O Don Fatale
A supremely gifted mezzo-soprano can make a career out of singing the the great Verdi mezzo roles – Azucena in Il Trovatore, Eboli in Don Carlo, and Amneris in Aida. Eboli presents a an especially challenging role for the singer who portrays the spurned princess – the second of these three great mezzo parts. Eboli has two solos, the second of these concludes the scene in the king’s apartment, one of opera’s greatest creations. This second aria, “O don fatale”, is the subject of this feature. This piece is especially difficult as it encompassess all of the mezzo range and requires both lyricism and power – a lot of power. It ends, or should end, with a thunderous high b-flat that is marked with a fermata. So if she has it, she can really use it. Almost no singer, no matter how great, gets through the aria without a hint of strain. Below are 12 versions of it by 12 renowned mezzos and one by a soprano who is still a household name. The Italian words and an English translation are at the end. Though Don Carlo was originally set to a French text (as Don Carlos) it’s usually performed in Italian. All the singers presented here sing the aria in Italian.
Ebe Stignani (1903-74) was the great Italian mezzo during the years immediately preceding and succeeding WWII. While she sang almost everywhere of importance, she somehow missed the Met, or rather they missed her. She was only 23 when Toscanini invited her to sing Eboli at La Scala. She was the great dramatic mezzo of her time. Her reading of O Don Fatale show her at her powerful best. Interestingly she doesn’t pronounce the e in fatale which everyone else does. New York missed a lot because the Met failed to engage her.
Giulietta Simionato (1910-2010) was the next great Italian mezzo after Stignani. It took a while for her career to take off, but once it did she was a world wide star. Her performance is riveting even if she does get a few words wrong, perhaps because of Herbert Von Karajan’s soporific conducting.
The last Italian mezzo presented here, and another force of nature, is Fiorenza Cossotto (b 1935). Eboli was a mainstay of Cossotto’s repertoire. Though she gave 147 performances at the Met only 5 were as Eboli. This another heroic voice that handles the arias very high tessitura with confidence.
Here are a couple of Russians who excelled in this part. Elena Obraztsova (1939-2015) opened the 200th anniversary season (1977) at La Scala as Eboli. Though she gave 56 performances at the Met, none was as Eboli. Her voice has a Slavic richness to it. Her top is a bit short on this recording.
The second Russian, Olga Borodina (b 1963), has sung in most of the world’s major opera houses. She has also had some problems that seem related to temperament in London, Vienna, and Milan. So far she has sung 161 performances at the Met including 7 as Eboli. Her top also seems a bit stretched on this recording.
Agnes Baltsa (b 1944) is a Greek mezzo who, though she has sung the great Verdi roles, is a lyric mezzo. O don fatale is a stretch for her, though she gets as much from the music as her light voice allows. She is quite good in the arias lyrical middle section. She is best known for her Carmen and as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. Her career has been made mostly in Europe. She has sung 18 performances at the Met.
The rest of the singers that follow are Americans. Regina Resnik (1922-2013) was born in New York City. She made her debut at the Met as Leonora in Il Trovatore at age 22 in 1924. She sang 327 performances at that house, first as a soprano and then as a mezzo. Most of her roles as a mezzo were in secondary parts, though she did sing Carmen 25 times. She was a legendary Klytämnestra in Strauss’s Elektra. She only sang Eboli one time at the Met, in 1952 just before she transitioned from soprano to mezzo. I’m at a loss as to why the Met didn’t assign her the role when she was officially a mezzo. Her interpretation is one of the better I gathered. Her voice is round and rich in its bottom and mid range and her top is secure.
Shirley Verrett (1931-2010) was an artist who made the opposite transition. She started out as a mezzo – a great one, in fact. In mid career she started to sing many soprano roles. Though she never gave up all of her mezzo roles. She made her met debut as Carmen in 1968. Eboli was her second role with the company. She sang both Norma and Adalgisa in the same season – Spring 1976. A feat that, as far as I know, has never been duplicated at the Met. I heard one of the 12 performances she gave at the Met as Eboli. She had everything needed for this difficult role. Beauty of tone, superb high notes, and a moving interpretation. All these qualities are evident of her recording of the aria.
Marilyn Horne (b 1934) was one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of the 20th century. But her metier was bel canto. She did not have the vocal heft and top for the great Verdi parts. She sang Eboli 11 times, all in 1979. She did not have a success with the part. She took the music down a minor third which lowers it so much that it loses it emotional edge. Far better to hear her in Semiramide or Norma.
Grace Bumbry (b 1937) was another great American mezzo who came to vocal maturity in the sixties. She too transitioned from mezzo to soprano, but as she aged she returned to mezzo roles. Eboli was at the center of her repertoire. She made her Met debut in the role. She sang it 19 times with the company. She takes no prisoners as she swallows the aria whole. This performance was recorded outdoors, so you can hear the wind blowing on the microphone. The weather doesn’t seem to phase Bumbry a bit.
Tatiana Troyanos (1938-93) was a much loved singer who died prematurely from breast cancer. A native New Yorker, she sang 274 performances at the Met in a large diversity of roles. She could seemingly sing anything from Amneris to Lulu (Countess Geschwitz) to Santuzza. She was Eboli 17 times at her local opera house. There was a flutter in her voice that was more noticeable on recordings than in the auditorium. Her voice was rich, secure on top, and used with artistry.
Today the reigning Verdi mezzo is Dolora Zajick (b 1952). She has owned the Verdi roles for the last quarter century and at age 63 still does. She has sung Eboli 17 times at the Met, but none since 2002. It seems she has retired the role. Her sound is rich with a top that astounds the listener. One of the greatest artists since the advent of recordings. If you were going to make the perfect Verdi mezzo you’d call her Dolora Zajick.
I said there’d be one soprano among all the mezzos. You’re going to have to figure out who she is by yourself. It shouldn’t’ be hard. The aria was an encore to a concert in 1962. Even though she was well past her vocal peak, this is a great interpretation. The high note are problematic, but so what?
O don fatale
O don fatale, o don crudel
che in suo furor mi fece il ciel!
Tu che ci fai sì vane, altere,
ti maledico, ti maledico,o mia beltà!
Versar, versar sol posso il pianto,
speme non ho, soffrir dovrò! Il mio delitto è orribil tanto
che cancellar mai nol potrò!
Ti maledico, ti maledico o mia beltà,
O mia Regina, io t’immolaial folle error di questo cor.
Solo in un chiostro al mondo omai dovrò celar il mio dolor!
Ohimè! Ohimè! O mia Regina,
Oh ciel! E Carlo! a morte domani, gran Dio! a morte andar vedrò!
Ah, un dì mi resta, la speme mi arride,
Ah, sia benedetto il ciel! Lo salverò!
Un dì mi resta, ah, sia benedetto
il ciel! Ah! lo salverò!
O fatal gift, o cruel gift
That heaven, in its wrath, made me!
You make us so vain, so haughty,
I curse you, I curse you, o my beauty!
I can only pour out tears,
I have no hope, I will have to suffer!
My crime is truly horrible
I can never blot it out!
I curse you, I curse you, o my beauty,
O my Queen, I sacrificed you
To the foolish error of this heart.
Now only in a cloister from the world
Must I hide my grief!
Alas! Alas! O my Queen,
Oh heavens! Carlo! Going to his death tomorrow,
Great God! I will see him go to his death!
Ah, only one day remaining, hope smiles on me,
Ah, blessed be the heavens! I will save him!