquisition does not enter the opera until the third act, but does so with considerable force. The Paris audience demanded a huge public spectacle, and Verdi gave them one: a re-creation of an auto-da-fé in which "heretics" were burnt at the stake, supposedly in celebration of the coronation of Philip. This barbaric spectacle is an unforgettable theatrical experience, and Verdi's music, which contrasts the chanting of monks with a redemptive theme, first in the cellos and later sung by an offstage soprano lets the listener know which side the composer was on.

There are a lot of highlights in this opera, and it is one of Verdi's most rich and inspired scores. The "friendship duet" between Carlos and Posa is a stirring crowd-pleaser, as is the "Song of the Veil" in which Princess Eboli shows her skill at flirting and vocal chops. Philip gets one great scene: the aria "Elle ne m'aime pas", in which he bitterly regrets his marriage. This is followed immediately by what Verdi called the "Inquisition Scene", a duet for two basses in which the Grand Inquisitor orders Philip to hand over Carlos and his friend Posa to the Holy Office for interrogation. Finally, Eboli's "O don fatale" and Elisabeth's "Toi qui sus le Néant" allow each leading lady to bring down the house.

This is Verdi's longest score, and thus the one most susceptible to cuts. Before opening night, Verdi slashed the first ten minutes of the opera from the first act. Later cuts would include the first scene of Act III, the ballet, the Act V trial scene and ultimately, the entire first act. In 1884, the composer authorized a four-act version that slashed the entire scene in Fontainebleu Forest, and bumped the tenor's short aria up to the beginning of the second--now the first--act. Without that change, Carlos would have no solo to sing.

This truncated version is usually called Don Carlo, and was how the opera was generally performed, if it was staged at all. This is one of the gloomiest Verdi operas and its dark tone, staunch anti-religious stance and grim, ambiguous ending (Carlos is rescued at the last minute by a Monk who may or may not be the ghost of his grandfather Charles V) did not find an audience until the 20th century.  Starting in 1886, a version appeared with the first act restored, still sung in Italian. In the 1960s, conductor Carlo Maria Giulini championed and recorded this version. Other conductors have experimented with restoring the ballet, and even staging the opera with its original French text.

Finally, a word on language and translation. This opera is most frequently performed in Italian. However, it works better in French. Verdi wrote the music to a French text, and the syllables flow easily over his music. The Italian, with its different sounds and glottal stops has more "beats" than the French, as evidenced by the Monk's Chorus that starts Act II. In French it's "Charles, le grand em-per-eur": six beats. The Italian is "Car-lo il som-mo im-per-a-tor": nine beats and does not fit the music nearly as well. Whatever language it's in, Don Carlos is an unforgettable experience.

Recording Recommendations:
(Ed. Note: The following content is excerpted from an earlier Superconductor article, Don Carlo on Disc: an Audio-da-fé.)
There are many available recordings of Don Carlo. 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 Riccardo Muti and Herbert von Karajan.

Two in Italian

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

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, grab it. I did.

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 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 tremendously powerful.
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: Nicolai Ghiaurov

On the plus side, it's in French. On the minus, this four-disc workout 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. Katia Ricciarelli and Luciana 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 to the test.

Made it this far? Want to see Don Carlos the way it should be done? Watch this: the complete auto-da-fé scene, filmed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1982.

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