Don Carlos / Domingo & Vargas

I was thinking about that snippet of Don Carlos that was lodged in my brain for some reason the other day and eventually I went back and listened again to the recording it’s from, which is this.

I had not listened to this in a while, and two things jumped out at me. One, Shirley Verrett’s voice (she is Eboli) is even better than I remembered. The part of her voice that always made the greatest impression on me was the lower register, which can make your hair stand on end (in a good way). I forget how nice the top of it was too. I never really understood why she decided to be come a soprano later in her career — she was a hell of a mezzo.

Here is her singing the veil song. (And as one commenter pointed out, the drawing really does make the video.)

The second thing was Domingo as Don Carlos. Appreciating singers who are dead, retired or (in Domingo’s case) still out there but not quite as they were before, is qualitatively different from appreciating ones that you can still go and hear (I could probably come up with an explanation of why this is true, but only if my arm is twisted). It’s hard to figure out where to put them, mentally, particularly when performance styles have changed in the interval. But this is not really the case with Verdi. At least, not all that much.

Domingo sounds very nice here. He sounds better than nice. There is definitely a reason he was so famous. But the thing that jumped out at me about this was not the quality of his voice — it was the way he goes about the characterization. He plays Carlos very heroically. His Carlos is a tormented young man in the nineteenth-century romantic mode. Here is io vengo a demandar (Elisabeth and Carlos’s meeting, right before Philippe comes back, finds Elisabeth alone, and sends her lady-in-waiting away).

This quality of Domingo’s performance reminded me of why I liked Ramòn Vargas’s Don Carlos in the performance I talked about here. The impression Vargas gives is not quite a hero in the nineteenth-century Romantic mode. Rather, it’s a young guy who is very vulnerable and a little unhinged. Carlos is supposed to be at the end of his tether most of the time. Consider what he goes through: his girlfriend of five minutes, with whom he ill-advisedly falls in love, marries his father. His best friend keeps bugging him to drop everything and go to Flanders. This is roughly equivalent to trying to make someone drop everything and go to Detroit. And to top things off, he is being stalked by the Princess Eboli, who is also sleeping with his father. No wonder he’s a little tweaked.

It’s hard to pin down an impression, and if I wanted to diagram it I’d probably end up uploading three-fourths of the opera onto YouTube and I think someone would probably come after me about that, but just for the sake of a thorough comparison, here is the equivalent (in French) of the ‘io vengo demandar’ scene. (This has nothing to do with Vargas, and I’ve said it before, but it’s worth reiterating: Iano Tamar is not super-famous, and my point is not to argue that she ought to be, but somehow she manages to just nail this role. I have heard Elisabeth sung better in terms of pure sound, but dramatically Tamar is right on the money with this one.)