Visually Clumsy, Thrillingly Performed Don Carlos

Review by: Albert Innaurato


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 7

This thrilling performance, filmed for television in 1965, repays patience. It is sung in German (not the original French, or most familiar, the clumsy Italian) and the translation uses as many lines as possible from the great play by Friedrich Schiller that inspired the opera. Given our visually-oriented age, the television production is clumsy: just one camera that never pulls back from the stage. We never get a sense of the theater space; the heavy scrutiny of singers is awkward now and then, with visual claustrophobia resulting. You can see the wonderful work of director Gustav Rudolf Sellner with the singers, but not his entire production.

Berlin uses the four-act version, with the usual cuts of that era and then some. The royal procession in the first scene is gone, the middle of the garden scene is gone, cuts are made in all the ensembles in the Auto da Fe scene, there is a snip in the final Carlos/Elisabeth duet—and finally the very end is rewritten to mirror the play—the Grand Inquisitor grasps Carlos and Elisabeth faints. So no Friar, identification of the Friar as Charles V, and no final high B-flat from the soprano. But the good news is that Act 3 Scene 1 in the four-act version, the “cabinet” scene (one of the greatest Verdi stretches), is more complete than it usually was in those days, even though the orchestral introduction is abridged. The entire Elisabeth/Philip confrontation is included.

The cast is impressive. James King (Carlos) and Pilar Lorengar (Elisabeth) sound splendid and look great. For once, in King we have a tenor with the right heft and impact for the role; and Lorengar, though as always she sports the pronounced vibrato that divided fans, is in fine form. Rodrigo was a role closely associated with the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He sings it beautifully, with the written trills (!), excellent spin, and good legato. He makes big choices as an actor; in his difficult death arias, marvelously done, Rodrigo’s love for Carlos and the cause they share shines movingly in his eyes.

Josef Greindl (Philip ll) was a regular at Bayreuth. He has a dry, gruff tone, sometimes wobbles, and doesn’t always sing in tune. But he is mesmerizing. It’s rare to see a singer use silence as he does. In the great scene that ends Act 1, between him and Rodrigo, there is a moment where he stares into Fischer-Dieskau’s eyes, then slowly circles him, trying to understand this mysterious, self-immolating man. In the scene with the Inquisitor (an amazing Martti Talvela) the King’s ruthless cruelty is obvious, but his crumbling before the vicious churchman is devastating, and his ferocious attack on his wife, whom he suspects of adultery with his son, is really dangerous. It’s a remarkable impersonation that in a visual medium transcends some ugly and/or approximate singing.

Patricia Johnson is an excellent Eboli, more at ease than many with the florid “veil song” and passionate and abandoned in “O Don Fatale”. Gunter Treptow, once a famous heldentenor, is the Count de Lerma, and Lisa Otto, who made many wonderful recordings, is “The Celestial Voice”. Conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch is on fire here; his work is exhilarating but well controlled and powerfully built. He is taut and intense throughout the opera. The orchestra plays well, some rough brass aside. There are some momentary recording blips. Sound (mono) is close but good.

The language-and-cuts issues make certain that this cannot be one’s only Don Carlos. This is an out-of-the-mainstream performance, but it is unforgettable. For the standard Italian four-act version (complete) you can choose Muti at La Scala (EMI) or Karajan at Salzburg (Sony). Muti is theatrical, Karajan is grandiose, sometimes inert. Franco Zeffirelli produced for Muti, inflated, no work with the singers; Karajan produced himself, inflated, static singers. Muti has Pavarotti and Ramey who give typically fine-sounding performances; Dessi and D’Intino are less glamorous vocally but more personal. Coni, the Rodrigo, is mediocre. For Karajan, Carreras, Ghiaurov, and Cappucilli are forceful but past their primes; the Elisabetta, Fiamma Izzo D’Amico, went nowhere, unsurprisingly, though she’s not a disaster. Baltsa is an exciting Eboli. Both DVDs offer stereo and better photography than Berlin.

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