• Don Carlo Musical Highlights

A Man's a Man for All That:
A Close Look at King Philip's Aria, “Ella giammai m’amò”

King Philip II of Spain was long considered one of the cruelest, most brutal monarchs in history. Both Schiller and Verdi made him the villain in their versions of the Don Carlo story. Yet as Act IV opens, Verdi presents Philip alone in his study, full of doubt and reflecting on his life with a wife who doesn’t love him.

This famous monologue, “Ella giammai m’amò”, is as sad and candid as anything in opera. Here, says Nicholas Hytner, director of the Met’s production, “a ruthless tyrant… unpeels himself and shows himself to be utterly heart-sore.” The aria lurches forward in fits and starts, depicting Philip’s half-finished thoughts, hesitations, and impotent conclusions in the late hours of a sleepless night. The music, continually changing, describes this psychological journey with unflinching realism. (Text and translations can be found here.)

The very first words of the piece express its central theme, the insight that Philip must force himself to accept: Elisabeth has never loved him. She does not love him now. There is little more to say. As Track 20 continues, a single cello, joined by violins, plays a somber melody while Philip scours his memory for proof, for the earliest evidence that he’s been fooling himself: the very first time Elisabeth laid eyes on him. Then his voice falls away. Words cannot help. As if with a final sigh, he returns to his theme, repeating it in gloomy wonder: “she never loved me.”

But the sigh is not final, because such thoughts have a way of leading to a cold, hard look at oneself. In Track 21, the King is no longer thinking of his wife, but of the foolish old man who would be loved by her. His lyrics carry double meaning:

 This candle is almost burned away! Quei doppier presso a finir!
 Dawn shines white on my balcony! L’aurora imbianca il mio veron!
 Day is already arising! Già spunta il di!
 I see my days passing slowly! Passar veggo i miei giorni lenti!

It is literally late at night. Actual physical candles have burned down. Day will soon break. It is, at the same time, late in his life. The candles of Philip’s life are melting away, yet he finds no rest.

One melancholy idea leads to another. It is a short leap, after a short pause, from the waning of life to death itself, with a new, even darker melody. The King is envisioning an endless night alone in the tomb he’s built in the Escorial, his palace (Track 22).

Violins jog forward to shake the thought away (Track 23).

Philip tries to refocus on the here and now—if only he could read hearts… But no, impossible—and a cello introduces one more troubling half-thought (Track 24), that of his son’s treachery. But this is as useless an obsession as the others.

The song of a lonely, endless night returns in Track 25, then the thought of heart-reading, and then silence: the sound with which a sleepless King accepts the utter uselessness of these scattered thoughts.

There is, after all, only one important thing on his mind. In Track 26, the journey ends where it began: she never loved him. He can do nothing but repeat this, again and again, the hard truth underscored by that cello of memory.

Verdi here reveals the weak, painful side of the monarch’s character—and moments later he will turn the screw even tighter: the Grand Inquisitor enters Philip’s study to remind him that even royal power is illusory—that true power in Spain lies with the Church (see sidebar: The Inquisition). In this remarkable duet of two bass voices challenging each other, Verdi pits the power of the King against that of the Inquisitor. Students can hear its dramatic conclusion in Track 27—King Philip’s demand that the Inquisitor forget the entire argument. A downward sweep of two octaves in the vocal line brings this scene to a dramatic close as the King replies, “Then the throne must always bow to the altar.”

It might be hard for students to relate to the midnight musings of a man as old as Philip, much less the experience of a threat to the power of a King, but they can try to imagine themselves in his place. Is this King really as much a failure as this monologue suggests? Do his achievements in public life make up for his frustrations in private life? If Philip really does feel this badly about himself, what might he do in the morning to change his situation for the better? What kinds of changes do students think he could make?