VERDI: Don Carlos
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Great Opera Recordings
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Don Carlo (1884 version)
Libretto by Méry and Du Locle after Friedrich Schiller
Filippo II (Philip), King of Spain - Boris Christoff (bass)
Don Carlo, Infante of Spain - Mario Filippeschi (tenor)
Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa - Tito Gobbi (baritone)
The Grand Inquisitor - Giulio Neri (bass)
A Monk - Plinio Clabassi (bass)
Elisabetta di Valois (Elizabeth) - Antonietta Stella (soprano)
Princess Eboli - Elena Nicolai (mezzo-soprano)
Tebaldo, page to Elisabetta - Loretta di Lelio (soprano)
Count of Lerma - Paolo Caroli (tenor)
A Royal Herald - Paolo Caroli (tenor)
A Voice from Heaven - Orietta Moscucci (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opera House, Rome
(Giuseppe Conca, chorus master)
Gabriele Santini, conductor
It was during a visit to Paris in November 1865 that Verdi, then aged 52, was commissioned by the management of the Opéra to write a new five-act work with ballet music for that house. The commission was intended to be part of the 1867 Universal Exposition in that city. On returning home to Italy he set about obtaining clearance to use Schiller's drama as the basis for a libretto for an opera Don Carlos, to be undertaken by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle. Verdi soon started work on his new opera and completed the composition by August the following year. Rehearsals in Paris, however, were much delayed, not least by the death of Verdi's father in January 1867 and by the return of the composer to Italy for the funeral. Eventually the opera was given its première on 11 March in the presence of Emperor Napoléon III and his wife Empress Eugénie. Severe cuts, however, had had to be made to Verdi's original score as it was found to be in excess of four hours. Exhausted and frustrated by the whole affair, Verdi returned to Italy in poor health. The first Italian performance took place at the Teatro Comunale, Bologna in October that same year in an Italianised version.
During the early 1880s Verdi began to revise the opera with the help of his librettist for Aida, Ghislanzoni, into a four-act Italian-language version (but omitting the first act and the ballet music) and this was heard at La Scala, Milan, on 10 January 1884 in the translation by Achille de Lauzières and Angelo Zanardini. The omission of the first act from the original Paris version fails to explain the beginnings of the relationship between Elisabeth and Carlos.
A third version, put together by another hand but presumably sanctioned by Verdi, contained the 1884 Milan revision together with the discarded first act from the Paris version (translated into Italian): this was presented in Modena on 20 December 1886.
Despite Verdi's revisions the opera never really established itself in the general repertory. The work was performed on occasion in Italy and even in the United States. In Britain Beecham conducted a revival of the four-act version at Covent Garden in 1933 (the first time the opera had been heard there for 66 years) but the work and performances were deemed a failure. A new production was mounted by Sadler's Wells Opera in 1950 in an abridged version which again failed with the public and critics alike. The opening night of Rudolf Bing's intendancy at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in November 1950 brought forth a new production using the 1884 version, the results of which aroused new interest in the opera. The famous 1958 Visconti production for the centenary of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, was the first opportunity many British opera lovers had to savour the five-act version, albeit sung in Italian. Since then the full, original French 1867 version has been performed and recorded, thereby restoring and revealing the full magnificence of one of Verdi's very finest scores.
The message behind Schiller's huge drama greatly appealed to Verdi with his love of individual and national liberty and his loathing of ecclesiastical or political tyranny. Then there are six fascinating and intertwined characters set against church and state who determine the fate of three nations. The high point of the opera is the spectacular Meyerbeer-styled auto-da-fé scene in which miscreants were handed over to the secular powers for punishment, a spectacle beloved of Spanish crowds of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The whole scene conveys a vast and compelling drama in the manner of Meyerbeer. Further highlights include the powerful and stirring duet between Carlos and Rodrigo in Act 1 where they swear their friendship. In Act 3, there is one of Verdi's most dramatic scenes in which Philip, lamenting that his wife Elisabeth no longer loves him, is then visited by the Grand Inquisitor (the spiritual power) where the interplay and ever-increasing clash between the two characters is chilling and very real. It is the very unity of the Catholic faith that is at stake, not the death of an individual. Then there is the death of Carlos's friend Rodrigo (who had taken up the cause of the Dutch separists) in his prison cell, followed by the angered crowd set against Carlos before the king and Grand Inquisitor appear to quell the uproar. All concludes at the very end of the opera when the condemned Don Carlos is taken into the sanctuary of the church by an aged friar.
Writing to his publisher Giulio Ricordi when finishing the 1884 version, Verdi commented: "Brilliant as it is in form and noble sentiments, everything in this drama is false … The real Don Carlos was feeble-minded, choleric and unsympathetic. Elisabeth was never in love with Don Carlos. Posa is an imaginary character who never existed under the rule of Philip II. And Philip himself says: 'Beware of my Inquisitor', and 'who will give me this dead man back?' The real Philip was not so mild…In fact there is nothing really historical about this drama".
Despite Verdi's comments on his opera, Philip II of Spain (1529-98) was king of that country between the years 1556-98. From his father Charles V, Philip inherited Milan, Naples, Sicily, the Netherlands, Spain and its empire in the New World. He then married Mary I of England in 1554. A war with France was concluded in 1559 when he married, as his third wife, the fifteen-year-old Elisabeth de Valois (1545-1568). The revolt by the Protestants in the Netherlands began in 1566. Philip was a staunch defender of the Roman Catholic faith, so he launched an unsuccessful Armada in 1588 in order to crush the English who had sided with their fellow Protestants in Holland.
This 1954 recording was the first studio realisation of the four-act 1884 version and did much to introduce a wider public to the majesty of Verdi's score. When the recording was reviewed in The Gramophone in November 1955 it commented: "Gobbi goes from strength to strength … I say with due consideration that Rodrigo's noble death scene … elicits from this artist some of the loveliest baritone singing I have ever heard on record. With the cardinal rôles of the King and Posa thus