Thursday, December 6, 2012

Don Carlo: In Spite of the Director

Baltsa & Carerras
(not from Don Carlo)
I will probably go to music hell for this, but whoever told Herbert Von Karajan, “Sure! Go ahead and do the staging! You’re a conducting god, and I am sure you will be a directing god, too,” should be shot.  But, I guess since it was his Festival, he could do whatever he wanted. And this 1986 Don Carlo does preserve some marvelous singing. HvK could certainly pick the super-singers! It’s a good thing, because beyond the singing, there is a lot left to be desired from this performance.

Since this is opera, I guess I shouldn't complain about such close attention to musical values. However, I do notice a lot more looking at the conductor than I have seen in other opera performances. Of course, I would not be the one who missed one of Von Karajan's cues! But this does betray some of the drama. Don Carlo (Jose Carreras) and Rodrigo (Piero Cappuccilli) are pledging eternal devotion to each other, and hmm…they’re not looking at each other…they don’t seem to be looking at the conductor…they’re just… staring off into space. They sound wonderful, but they look like sticks. Well they are better looking than sticks, but I think the sticks could do a better job of showing emotion.

The chorus(es—there are three credited) do good stick impersonations, too. When Don Carlo draws his sword on the King, the best they can do is look slightly less bored than they did the moment before. The rats in Neuenfels’ Lohengrin have way more personality than this gang.

Things get better after the first scene. Maybe one of them (tenor, baritone, or conductor) was afraid they might seem gay if they showed any real emotion to one another? ….Carreras sounds a bit strained, but it's common opinion that he was taking on roles that were too heavy for his voice. He seems way more focused on singing than on acting.  

Capuccilli finally turns on some charm with Agnes Baltsa, who is great as a beautiful psycho-bitch. Baltsa is awesome, both vocally and dramatically. She knocks O don fatale out of the park (even adding in an awesome choked-off scream in the middle). (Unfortunately I don't have a clip of that aria yet, but I am working on it. My video-ripping software updated itself and I have to relearn how to use it.)

At the end of this (awesome) clip is that curtain call
I mentioned the other day.

Furlenetto is handsome as always, and strong of voice.  (He also is an amusing Leporello to Samuel Ramey’s Don Giovanni in the Karajan “Legacy Home Video.” Not staged by Karajan, but also an example of awesome singers in a lame staging.) This was one of his first appearances on the Salzburg stage, and apparently his "big break." His lament was touching and convincing, even if, in close up, he’s way too young and handsome to be giving up. (How old is the King supposed to be?)

Ferruccio don't need no stinkin' director
(but he's keepin' a careful eye on HvK.)

Fiamma Izzo D’Amico is a stick figure, too. Granted, she is a beautiful stick figure with a gorgeous voice, but I’ve seen more emotion from a loaf of bread. She was very young when Karajan picked her as his next soprano diva—only 22 at the time of this performance. Is her terrible acting due to lack of experience, her youth, fear, awe, or being intimidated by Karajan and all the top-notch singers? (Choose all that apply.) Anyway, she looks really uncomfortable and rarely looks at anyone else on stage. The final scene with Don Carlo seems more like a chat about the weather, or maybe he's telling her he will be late for dinner. I am afraid this video may be evidence of why we didn’t hear too much about D’Amico after the mid 80s. 
(Watching it again, I wonder if she was just thrown into the deep end too soon. It would be hard to say no to HvK if he wanted to star you in his opera production. Perhaps with more nurturing and training, she could have developed some stage presence. Dang it, now I feel kinda sorry for her; she really does look scared. At the final curtain calls she looks like she might just be sick and or faint on the spot! A scared diva with an angelic voice!)
Maybe a better stage director could have helped.

This is the four-act, Italian version of Don Carlo (Carlos). I shied away from this opera for a long time—paralyzed by all the alternatives. Which one should be my first? Four acts, five acts? Italian? French? Oy! Maybe I should stick with Traviata. But I am glad I finally took the plunge. This music is wonderful, and frankly, with the picture turned off, so is this performance. (And the disc is reasonably priced—even new.) Now I'm looking forward to exploring other performances of other versions.


  1. Spot-on review. Not sure why they didn't just elect to do a concert version, as the staging is godawful even by 80's standards. As for saying no to HvK, iirc there was at least one prominent critic at the time who thought him responsible for wrecking Carreras' voice on this role.

    1. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your feedback. I think this was taped shortly before Carreras became seriously ill. His vocal woes serve as a sad warning to young tenors (and all singers): stick to your fach, or at least stray with great caution!

  2. I've avoided all 4 act versions of what I consider Verdi's greatest opera--yes, I revere Otello and Falstaff but the grandeur of DC is so enticing that I confess to opting for it more often that the last two masterpieces. My first recording was the EMI with Christof and Gobbi whose combined artistry justify even this abbreviated version. Fillipeschi is dreadful, Stella adequate and Nicolai OK. I know the Cetra came out about the same time, was more complete but the aging Caniglia was too great a liability. DGG came out with a five act version but had a very short shelf life. Finally Solti and Giulini gave us the Modena version and then Abbado gave us every note in horrible French. Outside of Domingo the singing was OK, nothing more. Why HvK and Muti opted for four act versions is beyond me, especially the latter. HvK was even worse than Karl Bohm when it came to cutting. At least he didn't cut anythimg out of the Falstaff, but he did even further cutting in his second Rosenkavalier. Carreras was considered "light" voiced but Vienna did cast Vargas in a full length version in French; he acquitted himself admirably as did the young Alagna in the Chatelet edition--my particular favorite except that they omitted the opening chorus which the Met had been doing for years. HvK's productions (those that have been memorialzed on tape/dvd) have all come under attack. I don't think Carreras ruined his voice in this production; afterall there is a Scala Forza years before this DC and the tenor doesn't hold back. And I would opt that DC is less challenging vocally than Don Alvaro. Karajan did his soprano no favors. She was too young too inexperienced and even though EMI issued a solo recital disc she faded quickly. Late Karajan does thia conductor no favors; I can't think of one thing he recorded in the late years that wasn't inferior to the earlier works recorded for Legge and EMI. He may not have directed the DG but it is bordering on boring, heavy and Germanic. Too bad as there were some great singers in the cast.

    1. Hi David, thanks for your feedback. I just noticed this afternoon that I have that Falstaff still sealed. I mostly got it for Christa Ludwig. At least these Karajan Legacy discs are reasonably priced. I have that Rosenkavalier somewhere too.

      I appreciate your overview of DCs too, I will have to check out the Alagna version. I also have seen bits of the (Italian) 5 act with Harteros and Kaufmann--I want to try to find a copy of that whole performance.

      I AM glad though, that I have this DC for Furlanetto and particularly Baltsa; I forgot how good she was/is.

    2. The Alagna version is the Luc Bondy production, which has its moments, I guess. But its primary interest is as a composite of older versions of the score, so it'll sound a lot different from pretty much any other recording. It's kind of a fun listen, if only to hear what Verdi ended up tweaking to get things perfect.

    3. I am reading a book called "Scholars and Divas" by Philip Gosset, which chronicles the genesis and metamorphoses of Italian operas and advises on editions. The text alternates between fascinating and tediously technical (and I can handle a lot of technical before tedium sets in!) I've gotten through Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and I am looking forward to Verdi. I'm sure there will be a lot on Don Carlo!

      I guess I might as well give up right now on finding THE Don Carlo and start exploring the infinite variations!

      Thanks again for your comments!

  3. Rob, if you want every note that Verdi wrote for DC get the Vienna State Opera set with Vargas. Konwitschny's (sp?) production is in- appropriate for French Grand Opera--too penny plain, and the singing is a mixed bag. The Georgian soprano Tamar manages to mangle the text (French is obviously not her strength) and Alastair Miles is charisma free as PHilip but can sing the music. The German singer Nadja Michaels is the Eboli. She is not the train wreck that her Lady Macbeth was at the Met, but she is far from ideal. Vargas is surprisingly good. His French is the equivalent to Domingo's--which is to say he tries. The ballet is a hoot and I won't try to describe it. And the auto da fe is "unique". Ultimately I still reach for the Chatelet set and now that I have Scotto's it is my second choice even if it is in Italian and the Roumanian tenor (can't remember his name) is not the disaster that some of the Met's short term tenors. I think the Dexter production is far superior to the current Hytner.

    1. Hi David, I don't need EVERY note, but I AM interested in the variations. Thanks for the info! :)


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