Indeed, unlike two of Verdi’s most popular operas—La Traviata, which is an early exercise in modern realism, or the epic Aida—Don Carlo defies easy categorization. In fact, it contains aspects of both of these genres. As in the tragic story of the Parisian courtesan, for example, the characters in Don Carlo all have plausible reasons for their actions. But because they are—like the protagonists in Aida—symbolic representatives of entire nations, the ramifications of these actions are much more profound. While the characters in La Traviata might say, “If I allow myself to love you, my life will change forever,” in Don Carlo they would say, “If I allow myself to love you, the world will change forever.”
All the lead characters in Don Carlo are wracked with doubts and human frailties—but nowhere does Verdi express this more stunningly than in his portrayal of Philip II, a colossus of history and legend, who becomes profoundly multidimensional in the composer’s hands. For director Hytner, this factor is central to Don Carlo’s power. “Until the advent of the great monster tyrants of the 20th century,” he says, “Philip II was the prototypical repressive tyrant.” Yet at the beginning of Act IV, we see and hear the king in his great solo scene (“Ella giammai m’amò”) as a vulnerable man starved for love while staggering under the burden of his crown. “An amazing theatrical coup,” Hytner calls it. “The curtain goes up and it’s like ‘Garbo laughs.’ The tyrant sings. The tyrant’s heart is broken.” The scene is a revelatory surprise for the audience. Schiller’s play contains only a miniscule suggestion of Philip’s humanity, and the idea of exploring it at the emotional core of the drama was Verdi’s. No wonder the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio later eulogized the composer as the one who “sang and wept for all.”
If this scene leaves no doubt that Don Carlo’s protagonists are human beings, they are also, at the same time, larger than life. In fact, the world they encompass is even wider than the realm of Aida’s Egyptian pharaohs: the tyrant who bares his soul in the solitude of his study has a group of islands on the opposite side of the recently circumnavigated globe named after him (the Philippines). A herald specifically calls him out as the King of Spain and the Indies (i.e., the entire Western Hemisphere), emphasizing the historic gigantism at stake. Similarly, his wife, Queen Elisabeth, reminds us that she was born a royal princess, a “daughter of France”—a young woman representing an entire nation.
This enormous scope weighs heavily on the characters in Don Carlo. The opera is infused with a relentlessly grim tone: the Inquisition hovers everywhere, most of the protagonists expound on their desire for death, they speak directly to tombs—and those tombs occasionally answer back. Yet this bleakness is only part of the story, a background for an ultimately life-affirming human drama. “Right through this opera there is, on the one hand, an implacable expression of impending doom,” Hytner says, “and on the other hand a succession of the most gloriously openthroated arias, the most fantastically determined music.” This conflict between fate and the human spirit is the key to the whole epic that is Verdi’s most complex opera. And that, Hytner declares, “is why people love this piece.” —William Berger
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