Verdi’s Don Carlos is the longest, most complex (but not most complicated), deepest and arguably greatest of his operas. Derived from Schiller’s eponymous play, and even further removed from actual historical events, it portrays Philip II of Spain, who marries, for dynastic reasons, the French princess Elisabeth originally intended as the bride of his son, Don Carlos.

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In this work, the personal and the political intersect in a uniquely convincing and powerful way. Written for Paris in 1867, Don Carlos (the French title) was so overlong that Verdi panic-strickenly cut huge portions of it, changed many more, and when it was translated into Italian – as Don Carlo – made even more alterations, so that there is nothing approaching a definitive text, and every recording I’ve heard, every production I’ve seen, has been noticeably different from any other. It’s a good idea to have at least two versions, since carefully chosen they will amount to two different works.

The best recordings of Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlos

Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Roberto Alagna, Thomas Hampson, Karita Mattila; Orchestre de Paris (1996)

Warner Classics 0630163182 (DVD)

The opera is almost always performed in Italian, but I have come to the conclusion that it sounds far better in French, in what is described as ‘the original version’ (though there’s no such thing). Filmed ‘live’ in 1996, tenor Roberto Alagna as Carlos is in tremendous voice, and convincingly realises the character’s complexity. His beloved Elisabeth is movingly portrayed by soprano Karita Mattila, his father Philip by bass-baritone José van Dam, at his most inward and commanding; and mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier as Princess Eboli fights powerfully for his affections. With six major characters and some important minor ones, there is always a flaw, and baritone Thomas Hampson’s Rodrigue is hampered not only by a grotesque wig but also by having little sense of a Verdian style, so that his great scenes with Carlos are less moving than they should be.

Antonio Pappano conducts an impassioned account of the score, with the ballet music happily excluded. Director Luc Bondy’s production is satisfactory, and doesn’t wear thin with repeated viewing.

If you should prefer just to listen, there is also a CD set of the same Don Carlos performance available (on EMI 556 1522), so I would – despite reservations about some cuts and Thomas Hampson’s portrayal of Rodrigue – give this set a warm recommendation.

Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros, Thomas Hampson, Matti Salminen; Vienna Philharmonic (2013)

Sony 88843005769 (DVD)

On to the Italian version, where the leading Don Carlo of our day is tenor Jonas Kaufmann. The role suits him to a T – he is idealistic, impulsive, unworldly, intense, in just the right proportions. Soprano Anja Harteros as Elisabetta is almost as fine, and the veteran bass Matti Salminen is an unusually sympathetic Filippo. Thomas Hampson is once again Rodrigo, but more convincing in this production and more at ease in Italian. Bass Eric Halfvarson is a grim and threatening Grand Inquisitor, and Verdi’s hatred of religion comes out clearly in this production, which is unfussy and even minimalist. Pappano conducts with the same warmth and spaciousness as he had done 17 years earlier.

Horst Stein (conductor)

Franco Corelli, Gundula Janowitz, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Shirley Verrett; Vienna State Opera (1970)

Orfeo C649053D

This version has an irresistible cast and for once everyone is a great artist on superb form. However, this couldn’t be a first choice, as Horst Stein’s conducting is not more than decent and there are the traditional cuts, which include the removal of the opening act in Fontainebleau – something astonishingly sanctioned by Verdi. But just listen to tenor Franco Corelli in full throat, to the exquisite soprano Gundula Janowitz, the noble baritone Eberhard Wächter as Rodrigo, and the rest of this extraordinary cast, and you’ll know you can’t do without it. And perhaps in no other performance is the scene between the bass parts of the King (Nicolai Ghiaurov) and the Grand Inquisitor (Martti Talvela) so stunning.

James Levine (conductor)

Plácido Domingo, Mirella Freni, Grace Bumbry, Nicolai Ghiaurov; Metropolitan Opera (1983)

DG 073 4085 (DVD)

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This is another sumptuous cast, in a typically plush New York Metropolitan production, and equally plushly conducted by its music director James Levine. I must admit that I could do with a more athletic reading of the score, but the results are beautiful if less dark-hued than this sombre masterpiece ideally requires. Tenor Plácido Domingo is in fine voice, though as often one feels he offers a generalised account of his part – and Don Carlo needs to be built up by his performer, or he can seem merely wet. The lower voices, male and female, are impressive, with mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry an especially strong Princess Eboli, the kind-of villainess of the opera.

Authors

Michael TannerJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Michael Tanner is a critic for BBC Music Magazine and the opera critic of The Spectator. He is now a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, having lectured in the Philosophy faculty at the University of Cambridge for 36 years. In 2010, he released The Faber Pocket Guide to Wagner.