Don Carlo

Giuseppe Verdi
Salzburg Festival

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Fiamma Izzo D'amico (Elisabetta) and Jose Carreras (Carlo) Credit: Salzburg Festival
Jose Carreras (Carlo) and Piero Cappuccilli (Rodrigo) Credit: Salzburg Festival
Agnes Baltsa (Eboli) Credit: Salzburg Festival
Jose Carreras (Carlo) Credit: Salzburg Festival

With so many recordings of Verdi's masterpiece on DVD and BluRay to choose from, this performance from the Salzburg Festival of 1986 would need to make a particular claim for preference, given the poor video quality of the time.

It has its virtues: the singers are in fine voice, the period costumes are fit for a royal court, and the young soprano Fiamma Izzo D’Amico looks stunningly beautiful as Elisabetta. The sets are large and fill the wide stage, the auto-da-fe is effectively presented and the video enhances the confrontation of Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, the camera angle making the king seem dwarfed by the priest.

Agnes Baltsa as Princess Eboli is the stand-out performer. Her every appearance is electric; she exudes spite in plotting against the queen, then pours out remorse at her betrayal. The garden song "Nel giardin del bello" brings out the delicious dark tones of her mezzo, although the dirge-like tempo of conductor Herbert von Karajan here and elsewhere reduces the momentum to a plod.

Farruccio Furlanetto is imperious in what was to become a signature role as Philip, with the reliable Matti Salminen as the Inquisitor. Piero Cappuccilli, aged 59 at the time, is not as powerful as when in his prime, but sings the role of Rodrigo as smoothly as ever, and is as dramatically imposing as his static stage positioning allows.

Therein lies the problem. Karajan is his own director, and it seems as if most of the conductor’s energy has been expended on the singers' vocal performances, while they have been largely left to their own dramatic devices.

A critical weakness that arises as a result is the complete lack of intimacy between the principal characters, Jose Carreras as Carlo and D’Amico’s Queen.

In this immobile production, their eyes almost never meet. Carreras sings impeccably but seems unengaged, too diffident for a prince ready to defy his father for love and freedom.

There is a feeling of unease, rather than passion, between the couple, matched by the permanently pained expression on the face of d’Amico. She sings sweetly and tenderly, but remains unanimated throughout, even when her confidante, Katharina Schuchter’s Countess Aremberg, is sent into exile.

Karajan omits the first act in the forest of Fontainebleau, the events of which help explain those that follow. This was not unusual at the time, but I can think of no good reason not to prefer a full five-act version if buying a recording.

Understanding is not helped when the subtitles show Eboli’s mistaken outburst that Carlo might be in love with her while the film continues to show Elisabetta. Those subtitles do not come up automatically in the first place, and can only be found by pressing play then going through the direct navigation button on a remote control.

A more astonishing cut is the assassination of Posa, who is hale and hearty one moment, then a moment later, untouched by weapon or man, tells Carlo he is mortally wounded.

For a traditional version of Verdi’s masterpiece, I’d recommend Bernard Haitink with Luchino Visconti’s production at Covent Garden in 1985 (Opus Arte), although video quality is no better than this Salzburg recording. More recent, slightly stylised recordings include two conducted by Antonio Pappano with a dream cast of Roberto Alagna and Karita Mattila for the Chatelet, Paris in 1996 (NVC Arts) or the Nicholas Hytner production for Covent Garden in 2007 (EMI). All include the first act omitted by Karajan.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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