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VERDI: Don Carlos (in German)

spacer Lorengar, P. Johnson; J. King, Fischer-Dieskau, Greindl, Talvela; Chorus and Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin, Sawallisch. Production: Sellner. Arthaus Musik 101 621, 155 mins., black and white, subtitled


Schiller's 1787 play Don Carlos inspired Verdi's opera; only in German-speaking countries does a knowledge of it still complicate the reception of Verdi's grand-opera adaptation. Arthaus's interesting new issue documents in black and white a 1965 German-language performance in West Berlin. Not a "first" DVD choice due to often savage cuts and the translation (my vote goes to Pappano's French-language set from Paris), it preserves several major international stars in committed performances under the capable Wolfgang Sawallisch. 

German houses largely spearheaded the revival of interest in this Verdi work (and others) in the 1920s, using barbarically stripped-down versions to achieve dramatic fluency. Some of the excisions — certainly the absence of Fontainebleau and the reduction of the queen's opening aria to one verse — percolated down to the Met's 1950 production. This Berlin version slashes further, shockingly cutting the procession that interrupts and contextualizes the initial Carlos–Posa duet; the garden scene's first trio section; and huge chunks of the auto-da-fé scene. The end reverts to Schiller: no monk/royal ghost appears; rather, the Inquisitor seizes Don Carlos.

The fantastic opening, with brass playing a bit "pitchy," here lacks the wonted mystery: the Monk (solid house bass Ivan Sardi) delivers his pessimistic insights as a sermon to younger monks. But the temperature rises with the entrance of James King's restrained, though impassioned and moving, Carlos. A youthful forty, the American tenor had just hit the big time in Bayreuth and would join the Met the following year. It's a very impressive performance in a fach little associated with King's legacy; if one puts aside the desire for ideal Italianate sound (Bergonzi?), King proves quite thrilling. Pilar Lorengar, as Elisabeth, is stunning throughout, delivering a deeply moving portrayal in radiant lyric sound. Both offer crystal-clear German. British mezzo Patricia Johnson, lively and flirtatious, shows a fine if not plush sound, with considerable agility for the veil song; she works hard at both ends of the range of her second aria, but she was clearly an accomplished artist. The late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as Rodrigo, enacts a shining-eyed concept of Schiller's great hero's stances and utterances; this part — the role of his opera debut in 1948 — fit him better than his other Verdian exploits, and when the singing is softhe provides a lovely legato line. The explosive and semi-parlato effects used for more heavily scored passages are less appealing. Those who ignorantly dismiss past singers as "elephants" might ponder King, Lorengar, Johnson and Fischer-Dieskau — not gym bunnies or soap-opera wraiths, but all attractive, credible romantic stage figures.

The craggy, somewhat nasal voice of Josef Greindl has spoiled more than one recording for me — he is a nightmare Sarastro for Ferenc Fricsay — but clearly this longtime Bayreuth favorite was a compelling singing actor with presence and timing, even as he struggles to provide any real legato in King Philip's aria. His characterization alternates Wieland Wagner-imbued stillness with Expressionist facial plastique. Martti Talvela — like King, at the threshold of worldwide operatic acclaim — is made up like a space villain but brings tremendous dark power to the Grand Inquisitor's music. This edition leaves the comprimarios little to sing.

There's a single camera; as in live American television of the time, the pre-arranged choreography to include multiple layers of action does not always succeed. The picture quality, however, is remarkably clear. Two momentary tape jumps matter little, but sometimes the sound remastering seems a split second off. spacer 


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