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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Don Carlos. Opera in Five Acts (sung in Italian) (1886 Modena and 1867 Paris versions)
Philip (King of Spain), Jaakko Ryhänen (bass); Don Carlos (Infante of Spain), Lars Cleveman (ten); Rodrigo (Marquis of Posa), Peter Mattei (bar); The Grand Inquisitor, Bengt Rundgren (bass); Elisabeth de Valois (Philip's Queen), Hillevi Martinpelto (sop); Princess Eboli (Elisabeth's lady-in-waiting), Ingrid Tobiasson (m.sop); Tebaldo (Elisabeth's page), Iwa Sörenson, (sop); The Count of Lerma (A Royal Herald), Klas Hedlund (ten); An Old Monk, Martti Wallén (bass); A Voice from Heaven, Hilda Leidland (sop)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm/Alberto Hold-Garrido
Recorded at the Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm on 18th December 1999 and 22nd and 27th January 2000
Bargain Price
NAXOS OPERA CLASSICS 8.660096-98 [3CDs: 78.51+70.18+45.40]


New recordings of opera are relative rarities nowadays, so a new Don Carlos, one of the longest works in the Verdi canon, is high on the list of the unexpected. Indeed, if this early January 2000 recording had been released a year or eighteen months ago, and why not, it’s price level would have left it clear of rivals and a critic might have been tempted to make more allowance for weaknesses among the singers. As it is, the situation now is very different, when Haitink’s mid-1990s studio recording, based on Covent Garden performances and with the likes of Hvorostovsky, Gorchakova and Borodina, has just been reissued at similar price to this Naxos issue. If you consider live performance recordings a virtue, despite the regular interruptions of applause found here, then you should also note Muti’s 1980s live performance from La Scala. This has Pavarotti, Sam Ramey et al and is also advertised in this same price range. The series of performances from which that recording was taken were notorious for the fact that the great tenor ‘cracked’ a couple of times on the first night, and was booed by the ever-fickle La Scala audience. Such vocal howlers don’t make it onto official issues such as that EMI, or this Naxos from the Royal Swedish Opera, as the published version is usually a conflation of several performances. However, to complicate the issue of choice this Naxos contains scenes not on the rival issues, or even on the highly recommended performances conducted by Giulini (now a mid-price EMI ‘GROC’), and Solti (Decca), whilst they, in turn, have music not included here. The only version to have most of what Verdi wrote for the first production in Paris in 1867 is that under Abbado (DG), sung in poor French, the language of the first performances, by an international cast. Abbado’s recording also contains music Verdi discarded before the first night fearing the opera was too long. Spread over four discs in poor occluded sound it has largely been displaced by Pappano’s well-conducted version (EMI CD and Warner DVD) recorded live around six years ago at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and sung in idiomatic French. The background to the various versions that Verdi approved, and that chosen for this issue, sung in Italian translation as it was at Modena in 1886, is contained in the informative booklet. This also has a full libretto but no translations. A full synopsis is given, scene-by-scene, with track indication as a preface, rather than indicated in the sequence of the text, my preferred manner.

As already indicated the singers on this Naxos performance are rather variable, indeed provincial. Whilst the principal basses, Jaakko Ryhänen as King Philip and Bengt Rundgren as The Grand Inquisitor, enjoyed careers that took them to the major international opera houses, both are now rather long in the tooth. The former is dry-toned and the latter is somewhat unsteady. Rundgren is not only dry in his great Act 4 soliloquy (CD3 tr.13-16) but rather flaccid too, only coming to life in the dramatic confrontation with the Grand Inquisitor (trs. 17-20). Peter Mattei and Hillevi Martinpelto currently appear in the world’s major houses. The former fields the best singing in the cast with steady well focused and covered tone, fine diction and a good range of expression, making the ‘Prison Scene’ and ‘Death of Rodrigo’ (CD 3 trs. 2-5) the highlight of the issue, albeit that applause intrudes into the dramatic flow. I personally caught up with Hillevi Martinpelto as Mistress Ford, in Verdi’s Falstaff, under Gardiner at the Paris Châtelet. This is a part where her lightish flexible soprano was effective, and in her Elisabeth I hear echoes of those strengths. However, she hasn’t the ideal weight of tone for the more dramatic outbursts or the launching of her big Act 5 aria ‘Tu, che le vanita’, (CD3 trs.11-12), where she is distinctly unsteady. As Princess Eboli, Ingrid Tobiasson goes sharp in ‘The Garden Scene’ (CD2 tr.7) and in ‘O don fatale’ (CD2 tr.25) she makes some distinctly squally sounds as well as off-pitch singing and wobble. As the eponymous Carlos, Lars Cleveman has an innately pleasing lightish timbred voice that cannot sustain the demands of the part. The comprimario parts are variably taken with Hilda Leidland as ‘The Voice from Heaven’ being the poorest I have heard in the theatre or on disc!

The singers are set more forward than the orchestra who are well back on the sound stage which doesn’t help appreciation of Verdi’s beautiful music or the dramatic flow which is built within it. The lyric and dramatic whole of this longest and most melodically creative of Verdi’s oeuvre is beyond the conductor, who has little feel for the composer’s idiom, a failing he shares with Haitink, but which Giulini has in every fibre. Other than Mattei’s singing, I regrettably find little to recommend in this issue, particularly now the price is matched by better sung versions elsewhere.

Robert J Farr



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