Audio tracks are embedded within each activity. A pronunciation guide and "Who's Who" chart can be found here.
Act I In the forest of Fontainebleau, France. Don Carlo is the Spanish Crown Prince, known to be on poor terms with his father, King Philip II. Philip and Henry, the King of France, have arranged for Carlo to marry Henry’s daughter, Elisabeth. They have never met, but their wedding is to seal a peace treaty between Spain and France. As the curtain rises, Carlo finds himself in a wintry forest in France. Coming upon a hunting party led by Elisabeth, he introduces himself, but not by name—only as a member of Spain’s delegation in advance of the wedding. When Elisabeth expresses her concern about her husband-to-be, he reveals his identity, giving Elisabeth a small portrait of himself. They realize that despite the arranged marriage, they are falling in love with each other (Track 1). Moments later, Elisabeth’s page, Tebaldo, arrives with news: the terms of the treaty have been changed and King Henry has now promised his daughter to Carlo’s father. Elisabeth is to become Queen of Spain (Track 2). The Count of Lerma, representing Philip, asks Elisabeth if she will accept the King’s offer of marriage. Though hroken-hearted (Track 3), Elisabeth must do her duty (Track 4). Don Carlo is shattered by the swift reversal of fate.
Act II Scene 1: The monastery of St. Just, Spain. Don Carlo seeks solace at the tomb of his grandfather, Emperor Charles V. A friar approaches, and Carlo hears in his voice the voice of the Emperor. He is terrified. His anxiety subsides when his friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, arrives. Rodrigo wants Carlo to travel to the Spanish colony of Flanders (present-day Holland and Belgium) to lead the fight against Spanish rule—that is, the fight against his own father, the King (Track 5). When Carlo confesses his love for Elisabeth (Track 6), the shocked Rodrigo points out that she now technically has become his mother—all the more reason to leave for Flanders and rebel against his father (Tracks 7–8 and 31). Suddenly King Philip and Queen Elisabeth pass by, redoubling Carlo’s grief. He and Rodrigo respond by swearing eternal friendship and pledging themselves to the fight for Flanders’s freedom (Tracks 9 and 32).
Scene 2: The garden of the Monastery. The Queen’s ladies-in-waiting entertain themselves with singing (Tracks 28–29). Elisabeth joins them; Princess Eboli notices her deep sadness. Elisabeth’s page, Tebaldo, announces the arrival of Rodrigo, who delivers a letter to the Queen, ostensibly from her mother, the Queen of France. Actually the letter comes from Carlo, and Rodrigo asks Elisabeth to grant his friend a meeting. She would prefer not to—“to see him again is to die,” she tells herself. Nevertheless, she decides “to see my son” alone, sending away her page and her ladies. Eboli sees Carlo approach. It appears that she’s secretly in love with him, and she wonders whether Carlo might return her feelings.
Carlo asks Elisabeth to get his father’s permission for him to leave for Flanders (Track 10). She agrees with cool formality. He presses her to admit her love for him (Tracks 11–12), but goes too far when he says he must make her his. If he is so determined, replies the furious Elisabeth, then he must kill his father and “lead your mother to the altar” with blood on his hands (Track 13). Horrified, Carlo flees. The King appears, furious to find the Queen alone, against his orders. He exiles the lady who should have been at her side, the Countess of Aremberg. Clearly, he suspects his wife of something, perhaps adultery. He is also suspicious of Rodrigo and confronts him face to face. Rodrigo, unflustered, calls upon the King to free Flanders. His candor wins Philip’s trust. The King decides Rodrigo must become his confidant—but he warns Rodrigo to beware of the Grand Inquisitor, who might not appreciate his straightforward talk.
Act III Scene 1: The Queen’s gardens, outside the Escorial, the palace-capitol of Spain. Carlo has received a mysterious invitation to a nightly rendezvous in the gardens, and he is certain it came from Elisabeth. He declares his love to the woman he finds there and whom he believes to be the Queen. She responds in kind, then removes her veil: it is Princess Eboli (Track 30). She reveals her love for Carlo and tries to convince him to trust her and not Rodrigo, who works for the King. Rodrigo rushes in to help his friend, and Carlo stays by his side. Eboli swears vengeance on them both. Rodrigo wants to kill her then and there, since she knows the fatal secret of Carlo’s love for the Queen. Carlo convinces him to let her escape. Once she’s gone, Rodrigo insists that Carlo hand over any secret papers that might be used as evidence of treason. Even though Rodrigo works for the King, Carlo trusts him (Track 33). Again, they swear to defend each other’s lives.
Scene 2: The plaza by the Cathedral of Our Lady of Atocha. A crowd has gathered in the Cathedral plaza for an auto-da-fé, the ceremonial burning of prisoners accused of heresy by the Inquisition. Carlo takes the occasion to plead Flanders’s case before the King. He demands Philip name him ruler of Flanders (Track 14). The King is furious and insists Carlo back down. Rodrigo confiscates his friend’s sword (Tracks 15 and 34) and Carlo is arrested. Philip promotes Rodrigo from marquis to duke. As the day’s grisly spectacle begins, a voice cries out from Heaven, promising peace and freedom…but to whom?
Act IV Scene 1: The King’s study in the Escorial. Philip II sits alone, late at night, sadly aware that Elisabeth never loved him (Tracks 20–26). He is waiting for a visit from the Grand Inquisitor, an old, blind man, but also an extremely influential leader of the Catholic church. Philip asks him whether Christian law will permit him to kill Carlo. Rebellion is just cause, the Inquisitor replies. He goes on to suggest that Rodrigo is treasonous, and he questions the King’s wisdom in choosing such an aide. He hints darkly that the King rules only at the Grand Inquisitor’s pleasure (Track 27).
As the Inquisitor departs, Elisabeth runs into the study, complaining that someone has stolen her jewelry box. The King goes to his desk: he has it. He forces the box open in front of her, revealing the small portrait of Carlo that the prince had given Elisabeth at their first meeting, and charges his wife with adultery. Elisabeth faints. Eboli and Rodrigo enter to assist her. The King realizes the error of his accusation: Elisabeth has not betrayed her wedding vows. Eboli admits that she gave the jewelry box to the King—she had stolen it, jealous of Carlo’s love for Elisabeth.
Scene 2: Don Carlo’s prison cell in the Escorial. Rodrigo enters Carlo’s cell, but it is not a visit (Track 16): caught with the papers Carlo gave him for safekeeping, he has been charged with treason and sentenced to death (Track 17). Carlo is free, says Rodrigo—free to help the people of Flanders. While they talk, an agent of the Inquisition slips in and shoots Rodrigo (Tracks 35–36).
Regretting what he now sees as unfair treatment of Carlo, the King frees his son, returning his sword. Carlo rejects his gesture. A mob rises up. The people surprisingly call on the King to abdicate and crown his son. Philip is about to capitulate when the Grand Inquisitor arrives. Though blind and sickly, the powerful man of the church single-handedly forces the mob to its knees. Philip remains King—but at what cost?
Act V The Monastery of St. Just. Queen Elisabeth has come to meet Carlo one last time before he leaves to finish the work Rodrigo began—the fight for Flanders’s freedom (Tracks 18–19). But they are discovered by the Grand Inquisitor and the King. As the agents of the Inquisition move in on Carlo, Emperor Charles V materializes out of the darkness to insist that suffering is unavoidable and ceases only in heaven.