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Don Carlos
25 Aug 2006

VERDI: Don Carlos and Don Carlo

Had Plato been a 19th century opera fan, would the philosopher have been so sure that there exists an ideal version of each and every opera, in the way that all chairs come from one immutable concept of "chair"?

Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlos

Joseph Rouleau (Philip II), Andre Turp (Don Carlos), Robert Savoie (Rodrigue), Richard Van Allan (The Grand Inquisitor), Robert Lloyd (A Monk), Edith Tremblay (Elisabeth de Valois), Michelle Vilma (Princes Eboli), Gilian Knight (Thibault), Emile Belcourt (Le Comte de Lerme), Geoffrey Shovelton (A Royal Herald), Prudence Lloyd (A voice from Heaven); BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Matheson (cond.).

Opera Rara ORCV305 [4CDs]

$83.99  Click to buy

The vagaries of putting on new operas meant cuts and additions, transpositions and rescorings, and even translations. Can there be a true, original performing edition?

Well, the Platonists at Opera Rara feel they have the Don Carlos that composer Giuseppe Verdi intended: five acts, in the original French, and with all the music composed before rehearsals revealed the opera was over-long. Don Carlo, the later Italian version in four acts, has dominated the performance history since the opera found new popularity post-WWII. But the French original has enjoyed a resurgence, in particular with an outstanding production captured on DVD, with Antonio Pappano conducting Roberto Alagna, Karita Mattila, Jose van Dam, Waltraud Meier, and Thomas Hampson.

The recent Opera Rara set comes from an early 1970s' series of BBC radio broadcasts of early versions of Verdi's works. MacBeth, Les Vespres Siciliennes, La Forza del Destino, and Simon Boccanegra have already been released. The deluxe packaging, typical of Opera Rara, is spread over four CDs, each illustrated with a historical portrait of a main character (Posa does not make the cut). The ample size of the booklet is somewhat deceptive. Because of large print, the synopsis and libretto ( in four languages) take up over 250 pages. An Andrew Porter essay covers the relevant issues of the performing edition. Strangely, and sadly, no performer biographies are included.

At the substantial cost Opera Rara asks, the purchases receives a very satisfying performance, recorded live before a small audience in acceptable if not first-class sound. The leads are French-speakers, and the BBC Concert orchestra, under John Matheson's leadership, sound impassioned and idiomatic. The women impress the most. Edith Tremblay's Elisabeth meets the role's challenges and captures both the beauty and pathos of her character. With a hint of the great Dolora Zajick in her husky voice, Michelle Vilma sings a fine Princess Eboli. Although some strain at the top never quite disappears, Andre Turp's Don Carlos manages to be more of a put-upon hero than the annoying whiner the character can and has become with some other performers. Joseph Rouleau is a satisfactory Philip II, but Robert Savoie's Rodrigue has too much roughness where strength is needed.

As for the additions, they are mostly brief, except for an extended postlude to Rodrigue's death that Verdi later reshaped into part of his Requiem. When San Francisco Opera used the French version a few seasons back, this section was included. Although lovely, it also holds up the action as the opera is building to its climax. Sometimes the dramatic instincts of a composer are best honored by understanding the reasoning behind certain cuts.

In any event, for all but the most dedicated Verdi completists, that excellent Don Carlos DVD, at about half the cost of this Opera Rara set, will provide more reward, with its fine cast not only singing but acting at a high level, in a handsome and thoughtful production.

Naxos, in the meanwhile, has released a highlights disc from a complete Don Carlo recorded at the Royal Swedish opera between December 1999 and January 2000. Sadly, the only highlight here is a Rodrigo, in the person of Peter Mattei, leagues beyond Opera Rara's Rodrigue. Lars Cleveman struggles as Don Carlos, and the other leads perform seemingly at the limit of their abilities. Alberto Hold-Garrido gets an acceptable performance from the RSO orchestra, but there is too much competition from great recordings of the Italian version for this to be of much interest to anyone, despite the budget cost.

If this opera hasn't entered one's collection in any language, the recommendation here would be the Pappano DVD for Don Carlos and the Giulini CD set for Don Carlo.

Chris Mullins

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