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don carlos

13 august 2020

A subset of 19th-century operas feature early-modern royal-court intrigues: Bellini's I puritani, Donizetti's three operas about British queens, Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. And then there are countless operas about the foibles of the nobility, ranging from historical folks like Lucrezia Borgia to a host of made-up dukes, counts, thanes, lairds, and marchionesses. Ones about royal families are at least mildly constrained by historical events, and serve as interesting studies in the transformation of source into drama.

Among Verdi's operas, Ernani is arguably in the royal-court category, with the great Charles V a central character: though most of its intrigues are among more fanciful lesser characters sprung from the imagination of Victor Hugo. Verdi's lesser-known Battaglia di Legnano is about the Emperor Barbarossa, a bit earlier and more mythical. Verdi's major entry in the early-modern-royalty opera is Don Carlo, from the 1787 play by Friedrich Schiller.

Don Carlo is the grandson of the Don Carlo V who came off as a good but aloof ruler in Ernani. When Verdi's opera opens, the just-deceased Charles V is prowling the earth, Hamlet's-father-like, dressed as a spectral monk. By the end of the show, this eldritch presence recalls less Hamlet's father than Don Giovanni's commendatore, the Stone Guest. Charles V is a mere allusion in Schiller's play, but Verdi and his librettists did well to anchor the opera Don Carlo on his imposing (mostly offstage) presence.

Though I say that as if Verdi's Don Carlo is a single thing. Instead, it has one of the most confusing composition and revision histories of any famous opera. Originally written and produced in French in 1867 as Don Carlos and then translated and re-staged in at least four different Italian versions in Verdi's own lifetime, the Don Carlo material has provided conductors and directors ever since with a big old grab-bag of mix-and-match parts to make their own operas out of. None of Verdi's versions hews very closely to Schiller's play, with the weird result that the opera continually warps Schiller's character list, plot arc, and scene structure – and then at times very faithfully delivers a small incidental detail that is pure Schiller: as in the exile of a lady in waiting who has barely gotten to open her mouth and seems extraneous, but was a recurrent motif in the original play.

For those who don't know the story – which includes anybody, like me, who has just spent a week comparing the dramatic and operatic versions and is now hopelessly lost – it goes something like this. Schiller's main characters are a King and Queen of Spain, Philip and Elizabeth. Philip is the son of the aforementioned Charles V. Don Carlo, the Infant, is Philip's son but not Elizabeth's. Heck, far from being Elizabeth's son, he used to be Elizabeth's fiancé till Dad saw her and exercised his Oedipal prerogative. This has made Don Carlo a bit unstable, to say the least. Completing the romantic square is the Princess of Eboli, who is madly in love with Don Carlo but has previously been Philip's mistress; the Princess is also lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth and knows all her secrets, including the Queen's hatred for her husband and her smoldering but deeply-repressed hankering for her husband's son.

So far so simple. Just imagine the four of them wound up and set in motion till the whole contraption inevitably breaks down in all kinds of lurid mayhem. But Schiller's play also includes a healthy parallel plot of court intrigue among various nobles: a duke, a marquis, various counts, the Admiral Medina Sidonia who has just run the Spanish Armada into the cliffs of Ireland but is apparently still in the King's good books, and even the affable Postmaster General, Don Raimond of Taxis. Postmasters General are rarely the stuff of high drama, but a lot of mail changes hands in Schiller's play, and Don Raimond is poised to deliver or intercept it. Most of that mail goes back and forth from Belgium, where a restive populace is ready to overthrow Spanish rule.

Verdi reduces all these hangers-on to the single Marquis de Posa, one of the non-royals in Schiller's cast. Posa manages to make himself confidant to both the King and Don Carlo, with an eye to leading a Belgian Risorgimento. In both Schiller and Verdi, Posa's duplicity ends up getting him shot dead for his trouble. But in the opera he gets to sing the baritone half of a couple of nice duets along the way, plus an exquisite aria preceding, and in fact during, his own murder by arquebus bolt. For a compulsive liar, Posa has an odd amount of integrity, which may be the effect of his being cobbled together from a couple of different characters in the source material.

By this point, you are probably positively expecting the Spanish Inquisition, and both Schiller and Verdi oblige. Verdi brings the blind, ageless Grand Inquisitor, a basso even more profundo than the King himself, into the story much earlier, though. Whether in the middle of the drama (Verdi) or at the end (Schiller), the Inquisitor is a pivotal character. He confirms the King's maliciousness and prompts him to make a grotesque mockery of God the Father's sacrifice of his son – in the interests of some sort of Castilian national security.

Schiller's play is expansive and rhetorical. Verdi seemed to struggle with how to compress it into theater. Even with judicious cuts, Don Carlo still comprises three hours of singing, as in the lovely DVD of the 1986 Salzburg production conducted by Herbert von Karajan. With five very substantial star roles, plus one Grand Inquisitor and one Spectral Monk, the opera is hard to cast, but when cast well it generates a true ensemble effect from the five principals. José Carreras played the title role, but Don Carlo doesn't dominate his own opera. The big payoff arias are "O don fatale" for the Princess Eboli, here marvelously phrased by Agnes Baltsa, and the Queen's "Tu che la vanità," powerfully delivered by Fiamma Izzo d'Amico. Both are stashed somewhat late in the proceedings, so if you want to hear them you have to arrive late or alternatively come for Act I and sit through all V.

Before the pandemic cancelled 2020, we were promised a concert version of Don Carlo by the Dallas Opera, and it may still be on the cards for 2021. It might work. Don Carlo is a somewhat talky opera anyway, with only one half-hearted swordfight, one arquebussing, and no massive drinking songs or Anvil Choruses. And it ought to be fairly easy to follow the action without seeing it acted out – or rather, no more hopeless a proposition than if you saw it acted out.

Schiller, Friedrich. Don Carlos. 1787. Translated by R.D. Boylan.