Verdi’s powerful and magnificent crowning of his middle period, Don Carlos, was done full justice in a powerful and magnificent performance at Covent Garden last Friday, which restored the usual cuts, including the first act Fontainebleau scene, and bestowed on it all the lavishness and care its superb writing demands.
Yet there is a certain lack of human quality in Don Carlos which, for all the strength and beauty of its music, makes one aware of its extreme length and involved a plot and prevents one from being completely absorbed in the fate of the lovers, caught in the familiar web of the arranged marriage, and the grim workings of the Spanish Inquisition. Readily acceptable and simple melody rescued Il Trovatore from its contrived complexities; here, Verdi, much more advanced, has gone beyond obvious tuneful appeal and painted a rich musical canvas of character and situation, admirable in its power and full of beauty, but uncompromising in its faithfulness rather than making concessions to immediate human sentiment. Schiller evidently saw the story as a romantic and tragic struggle for religious and political freedom, and, as in plays written with a purpose, the characters tend to become puppets. No doubt it would be hard going on the stage today, Verdi never lets his characters become puppets. Music always saves them; only here, one is conscious of their needing to be saved.
This production showed us how things ought always to be done at Covent Garden. Luchino Visconti came over and not only directed but did the sets, costumes and lighting as well. This single coordinating force resulted in an impressive unity, and with the chief characters superbly cast and Carlo Maria Giulini getting magnificent sonority, balance and detail from the orchestra, it indeed became a performance to be remembered.
There was no self-conscious simplicity of stylisation in the settings, which made full use of the stage’s depth, with brilliance of pillars ans arches, and a romantically atmospheric full moon and Great Bear in the midnight garden scene. King Philip’s room in the palace had an appropriate touch of ornamentation in its low ceiling, the auto-da-fé scene glittered with color, and, throughout, the details were just enough to ornament, never too much to distract. Even a shuttlecock game could go on naturally in the background, and, while two wolfhounds might not to be considered necessary, they were e measure of the producer’s decorative confidence.
Covent Garden has seldom seen such an imposing quartet of leading characters as John Vickers, Tito Gobbi, Gré Brouwenstijn and Boris Christoff, and as there was no impression of competing for honors between them, the production gained in unity of purpose and sureness of ensemble. Each gave an excellent characterization and beauty of tone. Mr. Vickers has seldom shown such power and lyrical polish, and though his fair make-up made him seem something of a stranger to the hot southern world, he matched. Mr. Gobbi in fluency and concentration — both disdaining glances at the conductor — if not in complete fusion of voice and character, which is Mr. Gobbi‘s unique contribution to the operatic stage. Gré Brouwenstijn was again her gracious and sad self as the unhappy Queen, pure and accurate in every phrase and helping Mr. Vickers to lift the wonderful final duet to the heights. Boris Christoff revealed both the ferocious frustration and the tragic loneliness of the King, and it was an experience to hear “Ella giammai m’amo” sung with a depth of dignified grief that never resorted to melodramatic forcing.
Fedora Barbieri did not quite make Eboli a figure of passionate jealousy, though she sang strongly, if with a few toughnesses, in her Moorish song, Marco Stefanoni was sternly sinister as the blind Inquisitor; the great bass duet with the King stood out in its stark strength. Joseph Rouleau sang the Monk convincingly, and there was a well-acted and clearly sung portrait of the Page by Jeannette Sinclair.
(The Stage, London May 15, 1958)