Parma’s Tutto Verdi presentation of Don Carlo was sent up the road to the Teatro Comunale di Modena. I suppose this was appropriate as this opera has more versions than a tenors has phobias. But one of them is called the Modena Version, which obviously was the one presented here. It’s the 5 act opera in Italian rather than the original French.
Don Carlo is one of opera’s most profound works. Its depth of characterization, its musical grandeur, and Verdi’s astounding combination of craft and inspiration make it the grandest of grand operas. Despite its flawed ending and the lack of a definitive version, it is a landmark of Western art. The scene in the king’s apartment by itself would move this opera to the forefront of opera’s pantheon. Parenthetically, its starts just before dawn and all the principal characters in the opera appear in it, save Don Carlo. What were they all doing up at that time of day?
I approached this DVD with considerable reserve as I didn’t recognize a single member of the cast. So, unfairly, I thought it wouldn’t be very good. But I was completely wrong. The entire cast was up to the highest international standard. This degree of excellence is surprising as Don Carlo needs a first rate tenor, baritone, soprano, mezzo-soprano, and two basses. All showed up in this October 2012 staging of the opera.
Modena’s opera house is relatively small and Don Carlo is very big. Stage director Joseph Franconi Lee and set designer Alessandro Ciammarughi solved the problem by adapting big to small using sparse, but suggestive, sets combined with effective backdrops. The stage never appeared overly crowded, yet even the grand auto-da-fe scene was successful because they let Verdi’s great score carry the staging.
The title role is perhaps opera’s most neurasthenic leading part. Carlo is temperamentally unsuited to run a reading group, much less the Spanish Empire at its height. It obvious that Verdi and his librettists didn’t know what to do with him so they invoked a deus ex machina to get him off stage and thus allow the opera to end. Mario Malagnini is a veteran Italian tenor who has sung at most of the peninsula’s major houses. He was 54 at the time of this recording. He has a bright and well formed spinto voice. His main problem here, and likely the reason his fine voice hasn’t taken him to international renown, is that he seems diffident and uninvolved with what’s happening onstage. Vocally, he was up to all of his role’s challenges.
Callia Costea’s portray of the French princess forced to a loveless marriage was vivid and sympathetic. The Romanian soprano’s voice is secure and well placed over its entire range. She has a pleasant, if not rich sound. Her acting was affecting.
Princess Eboli is one of Verdi’s three great roles for a mezzo. Alla Pozniak has a formidable mezzo that produced the volume her part demands. My only criticism is that the Ukrainian singer’s high notes are sometimes shrill and forced.
Giacomo Prestia is a veteran Verdian. Filippo II is the greatest bass role in the Italian repertory. Prestia gave a vivid reading, aside from a tendency to wobble under vocal stress, of the aging monarch tormented by his declining vigor, his poor family situation, and the demands of an implacable church.
The Grand Inquisitor is a terrifying creature. His extended duet with the king is a miracle of invention. The confrontation is in Schiller’s play which is the basis for the libretto. The librettists wanted to omit it, but Verdi insisted on keeping it. A 10 minute duet for two basses? Only a genius could have made into a theatrical tour de force. Luciano Montanaro was tall, bald, and imposing as the nonagenarian fanatic who bends the king to his will.
I’ve saved the best for last. Simone Piazzola’s portrayal of the idealistic Rodrigo was vocally brilliant. The young baritone has a supple and beautiful timbre ideal for Verdi’s great baritone parts. Here are Per me giunto è il dì supremo and Rodrigo’s Death Scene from Act 4 scene 2. Piazzola who has already sung at La Scala seems ready to reach to top of the Verdi baritone ladder.
All Verdi’s operas need a sensitive and forceful conductor, but no one more than Don Carlo. Fabrizio Ventura more than met Verdi’s demands. His orchestra played with beauty and power as the story unfolded. Ventura clearly understood what was required. A powerful reading of a demanding score.
The secondary roles were all performed with skill. In summary, an excellent presentation of a true masterpiece. If you’re in the market for a video of Don Carlo, this one is highly recommended.
VERDI, G.: Don Carlo (Teatro Comunale di Modena, 2012)
Filippo II – Giacomo Prestia
Don Carlo – Mario Malagnini
Rodrigo – Simone Piazzola
Il Grande Inquisitore – Luciano Montanaro
Un frate – Paolo Buttol
Elisabetta di Valois – Callia Costea
La principessa Eboli – Alla Pozniak
Tebaldo – Irène Candelier
Il conte di Lerma – Giulio Pelligra
Un araldo reale – Marco Gaspari
Una voce dal cielo – Irène Candelier
Coro Lirico Amadeus – Teatro Comunale di Modena
(chorus master: Stefano Colò)
Orchestra Regionale dell’Emilia-Romagna
Fabrizio Ventura, conductor
Joseph Franconi Lee, stage director
Alessandro Ciammarughi, set and costume designer
Nevio Cavina, lighting designer
Marta Ferri, choreographer
Recorded live from Teatro Comunale “Luciano Pavarotti” di Modena, 15, 17, 19, 21 October 2012