Original French libretto by François Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, based on the play by Friedrich Schiller
Italian translation by Achille de Lauzières and Angelo Zanardini
Premiere: Paris Opéra, 1867 (in French as Don Carlos)
Verdi’s longest and most ambitious opera—a dark and intense epic of Spain at the height of the Inquisition—takes a profound look at the intersection of the personal and the political spheres. The personal issues at stake are large in themselves, including a pair of love triangles. Politically, there is a revolution (expressed both in terms of a province rebelling against its king and a son rebelling against his father) and the still-relevant question of the boundaries of church and state. The opera depicts these conflicts with a magnificent and haunting score that probes the full range of the lush Romantic vocabulary. With its spiritual, emotional, and philosophical ambitions, Don Carlo is more demanding than some of Verdi’s more familiar works, but its qualities are uniquely rewarding. The composer reworked the score several times over a period of almost 20 years. The Met presents Don Carlo in its original five acts, sung in Italian.
During a career spanning 60 years, Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) composed 28 operas, at least half of which are at the core of today’s opera repertory. His role in Italy’s cultural and political development has made him an icon in his native country. He has been specifically praised for his gift for finding the humanity beneath the public personae of his characters, an ability that arguably reached no greater heights than in Don Carlo. The writings of German poet, philosopher, and historian Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) express the intense yearning for personal and political freedom that became the hallmark of the 19th-century Romantic movement. The librettist François Joseph Méry (1798–1866) was a notable Parisian playwright whose work on this libretto was completed by Camille du Locle (1832–1903) after Méry’s unexpected death.
The opera is set in grim, authoritarian Spain at the time of the Inquisition, circa 1560. While both Schiller and Verdi took some poetic license with actual events and relationships, most of the protagonists (including the title hero, his father, King Philip II, Philip’s father, the Emperor Charles V, and Philip’s third wife, Elisabeth di Valois) are based on historical models. Charles V ruled one of the largest empires ever built, including half of Europe and virtually all the New World. He abdicated in 1558 and retired to a monastery, pronouncing himself dead to the world (giving rise to legends that his ghost hovered around his grave). At one point, a character in the opera relates gossip from the court of France, with the seemingly innocuous line that the king was planning to take part in a joust; the curious historical fact is that Henry II was accidentally killed in a joust at about this time. The simultaneous adherence to and disregard for history is one of the most interesting features of this opera.
With its epic scale, Don Carlo lacks the dramatic concision of Verdi’s later works, while maintaining a unique structure that builds over its five acts, with the monumental auto-da-fé at the center. The opera features a number of complex one-on-one confrontations in which the orchestra provides the foundation while the singers are free to go off on melodic tangents. The chorus, when it appears, is imposing—most notably in the auto-da-fé—and reminds us that the world is dependent on the choices and actions of the lead characters. The grandeur of the score telescopes in Acts IV and V to the individuals, with magnificent and melodically rich solo scenes for the lead bass, the mezzo, the baritone, and the soprano. The celebrated Study Scene (Act IV, Scene 1), which begins with King Philip’s nine-minute monologue in which he muses on his loveless marriage and the burden of ruling an empire, is among the most remarkable creations in Verdi’s enormous output. The title role, one of the pinnacles of the Italian repertoire, has a single brief aria in the first scene but, curiously, doesn’t get one of the great solos in the later acts.
Don Carlo at the Met
Until its Met premiere in 1920, Don Carlo was little known in this country. That first production, headed by Rosa Ponselle and Giovanni Martinelli, chalked up 14 performances for an impressed if somewhat puzzled public before disappearing in 1923. The opera had its defining moment in 1950, when Rudolf Bing chose it as the inaugural production of his administration. Those performances featured an impressive array of singers, including Jussi Björling, Delia Rigal, Cesare Siepi, Robert Merrill, Fedora Barbieri, and Jerome Hines, and the conducting of Fritz Stiedry. Bing turned to theater director Margaret Webster and designer Rolf Gerard to make the production unlike anything previously seen at the Met. James Levine conducted a new staging by John Dexter in 1979, with Renata Scotto, Marilyn Horne, Giuseppe Giacomini, Sherrill Milnes, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and James Morris. Director Nicholas Hytner made his Met debut with the current production on November 22, 2011. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted Marina Poplavskaya, Anna Smirnova, Roberto Alagna, Simon Keenlyside, Ferruccio Furlanetto, and Eric Halfvarson in the leading roles.