Some British critics consider "Don Carlo" as the very top of Giuseppe Verdi´s gigantic career; although I don´t quite agree (I see some flaws) it is certainly among the five most important ones. After World War II (not before) the high quality of "Don Carlo" is almost unquestioned.
The story of how it came about is complex and troubled. Born as a "grand´opéra" in French following the precise requirements of the Paris Opera, its great length conspired against success in Italy, so he reduced it from five to four acts and in a revised libretto in Italian he gave it what he felt was its definitive form. It was his fourth opera on a Schiller drama.
Some facts: original libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle; translation of the five-act version into Italian by Achille de Lauzières, later adapted by Angelo Zanardini for the four-acter. The opera was modified no less than eight times (!) before Verdi arrived to what he felt was the best formula for success of this very complex opera. Basic dates: March 1867, Paris Opera; January 1884, Milan La Scala. Friedrich Schiller´s "Don Carlos, Spain´s Infante" dates from 1787 and is typical of the playright´s libertarian ideas. As in other historical plays of his, he looks for dramatic impact and has no qualms about changing the truth: his play, further modified by the librettists, is what inspired Verdi, not straight history.
So, even if the libretto as it stands has some non sequiturs, it´s what we have. War, religion, unrequited love, all mixed in a dark, sometimes terrible way, as in the auto-da-fé scene
The music makes almost no concessions to easy melody and stresses ambience and structure, as well as inventive orchestration and harmony. To seasoned music lovers, it is full of marvels. I will only cite the first two fragments of the Third Act: the great "scena" of Filippo and his confromtation with the Great Inquisitor.
It is a major challenge for any opera house: you need a big stage, expensive designs, six great voices, and a long rehearsal period; even in the definitive version it is one of Verdi´s two longest operas .
Since the 1950s the Colón has offered it in seven seasons before this one. Although the ideal of perfection remained elusive, there were great conductors and singers.
Showing the relative decline of the Colón, the less interesting of these versions was the last one, of 2004. I´m afraid the same applies to the 2015 revival, where only the conducting of Ira Levin and two Argentine singers in two casts were in a high level (the baritone Fabián Verloz and the tenor Gustavo López Manzitti). As to the staging by Eugenio Zanetti, although I thank him for avoiding stupidities such as transferring the action to our time, I have too many objections to put his work on the positive side of the balance.
Space precludes getting into detail, so I´ll be synthetic. Levin led the orchestra with an exact feeling for the myriad moods and firm control of every aspect; the orchestra, save small smudges, responded well. The Chorus (Miguel Martínez) was uneven, with some weakness in the ominous phrases of the priests. The off-stage band and chorus sounded too distant.
Two casts: international for the four subscription performances and local for two non-subscription (added by Darío Lopérfido, the Director that took over from García Caffi). Filippo: the young Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov has good material but communicates little; Lucas Debevec Mayer disappointed me with an interpretation full of mannerisms, gestual and vocal. Posa: Veloz is ready for the big time: a true Verdian voice of beautiful timbre, clean line and satisfactory volume; Alejandro Meerapfel is a fine artist but his voice sounds very German. Carlo: the Catalan José Bros has firm highs though the timbre isn´t attractive and he has little dramatic presence; López Manzitti was at his best, singing with impressive command and acting with conviction. The Grand Inquisitor: the Russian Alexei Tanovitski was unacceptable: his voice doesn´t project and is of poor quality; Emiliano Bulacios is powerful and firm though the voice is too bright for this ominous part. The Monk: both Carlos Esquivel and Debevec Mayer were correct. The Russians made their debut.
The ladies. Tamar Iveri (debut, Georgian) started indifferently and only showed her mettle in her big "scena" of the Fourth Act. Haydée Dabusti is too veteran for the young Elisabeth but compensates with taste and style, especially in the "scena". Eboli: Béatrice Uria-Monzon was a good Carmen here 21 years ago; now her vibrato is bigger but she sings with impetus and acts strongly.
The small parts were well taken: Rocío Giordano (Tebaldo), Marisú Pavón (Voice from Heaven), Iván Maier (Count of Lerma), Darío Leoncini (A Royal Herald).
And now to Zanetti. He was almost completely the author of the staging: producer, stage and costume designer; lighting by Eli Sirlin, projections by Abelardo Zanetti. Problems: unnecessary or wrong addenda: the bells at the beginning, the dwarves, the dogs, figurants where none are needed, a unit set of huge columns that certainly gave no illusion (e.g.) of a garden, incomprehensible and kitschy symbols (a gigantic hand with bloody heart, an immense oval over the heads of the singers), a poor auto-da-fé, allusions to a putrefied Empire when Filippo was in fact at the height of his power. And principally the austere Escorial court of Philip II represented as if it were in the dissipated times of Philip IV.
Compensations: a sense of symmetry, some nice costume designs (I saw no trace of the rags he mentions in interviews) and a few good dramatic markings.
For Buenos Aires Herald