The Don Carlo of 1969. The Arena at the centre of the world
29 March 2017
Zeno Massignan (8 articles)
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The Don Carlo of 1969. The Arena at the centre of the world

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An exceptional cast on stage with the young Spanish tenor Plàcido Domingo playing the main role of Carlo. Despite his young age (28 years old) he embraced his character and mastered the part in a unique way.

In this particular moment in history, the success of an opera like Don Carlo is proven by the numerous performances delivered all around the world. It is on the evening of the 2nd of August 1969 that the Arena of Verona scheduled for the first time the debut of this opera by Giuseppe Verdi, which features a deep and dark timbre, in some parts, one could even perceive shades of a funerary solemnity.

The original title of this opera was Don Carlos. It was composed in five acts and written in French by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle. The opera was inspired by the homonymous tragedy by Friedrich Schiller. On the 12th of March 1876 Don Carlos was staged for the first time in Paris; it arrived in Italy (in Bologna) on the 26th of October 1867. It was translated in Italian by Achille de Lauzières and given the title of Don Carlo. In 1872, before its debut in Napoli, Verdi made a few variations to the version for the Italian orchestra. Ten years later, he modified even more the french musical score by cutting and replacing some of its parts with new ones composed by Camille Du Locle. In fact, he was asked by Verdi to work together on the changes. The new compositions were translated by Angelo Zanardini, who, for the occasion, studied meticulously the first rhythmic version of De Lauzières. These variations gave birth to the final version of the musical score that was presented with these modifications from that moment onwards. The opera was performed for the second time in Italy at La Scala Milan in January 1886. It was staged with the changes that proved to be vital for the effectiveness of the dramatic notes of the script. In December 1886, it was staged in Modena, with the revised version in five acts that was presented in Paris. On this occasion, Verdi did not work on the changes himself, but gave his approval.
Despite this last performance in five acts, Don Carlo is now mostly done in the previous version of four acts.

In 1969, this masterpiece of Verdi, was inserted in the posters of the lyrical season of the Arena. It received amazing recognition by the general public, and it cashed in twenty-five million Lire on its first night. This was a record for that season that had sold out all the seats of the auditorium, filling them with incredibly elegantly dressed people.  Many important personalities from the music scene from all over the world came to the show. This achievement was extraordinary and slightly unexpected for the introduction of Don Carlo in the Arena. Such a success had never been seen before.

1969, Arena, Don Carlo (Photo Pagliarani, Fondazione Arena)

1969, Arena, Don Carlo (Photo Pagliarani, Fondazione Arena)

Initially, the decision to perform in the Arena was strongly criticized. It was considered to be inadequate for the scenic environment. However, it was subsequently praised as a brave decision, and it was appreciated both by the public and the press. Don Carlo represents a mile stone for Verdi’s career and it became an event that cannot be forgotten. He faced the challenge with a fresh spirit and deeper sensitivity, refusing to follow old schemes. He won the bets by achieving a never ending success for this great opera. The intent was to renew Verdi, to modernise him by bringing him back to his original beauty whilst getting rid of the dust of the routine.

On the 2nd of August 1969, in an article published in the newspaper L’Arena, Carlo Bologna wrote that the direction of Jean Vilar was initially structured in seven acts with an interval after the first four.  Despite this, for practical reasons, the organizers decided to insert two intervals, one after the end of the second act, and one after the fourth act. It could be said that this structure might have interrupted the flow of the composition, however, it embraced the new elegance of the modern trend of the Arena. It fulfilled the wish for change, capturing the needs for a new musical world and an evolving performance. Vilar worked on the scenography with the cooperation of Luciano Damiani, and with Pier Luigi Pizzi for the costumes. These, were pieces of unique taste that showed a great attention to detail.

The Israeli director Elihau Inbal, was ready to face and succeed in a difficult challenge. In order to do so, he set up the musical base on an extremely clear composition of the orchestra. He highly respected Verdi’s creation, and this can be seen in the coordination between the voice and the energy of the chorus. Both orchestra and chorus where tied in a perfect harmony of music and sound.
The orchestra demonstrated its outstanding qualities by alternating moments of clarity and transparency, given by the wind instruments, and synchronizing it with the delicate pinches of the chord instruments. Embracing it all in a rare and intense harmony.

An exceptional cast on stage with the young Spanish tenor Plàcido Domingo playing the main role of Carlo. Despite his young age (28 years old) he embraced his character and mastered the part in a unique way.
After his performance, Domingo was described as a “pure” opera singer, with a unique and a certainly rare talent. It was his clear cut voice, his profound and enchanting musicality that lended him a complete presence on the stage.
His duet with the baritone Piero Cappuccili made history thanks to its magnitude, its enthusiasm and its moving lyrics. Cappuccili played the role of Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. His interpretation enhanced the most complex aspects of the character, which was in fact on of Verdi’s most difficult to play.
The Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé performed as Elisabetta. She was one of the most famous artist of the neo-belcanto. Her voice was exceptional, and she was known for her operatic talent, that filled her performance with emotion. She carried out the scene and aria of the fourth act so remarkably well that the standing ovation of the public, that lasted for several minutes, is still remembered as an uncommon moment of enthusiasm. Dimiter Petkov, who was of Bulgarian origin, played the role of King Philip II. His deep voice was interesting for its peculiarities, and despite a few mistakes of pronunciation, he succeeded in interpreting the complex psychology of his character. He worked well on contrasting moments of crushing drama to stages of inner sadness. The mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto played the role of the princess of Eboli. She offered a performance that grew during the development of the show itself. Giovanni Foiani, who interpreted the inquisitor, showed great energy and vocal presence, on top his scenic nobility. Last but not least, Takao Okamura, a Japanese bass, played the monk, proving to have a unique voice and the ability to master it in a clever way. Even the artists who played the minor roles stuck out for their artistic skills. The chorus and its director Giulio Bertola where greatly applauded.

At that time, to cast together artist of such a high level, was not an easy task. However, it was awarded outstanding results for its great class, professionalism and sensitive interpretation of the characters. To take onto the stage a challenging opera like Don Carlo must not have been easy. However, despite the sumptuous scenography, the numerus background actors, the complex costumes, the difficult and highly technical interaction between the orchestra and the chorus and a cast that in addition to many performers starred six main leading roles, it proved to be a successful challenge. It confirmed to be a brave and innovative choice, and this view was shared unanimously with many critics of the time. The play was recognised for its high class performance and the constant balance of the elements on stage. This marked a permanent trace in the memories of the public of that time and for people who have a passion for Opera.

Zeno Massignan

Top photo: Foto in alto: 1969, Arena, Don Carlo, Domingo, Caballè, Inbal, Cossotto, Cappuccilli, Vernocchi, Petkov, Bertagna (Photo Bisazza)

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Zeno Massignan

Zeno Massignan

Zeno Massignan è nato a Verona nel 1988, laureato in Lettere con un percorso in Storia dell’Arte, laureato in Gestione ed Economia dell’Arte. Ha lavorato nel settore marketing e comunicazione per alcune istituzioni museali. Pratica e insegna judo, appassionato di arte, apprezza la convivialità e la vita all’aria aperta. zeno.massignan@hotmail.it

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