Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A vivid Don Carlo at long last issued in definitive (read "legal") form

The German "live performance" label Orfeo d'Or (not to be confused with the dreadful "Opera d'Oro" from which it couldn't be more dissimilar, and on which this performance was also issued, adding to the confusion), recently issued this 1970 Don Carlo from Vienna. It had previously seen the light of day on various private labels, but these CD's appear to have been dubbed from the original ORTF tapes--the sound is magnificent, one of the best-sounding live performances it's ever been my privilege to hear. It's in genuine stereo, and for once it really enhances the recording's live ambiance, bringing the soundstage forth with great immediacy and realism. This also may be the most realistic recording of the voice of Franco Corelli, though unfortunately it captures him a few years past his prime.

Horst Stein's conducting is superb--Germanic conductors seem to have a "thing" for this score. (It was Karajan's best Verdi opera, IMO.) Corelli is nearing the end. The voice still has plenty of bite and ring, but seems to have lost fullness and some of the dark-hued timbre of yore. (He obviously sensed this when he began to gravitate toward lighter roles in the last few years of his career.) Still, in the duet with his Elisabetta, Gundula Janowitz, he nearly stops the show with his "O maledetto io son!" For her part, Janowitz makes for a better Verdi soprano than one would expect, with more fullness in the middle and a dark edge to the tone--there's only a hint of chest voice, however, and it shows in the big duet with Corelli, where the music fits *him* like a glove. Eberhard W├Ąchter (Posa) is at that stage of his career where he's beginning to lose steadiness, which causes his singing to be a bit more loosely-bound than ideal. As Eboli, Shirley Verrett's Veil Song and "O don fatale" are both magnificent, as is Nicolai Ghiaurov's Filippo--thriling not only in his great aria, but in the scene with the Grand Inquisitor, no less than the superb Finnish bass, Martti Talvela.

This is a much livelier affair than the best-known studio set, the roughly contemporaneous Giulini, and would be up there among my favorite Don Carlo sets (of which my absolute favorite is my off-the-air tape of the '76 Karajan Salzburg performancem with Carreras, Freni, Cossotto, Cappuccilli, Ghiaurov, and Bastin), if it weren't for the big hole where the role of Posa/Rodrigo should be. Insert, say, Cappuccilli or Milnes into that slot, and you've got it. The big surprise is Horst Stein. Who knew? The Vienna Philharmonic plays as stunningly as one would expect, however.

The sound is really grand, in every way the equal of Karajan's live '58 Salzburg performance on DG (mono only). Not without a blemish, but an exciting, entertaining night of opera to be sure. Recommended.