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Verdi: Don Carlos / King, Lorengar, Fischer-Dieskau, Sawallisch

Verdi / King / Lorengar / Fischer-dieskau
Release Date: 04/24/2012 
Label:  Arthaus Musik   Catalog #: 101621  
Composer:  Giuseppe Verdi
Performer:  James KingJosef GreindlPatricia JohnsonDietrich Fischer-Dieskau,   ... 
Conductor:  Wolfgang Sawallisch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Deutsche Oper ChorusBerlin Deutsche Oper Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

Giuseppe Verdi DON CARLOS
Don Carlos – James King
Elisabeth von Valois – Pilar Lorengar
Philipp II – Josef Greindl
Marchese von Posa – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Prinzessin Eboli – Patricia Johnson
Der Großinquisitor – Martti Talvela
Eine Engelsstimme – Lisa Otto
Page Elisabeths – Barbara Vogel
Der Graf von Lerma – Günther Treptow

Berlin Deutsche Opera Chorus and Orchestra
(chorus master: Walter Hagen-Groll)
Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor

Gustav Rudolf Sellner, stage director
Wilhelm Reinking, stage and costume designer

Recorded live from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1965

Picture format: NTSC
Read more 4:3
Sound format: PCM Mono
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian
Running time: 155 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9)

R E V I E W:


VERDI Don Carlos Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond, James King ( Don Carlos ); Pilar Lorengar ( Elisabeth de Valois ); Josef Greindl ( Philipp II ); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau ( Rodrigo ); Patricia Johnson ( Princess Eboli ); Martti Talvela ( Grand Inquisitor ); Ivan Sardi ( Monk ); Lisa Otto ( Heavenly Voice ); Barbara Vogel ( Tebaldo ); Günther Treptow ( Count of Lerma ); Deutsche Oper, Berlin Ch & O ARTHAUS 101 621 (DVD: 155:00)

I am writing this on May 28, on what would have been Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s 87th birthday, but now is the 10th day since his death. As a fanatical fan of his, this has hit me pretty hard, but not nearly as hard as the musical world in general. It is a bland truism but what with today’s recording industry, lack of ensemble opera companies, and ever-reducing avenues for performing Lieder , we will really never see his like again. He was a musician who genuinely could and (as this DVD proves) did do everything.

Although he is forever associated with Schubert, what many people don’t realize is that Fischer-Dieskau’s stage career began and ended with Verdi. From a trembly-voiced Rodrigo in 1948 to a vocally ravaged but committed Amonasro in 1983, he steadily worked his way through most of the major Verdi roles, garnering criticism and praise in equal measure for daring to sing Italian opera accurately and seriously without resorting to holding notes, or out-shouting his co-stars. In short, he was never Met material, yet although mistrusted as an opera singer in English-speaking countries, he seemed to earn the respect of Italian colleagues like Mario Rossi, Carlo Bergonzi, and even Pavarotti.

Fischer-Dieskau’s association with Verdi’s Schiller adaptation is a long one and in order to fully appreciate the historical importance of this 1965 film, you really also have to hear the 1948 Don Carlos, available on various labels, where wartorn Berlin cobbled together one established singer (Josef Greindl) with a shaky cast of unknowns, including a gawky, inexperienced baritone fresh out of an American POW camp. Moving as it is to hear the great man shout Schiller’s chilling line “Ghastly, ghastly peace; it is the peace of the graveyard” to Berlin’s impoverished audience, what is also remarkable is Ferenc Fricsay (again at the time, unknown) conducting an unusually complete version of the score, giving us not only an abridged Fontainebleau scene, but also the rarely performed duet for Eboli and Elisabeth.

By 1965, the Berlin wall is built, and for what tensions there were elsewhere, West Germany was on the up and the Deutsche Oper’s swish new Don Carlos confidently rejigged 1948’s new beginning for the television age. I feel sure that were it not for his death in 1963, Fricsay would have conducted here, but Greindl, now at his vocal twilight, and Fischer-Dieskau, at his absolute pinnacle, are back as warmonger and idealist, respectively, making up a starry if, for Verdi, unconventional cast. Disappointingly, Wolfgang Sawallisch and director Gustav Rudolf Sellner revert to the conventional four-act edition, with several further cuts including even the shorter oath duet. Not only does this reverse Fricsay’s trailbrazing efforts, it also robs Verdi’s drama of political and personal conflict of its already tentative coherence. However, what is remarkable is how Sellner manages to ditch the preposterous, supernatural ending that Verdi and his librettists inexplicably added, and so with the judicious removal of only a couple of lines, Don Carlos is arrested (rather than saved by the ghost of Charles V!) reverting neatly back to Schiller and giving the final words of the opera to the Grand Inquisitor.

Also of interest to today’s directors is how minimalist and almost stylized it all looks. Costumes are authentic, but the stark, lined floor and sparing use of décor wouldn’t look out of place today. Filmed in black and white, this all looks fetchingly expressionistic and modern. Peculiarly, though, rather than film a live performance with a couple of cameras in the auditorium, the performance has been recorded in the studio then dubbed to the singers’ acting in the theater without an audience. Sound effects are therefore clunky (the bells) or nonexistent (like when Rodrigo throws his knife down in the midnight garden scene), creating an artificial distance between what one sees and hears. With no audience to worry about, camera angles are daringly tight and varied and much effort is made to disguise the theatrical fourth wall, but what must have seemed an avant-garde, cinematic idea at the time looks hideously dated now. The camera blocking is way over-rehearsed and the cast, many of whom are fine live actors, take the television rule of looking past the camera rather to heart. They are very diligent, but what does come to mind unfortunately is Acorn Antiques. (U.S. readers may wish to check out the spoof soap-opera on YouTube to appreciate the reference.) The lip-synching is doggedly precise, but like the enthusiastic, theatrical acting, it responds badly to television’s unflinching gaze. I would much prefer the simpler and real live filming such as the 1961 Don Giovanni , also released in this Arthaus series.

But does any of this matter? No; simply being able to see these magnificent names just move is reason enough to snap this DVD up, and what one has to understand is that despite the language, there is (excepting one cast member) nothing Germanic about the actual singing. In fact it’s a rather international cast. Spaniard Pilar Lorengar delights with both her beauty and gleaming tone, and with that vibrato and slight edge to the voice, she really isn’t an unconvincing Verdi soprano, despite her renown in Mozart. Patricia Johnson (a sudden replacement for Mignon Dunn) is a more lyrical Eboli than usual, but her dark timbre and clean articulation are a lesson to today’s dramatic mezzos who make such heavy weather of Eboli’s dramatic music. Fischer-Dieskau is also in top form, freer and more buoyant than on his Italian recording with Solti. His legato, word coloring, and, dare I say, acting show up the faults of many a “proper” Italian baritone, with their unvarying timbre and stand-and-deliver movements. This Rodrigo knows his Schiller. Confronting him is Josef Greindl, in phenomenal shape for his age, and managing to sustain Verdi’s long lines with that huge by now husk of a voice. You can see his technique carry him through, but his world-weariness is very fitting for the king, and unlike any bass I hear today his giant, black tone remains consistent throughout his range, although even Greindl is nearly swallowed up vocally by that other colossus, Martti Talvela, whose inky liquid bass lends the Grand Inquisitor a real air of dignity and hidden malice. Only the American James King, as Carlos, comes from that cranked-up, guttural Wagnerian school, not that he’s unappealing, hideous wig aside. Again, ignore his clunky phrasing and find me a tenor today who sounds that robust, who has such clear diction, and such a ringing tone throughout his range. I am generally positive about today’s singers and abhor the rose-tinted view of so-called Golden Ages, but releases like this make me despair. This Berlin Don Carlos is essentially a regional cast, yet today it would take the top elite of singers (all with conflicting international schedules) to cast the same work to a similar standard. Where are today’s Greindls and Talvelas? Where in short is the abundance of bulletproof voices? Then there’s the no-nonsense conducting. There will be a temptation among other critics to call Wolfgang Sawallisch’s Verdi Teutonic and heavy, but what is so lightweight about, say, Giulini’s Don Carlos ? Recording companies may have typecast Sawallisch as a Wagner and Strauss specialist, but his long répétiteur training in various opera houses proves him here to be utterly fine and idiomatic in Verdi, with clean, precise work from both orchestra and chorus.

Since this is a historical release, don’t expect cutting-edge visuals. Pristine and cleaned up as the master tape clearly is, there’s a typical graininess and shadowing in the black-and-white camerawork. Sound is mono, but given its studio origins it is bright, clear, and, of course, free of audience coughs, although, as mentioned, this does lend it a rather artificial air. There are no extras, but for once Arthaus is asking a reasonable price for this niche curio, and it makes me eager to find out what else is coming out of Berlin’s fabulous archive in this series. I for one would love to see Götz Friedrich’s Die tote Stadt (with James King and Karan Armstrong), or maybe that televised Lulu with Evelyn Lear and Fischer-Dieskau.

Now of course, there’s no way this could be recommended as a first-choice Don Carlos on DVD. It’s in German and is a butchered version of the already incomplete four-act edition. The obvious choice is Antonio Pappano, who conducts both the original French score (Warner 1996) and, more recently at Covent Garden, the final Italian reworking (EMI 2010). Both are very fine, especially the French version with Karita Mattila’s carnal, guilt-ridden queen and José van Dam’s haunted, broken Philip, but the better five-act Italian Don Carlo would be Covent Garden’s lavish Visconti revival, conducted by Bernard Haitink, with an extraordinary Elisabeth in Ileana Cotrubas. This gives you a satisfying contrast of Luc Bondy’s minimalism with Visconti’s obsessive opulence, but then, not buying this fascinating but flawed German film would be to deny oneself not only Sellner’s impressive staging and innovative return to Schiller’s ending, but also some of the best singing, in German or otherwise, to be heard in Verdi. If you want my advice, you’re going to have to buy three DVDs of Don Carlos , aren’t you?

FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield
Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Sound format: PCM Mono
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian
Running time: 155 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9) Read less

Works on This Recording

Don Carlos by Giuseppe Verdi
Performer:  James King (Tenor), Josef Greindl (Bass), Patricia Johnson (Mezzo Soprano),
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone), Martti Talvela (Bass), Pilar Lorengar (Soprano)
Conductor:  Wolfgang Sawallisch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus,  Berlin Deutsche Oper Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1867/1886 
Date of Recording: 1965 

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