3 'Don Carlos': long, short, essential

April 03, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Verdi, "Don Carlo." Performed by Ferruccio Furlanetto (Filippo II), Michael Sylvester (Don Carlo), Vladimir Chernov (Rodrigo), Samuel Ramey (Il Grande Inquisitore), Aprile Millo (Elisabetta di Valois), Dolora Zajick (La Principessa Eboli), and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, James Levine conducting (Sony Classical S3K 52 500). "Don Carlo." Performed by Samuel Ramey (Filippo II), Luciano Pavarotti (Don Carlo), Paolo Coni (Rodrigo), Alexander Anisimov (Il Grande Inquisitore), Daniela Dessi (Elisabetta di Valois), Luciana d'Intino (La Principessa Eboli) and the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Riccardo Muti conducting (EMI Classics CDS 7 54867 2). "Don Carlo." Performed by Boris Christoff (Filippo II), Mario Filippeschi (Don Carlo), Tito Gobbi (Rodrigo), Giulio Neri (Il Grande Inquisitore), Antonietta Stella (Elisabetta di Valois), Elena Nicolai (La Principessa Eboli), and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Rome Opera, Gabriele Santini conducting (EMI Classics CDMC 7 64642 2).

The two recent recordings here -- Levine's studio version with forces from the Met and Muti's live one from La Scala -- compete in more than the usual way. While each is sung in Italian, Levine's presents the five-act version heard in Paris in 1867, along with the composer's 1886-1887 revisions. Muti's is the considerably shorter, four-act version the composer made for La Scala in 1884.

For this listener, there is no choice -- at least dramatically. Shorn of the first act, as the Scala version is, "Don Carlo" makes little dramatic sense. What may recommend this version to many listeners is that it is the edition of "Don Carlo" we hear in most opera houses.

Muti's conducting is generally exciting and sometimes, as it is in Philip's great monologue, subtle and affecting. He has a fine cast that is especially strong in its women, particularly the Eboli of d'Intino, who outshines Zajick on Levine's recording. Muti's men, however, are generally not as strong as Levine's. Pavarotti's voice is not as youthful-sounding as Sylvester's; Ramey as Filippo II, while distinguished and perhaps more vocally gifted than Furlanetto, doesn't get inside the character's head the way the Italian basso does; and while Coni is a fine Rodrigo, his baritone is no match for Chernov's beautiful instrument.

Levine is at least as exciting and insightful as Muti, and he has the better orchestra. But neither of these performances stands up to Giulini's classic 1971 performance (EMI Classics CDS 7 47701 8). In one of the greatest recordings of an opera ever made, Giulini leads the piece with incredible grandeur, coherence and note-to-note tensile strength that none of his rivals can match. He also has what is the strongest overall cast: the experienced Shirley Verrett as a vibrant Eboli, the glorious-sounding Montserrat Caballe as Elisabetta, and Sherill Milnes as Rodrigo and Placido Domingo in the first flush of youthful power and beauty as Carlo. Ruggero Raimondi (Filippo II) and Giovanni Foianni (the Inquisitor) seem merely capable only by contrast with such stellar colleagues.

Another recording worth having is EMI's reissue of a 1954 production that hit grand slams in three of the four lead male roles -- Christoff's Filippo II, Gobbi's Rodrigo and Neri's Inquisitor. More than anyone else, Christoff is able to convince us that Filippo II is a human being who cannot sleep at night because he is torn apart by the conflicts between his public and private personae. And the great Bulgarian basso has a formidable antagonist in the Inquisitor of Neri -- a basso with a voice as dark as Judgment Day and with extraordinary insight into this terrifying role.

Gobbi's Rodrigo is in a class by itself. He does not have the youthful brilliance Milnes exhibited in 1971, but his ability to suggest a real person on the road from ordinary humanity to a state of grace makes other recorded Rodrigos seem almost insignificant. Santini's conducting and the singing of the other // NTC principals is never less than passable, but these three performances make this recording essential to anyone who loves "Don Carlo."

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