Verdi: Don Carlo / Chailly, Lloyd, Villazon, Roocroft, Et Al

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SUBTITLES: English/French/German/Spanish/Italian/Dutch

Robert Lloyd, Rolando Villazón, Amanda Roocroft, Dwayne Croft, Jaakko Ryhänen, Giorgio Giuseppini, Violeta Urmana
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / De Nederlandse Opera Chorus
Riccardo Chailly / Stage Director Willy Decker

*Illustrated Synopsis and Cast Gallery. *Introduction to the opera including interviews with Robert Lloyd, Rolando Villazón, Amanda Roocroft, Violeta Urmana, Riccardo Chailly and Willy Decker.

In this majestic production of Verdi’s Don Carlo, Riccardo Chailly’s qualities as a Verdi conductor are brilliantly displayed in the dramatic precision and transparent instrumental detail he draws from both orchestra and cast. Willy Decker directs a wonderful piece of stagecraft, letting the tragedy unwind with minimal, yet telling, interventions.

The drama takes place in the mausoleum of Filippo II’s Escorial, where the tombs of countless generations of Spanish royalty line the walls. Filippo’s confrontation with Il grande inquisitore – which takes place over his own coffin, its resting place in the wall ready and waiting – is chillingly symbolic, as are the feet of the giant crucifix that hangs over Don Carlo as he sees his life sacrificed by his father.


This Don Carlo uses the four-act version of 1884, which is described in an interview extra on the first DVD as intended by Verdi to be more comprehensible than the original five-act version. That is debatable, to say the least, since the composer’s stated reasons for producing that revision (the third of four) were to make its length more manageable on stage and to improve the relation of music and text. Like many another fan of Don Carlo , I admit to a strong affection for both of the two longer editions: the 1867 French version and the 1886 Modena one (or “1884 with many of the great French bits stuck back in”). But that’s for listening, when the more late Verdi you’ve got, the better matters get, and you can take breaks at will for as long as you wish. If it comes to viewing a performance of Don Carlo , the wear-and-tear on the soloists has to be taken into account; and I’m more than willing to watch the 1884 edition.

So this Don Carlo lacks the monumental length that some critics (ignoring developments north of the Alps) complained about when the original French version of the opera appeared. But what is not done musically and temporally, stage designer Willy Decker accomplished here visually and vertically. His re-envisioned Crypt of the Kings in El Escorial features a huge, circular stone vault, with square, identical slate-colored wall plates piled seven high and 12 long to mark the burial slots of previous rulers. Towards the back of the stage is the lower shaft of an enormous cross: Christ’s down-turned toe is 12 feet above the singers, while the knee of the carved figure, at the top of the stage, is perhaps another 12 feet above. This unholy alliance of the Bauhaus and Symbolism is intended to convey the harsh, impersonal nature of religion at the royal court and the way in which it dwarfs the personality and reforming ambitions of Don Carlo. It succeeds beautifully, and remains the centerpiece of the production with the addition of minimal props.

While Decker’s visuals are impressive and his blocking effective, I’m less thrilled with his attempts at dramatic reinterpretation. For example, there’s an elaborate dumb show in the opening orchestral prelude of Philip II’s abusing Don Carlo to enforce religious conformity. When the latter attempts to kiss his father’s ring, Philip grabs Don Carlo’s hand in a painful, pincerlike grip, forcing the boy instead to slowly cross himself. Shortly afterwards, Don Carlo is grasped by the back of the neck and pushed down to the ground before the huge cross already discussed. This muddles matters right at the start by placing one of the opera’s victims, Philip, in the role of its only victor, the Grand Inquisitor. Who is the enforcer of dogma at the court and who bows his will to that dogma in the end?

The cast is variable, but generally very fine. Roberto Villazón is exceptional as Don Carlo, with just the right mix of lustrous metal in his attractively light tenor. His is also one of the most detailed assumptions of the title role, attentive to score markings and giving us the half-mad prince with poor impulse control in all his glory. Dwayne Croft is his match, using his lyrical baritone and fine phrasing to great effect (for example) at the start of the act III quartet. Robert Lloyd’s Philip II suffers at this stage of his career from a slight beat whenever he puts significant pressure on the voice, though he manages this by discreetly shortening some phrases. His Philip remains a shrewdly judged assumption of the role, more impressive for the sum of its parts than specific moments.

Amanda Roocroft may have been under the weather when they filmed this live performance (or series of performances—we are never told whether the recording was a one-shot or compiled over several nights), for her attractive soprano is marred by a wobble that regularly disturbs the musical line during the first act. Later, this problem retreats only to loudly sung high notes. Violeta Urmana similarly improves as the production continues. She has difficulty moving her large, dark voice in her act I song, slurring the repeated minor seconds, but does a fine job in act III’s “O don fatale.” Marisca Mulder is a vocally pert and attractive Tebaldo; and if Jaakko Ryhänen lacks the tonal blackness to make the most of his part as the Grand Inquisitor, he makes up for it by accuracy, strong breath support, and excellent acting. Chailly conducts his soloists sympathetically, if with only moderate energy.

Though recorded in 2004, the only audio format supplied here is LPCM Stereo. Visuals are 16:9 anamorphic, and subtitles are available in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch. The extras alluded to above include a plot synopsis and single pictures for each member of the cast, both of these features being as dull as they sound. The filmed interview is less interesting for its verbal content, which is often trivial, than for its succession of images showing the cast rehearsing and the stage under construction.

In sum, this is an intense, monochromatic, successful production of Don Carlo , sporting interesting ideas about stage design, and possessing performances by Villazón and Croft that are among the finest I’ve seen and heard. Don’t let the price hike for two DVDs throw you off its purchase.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: OA 0933D

  • UPC: 809478009337

  • Label: Opus Arte

  • Composer: Giuseppe Verdi

  • Conductor: Riccardo Chailly

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Netherlands Opera Chorus, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

  • Performer: Amanda Roocroft, Dwayne Croft, Giorgio Giuseppini, Jaako Ryhänan, Robert Lloyd, Rolando Villazón, Violeta Urmana