Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)
Don Carlo (1884)
Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass) Philip II
José Carreras (tenor) Don Carlo
Piero Cappuccilli (baritone) Rodrigo
Matti Salminen (bass) The Grand Inquisitor
Franco De Grandis (bass) A Monk
Fiamma Izzo D’Amico (soprano) Elizabeth of Valois
Agnes Baltsa (mezzo) The Princess Eboli
Choirs of Bulgarian National Opera, Sofia, Salzburg Concert Choir and Vienna State Opera Chorus
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. live, March 1986 Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Produced and directed by Herbert Von Karajan
C Major 761604 Blu-ray [178]

This is the latest in a series of Blu-ray reissues of Herbert von Karajan’s Sony video legacy by C Major. This one is the first that notes that the original image data has been edited with an AI-based super-resolution technology, developed by Sony Corporation, that attempts to restore lost resolution of older material. The picture certainly does look very vivid and except for some grain visible in the backgrounds, this is most definitely an improvement over the previous DVD releases of this event (review ~ review).

Herbert von Karajan took a broad view of Don Carlo. In the excellent booklet notes to the live CD set of the 1979 Vienna production on Orfeo, Austrian music critic Karl Löbl writes, “Karajan wanted a concentrated version. The confrontations between Carlos, Phillip, Posa, and Eboli interested him as a musician and director more than the love between Carlos and Elisabeth.” He uses the 1884 Milan version of the score which dispenses with the opening Fontainebleau Act, then unfortunately he goes on to wield a very heavy cleaver to that score. Nearly every aria has only one verse and huge sections are also cut from the duets between Elisabeth and Carlo. Most criminally, he excises a huge section from the middle of Tu che le vanita, one of the most important scenes in the opera. All of Karajan’s cuts destroy Verdi and Du Locle’s very carefully balanced public versus private balance. It is what drives forward this drama which is painted on a huge canvas. Karajan’s cuts simply take the heart out of this story.

As a director, von Karajan mostly acts as a traffic director. This is not a bad thing, as he gets everything right from a motivational standpoint, and he does not get in the way of the singer’s attempts to convey the human side of their roles. The large expanse of the Salzburg stage contributes to a very affecting scene for the Flemish deputies as their isolation from the rest of the auto-da-fe crowd is clearly conveyed. There are some particularly splendid and expansive sets by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, and the costumes of Georges Wakhevitch are richly adorned and look quite authentic.

The cast for this revival was a particularly strong one. José Carreras could have been born to sing the role of the doomed prince. His soulful Spanish looks are absolutely convincing and his acting is less wooden than he sometimes appeared to be on stage. Vocally, he is in very good shape, although his voice does not retain the full youthful bloom of his earlier recordings. Still, it is a very satisfying portrayal all around and a near match for Luis Lima’s equally splendid performance on the Royal Opera version from roughly the same period (review). After years of Mirella Freni singing the role of Elisabeth de Valois, for this run, Karajan recruited a young singer, Fiamma Izzo D’Amico, who was just beginning her all too brief rise to international stardom. She had sung an impressive Micaela for Karajan’s Easter Festival the year before and returned to Salzburg for this much larger role. Her voice is fresh with a lovely body to the tone. The role of Elisabeth is about a half size too large for her, but the constant burnished beauty of her tone is a joy to hear. Where she falls down is on the dramatic side. Her portrayal of Elisabeth lacks piquancy, too often her deportment is reserved and placid, although she does improve somewhat in Acts Three and Four. Her singing career was much too short, a point that is reinforced when one hears her exquisite phrasing of the little solo that concludes the Act One duet. In this video we have what is probably the best document of her career.

Hovering around the two central singers is a crackerjack cast of star singers. Piero Cappuccilli’s Posa is much too dour looking throughout, but the liquid golden tone that pours from his vocal cords is pure magic. One only wishes that he would add a little more light and shade to his singing. Light and shade are just what makes Ferruccio Furlanetto’s King Phillip such a masterful portrayal. I much prefer his touchingly troubled King to Nicolai Ghiaurov’s crustier looking and sounding King Phillip for James Levine. The only drawback for Furlanetto is that he looks much too youthful for the role. However; after hearing his deeply moving account of Ella giammai mamo I can forgive just about anything. Agnes Baltsa is an utterly commanding Princess Eboli, inhabiting the difficult role completely. Vocally, she is absolutely overwhelming, even when a little huskiness creeps into her voice for a brief moment during O don fatale. Matti Salmimen’s rock solid tone is very apt for the Grand Inquisitor and it is sufficiently different in sound that his scene with King Phillip is utterly riveting as the two basses hurl their impressive voices around at one another. The smaller roles are all well taken including a fairly impressive Monk from the young Franco De Grandis.

The sound on this release is quite spectacular for its time and mercifully there is virtually none of the annoying twiddling of dynamics that so badly infects virtually all of von Karajan’s studio recordings from the 1970’s and 1980’s. I find most of his commercial sets very hard to listen too now because of this. Someone really ought to have given him a stern talking to at the time. If only he could have been persuaded not to inflict so many disastrous cuts on this score, this might well have stood as a Don Carlo for the ages.

Mike Parr

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Additional cast members
Antonella Bandelli (mezzo) A Voice from on High
Horst Nitsche (bass) The Count of Lerma
Volker Horn (tenor) A Royal Herald
Natale de Carolis (bass baritone) A Flemish Deputy
Noel Ramirez (tenor) A Flemish Deputy
Petteri Salomaa (bass) A Flemish Deputy
Roberto Servile (bass) A Flemish Deputy
Goran Simic (bass) A Flemish Deputy
Alfred Sramek (baritone) A Flemish Deputy

Production details
Sets – Gunther Schneider-Siemssen.
Costumes – Georges Wakhevitch
Chorus Master – Walter Hagen Groll
Video details
Region code: all regions
Picture format: 1080i; 4:3
Sound format DTS Master Audio 5.1/ PCM stereo 2.0
Sung in Italian; subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish,Korean
Booklet notes: English; German; French