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January 12, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

"What," you may ask, " another recording of Verdi's 'Don Carlo' "?

The question makes good surface sense.

Sir Georg Solti already recorded a persuasively turbulent performance of Verdi's brooding, poignant masterpiece, with Carlo Bergonzi as a hero of model sensitivity (London OSA 1432). Carlo Maria Giulini offered a slower, richer, more mellow alternative that inspired stellar vocalism from Placido Domingo, Montserrat Caballe and Sherrill Milnes (Angel SDL-3774). Herbert von Karajan struck a fine blow for studied suavity and orchestral brilliance in a Salzburg performance dominated by Piero Cappuccilli and Agnes Baltsa (Angel SZCX-3875).

Those undaunted by antiquated sonics still have reason, moreover, to cherish the erstwhile Cetra "Don Carlo" that preserved the tarnished but still resplendent interpretations of such recent golden-agers as Maria Caniglia and Ebe Stignani (now available on Turnabout THS-65054/6). Even better, for monaural marketeers, was Gabriele Santini's early-1950s version, which showcased Boris Christoff, Tito Gobbi and the then-ubiquitous Grand Inquisitor: Giulio Neri (Seraphim 6004).

No one claims the six crucial roles in the opera have always been perfectly cast. An unrealistic Verdian ideally might have wanted to match Solti's tenor with Giulini's soprano with Karajan's mezzo with Santini's baritone and basses. Each set has offered unique virtues, however, despite the inevitable yes-but s and what-if s.

It can be said that "Don Carlo" has fared well on recordings. "Don Carlo s " has not.

"What," you ask, "is in the s ?"


Although it has long been fashionable to ignore the fact, "Don Carlo" really isn't an Italian opera. It is a French opera--and a very grand French opera at that--written to a French text and first performed, as "Don Carlo s ," at the Paris Opera in 1867.

The long-awaited premiere, attended by the Empress Eugenie during the Exposition Universelle celebrations, was only a moderate success. Verdi had dared invade foreign territory to compete with the mighty Meyerbeer in the production of a huge, sprawling, spectacular, star-studded, five-act extravaganza, complete with lengthy ballet, mystical overtones, distinguished literary associations and a suitably tragic if ambiguous ending.

Paris resisted throwing itself at the Italian invader's feet. Even with drastic cuts made under duress before the premiere, the opera was deemed too long and too convoluted. It was also deemed too touchy in terms of the political implications of the libretto, and, in general, too damned serious. It stayed in the Paris repertory for a modest run of 43 performances, never to return in the same form or, for that matter, in the same language.

As was his realistic wont, Verdi revised the opera and then revised the revision. He accepted the necessity of an Italian translation. He made numerous internal cuts. He deleted the first act altogether, salvaging the tenor's only aria for the second act. He reworked certain scenes and simplified vocal lines. Then he reinstated the first act.

Most modern performances have adhered to the relatively slim four-act structure the composer arranged for Milan in 1884. This is the version Karajan recorded. This is the version performed in San Francisco and San Diego. This is the version that will be staged, in a fascinating modern production, by Michael Milenski's Long Beach Opera next month.

A few well-endowed, conscientious companies have ventured the "Don Carlo" Verdi fashioned for Modena in 1886. Essentially, it duplicates the 1884 Milan version, but it restores the original first act, in which the ardent hero encounters the troubled heroine in the forest of Fontainebleau.

For the new Deutsche Grammophon recording (415 316-1), Claudio Abbado--like Solti and Giulini before him--follows the generous structural outlines of the 1886 version. Abbado, however, takes some drastic additional steps in his quest for accuracy, historical authenticity and absolute completeness.

He reverts to the original French text, even though Verdi had reluctantly abandoned it by the time he came to Modena. Even more startling, Abbado appends, on the two final sides, six substantial episodes that Verdi had either cut prior to the Paris premiere or rewritten thereafter.

These original passages have never been recorded before. Some of them, in fact, were discovered only in 1969 and 1970, when musicologists David Rosen and Andrew Porter managed to unglue pages of actual 1867 manuscripts gathering dust in Paris.

The Abbado "Don Carlos," therefore, must not be judged merely as a potentially interesting addition to the Verdi discography. It stands as an unprecedented historical document. As such, it is of inestimable value to genuine scholars as well as to curious garden-variety music lovers.

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