First and Last:
A Discussion of Creative Decisions Made in Don Carlo
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the concept of the Escorial as palace, prison, and tomb embodied in the production’s set design—in short, to see themselves as Don Carlo experts.
Don Carlo is an unusual work in that it exists in a number of versions (see Sidebar: Will the Real Don Carlo Please Take the Stage? on page 24). In fact, Nicholas Hytner, the director of this Metropolitan Opera production, had to make two big decisions—how to begin the opera and how to end it.
Until a few decades ago, many productions used to leave out Act I, in which Carlo and Elisabeth meet in the forest of Fontainebleau. (They began the opera with Don Carlo’s meditation at the tomb of Emperor Charles V.) That scene was conceived by Verdi and his librettists; it’s not in the Schiller play on which Don Carlo is based. From Hytner’s perspective, “When [Verdi] sat down to write this for the first time in Paris, he offered 25 minutes which are almost a tease. There’s almost a romantic fantasy that is dangled in front of the audience, as it’s dangled in front of the two young protagonists. The Crown Prince of Spain, the daughter of the King of France—a political alliance which is miraculously underpinned by an instant personal attraction—it lasts about a quarter of an hour. And then down from the back of the stage comes the chorus, a kind of force of political inevitability—no chance!”
By the same token, opera directors have long struggled with the last moments of Don Carlo: the appearance—perhaps—of the late Emperor Charles V. A stage direction in the libretto reads “Charles V drags the smarrito Carlo into the cloister.” The Italian word “smarrito” can mean “lost,” “missing,” or “bewildered,” but not “dead” or “killed.”
We can’t be sure what Verdi and his librettists intended with this cryptic ending. In his production, Hytner chose to overlook the peculiar stage direction: Don Carlo dies quite appropriately in the arms of his beloved Elisabeth, while the character who is either Charles V or a friar with a voice much like that of Charles V presides to one side.
How does Hytner’s ending affect the audience’s understanding of the opera? How might a different ending? Students might consider how they would deal with Verdi’s ending—both that odd stage direction and the appearance of someone whom everyone on stage agrees has the dead monarch’s voice.
Begin a discussion of the beginning and ending of this Live in HD transmission by writing that stage direction on the board. How was it interpreted in the production? Did students find the ending satisfying?
Did they believe Carlo was dead?
Did they think the man carrying him was actually his grandfather, the Emperor, or the ghost of his grandfather—or perhaps the monk in the cloister, dressed as his grandfather?
Which of these would have been the best or most powerful ending? Why?
Why did Verdi bring Charles V back? Why not simply have the guards kill Carlo?
How else could Verdi’s ending have been presented? How would that have affected its meaning?
Move on to Hytner’s decision to include Act I.
Would students have understood the opera differently if they hadn’t seen Carlo and Elisabeth meet?
How might that have affected their view of Carlo’s love for the Queen? What of her response?
If Act I had been left out, how could a director convey that Carlo and Elisabeth had once been legitimately in love?
It might be useful at this point to brainstorm, together with your students, a list of other stories, plays, or operas whose beginnings or endings might be changed.
For follow-up, each student can write an alternative beginning or ending for Don Carlo or another well-known work. For instance:
What if Rodrigo had been present in France in Act I, instead of Don Carlo and the Count of Lerma?
Could Elisabeth and Carlo have behaved differently when Tebaldo arrived with the announcement of her engagement to Philip?
What might have happened if Carlo escaped to Flanders with Elisabeth’s help?
Would they produce Don Carlo with or without Act I?
What would they choose to do about the mysterious friar/Emperor?
Students can mix and match their alternate beginnings and endings to create new versions of Don Carlo and other classic tales, then discuss the implications of their changes.