I am not sure whether this opera is properly called Don Carlo or Don Carlos. It exists in both Italian and French versions, which I think is the origin of the confusion. Verdi’s much-revised piece — there are both five- and four-act versions — is an example of the grandest of grand opera: about four hours long, and plump with international politics, ecclesiastical spectacle, and personal tragedy. As with so many of Verdi’s operas, it was unfamiliar to me until recently; I have both listened to and watched it now as a belated part of my Verdi anniversary observance.
The story is set in sixteenth-century Spain, in the troubled court of Philip II. Philip has recently married Elisabetta, a much younger woman who, unhappily for all concerned, had prior to the marriage been entangled in a romance with the king’s son, Don Carlo. Thus we have a love triangle of the most awkward sort at the heart of the royal family. Sixteenth-century Spain also means the Inquisition, of course, and there is a power-hungry and corrupt Grand Inquisitor to put a lurid face on things. Meanwhile there is political unrest in Spain’s Netherlandish provinces. These three elements — usurped love, Inquisition, and power politics — are the ingredients with which Verdi cooks his stew.
The brightest musical highlight of the opera comes early in the first Act: Don Carlo is reunited with his friend, Rodrigo, who has recently returned from a diplomatic mission to the Netherlands. They sing a rousing duet, Dio, che nell’alma infondere, in which they swear enduring friendship to one another. Here are Placido Domingo and Louis Quilco, with English subtitles:
Later in the first act is a lovely aria sung by Eboli, a third-wheel who is secretly in love with Don Carlo. Her song, Nel giardin del bello (In the garden of war), tells the story of a Moorish king who tries to woo an alluring, veiled beauty who turns out, much to his surprise, to be his wife. It’s a soprano showpiece, sung in this clip by Tatiana Troyanos at the Met, with English subtitles:
This motif of mistaken identity in romance anticipates the opening scene of Act II. Don Carlo has arranged to meet Elisabetta in the palace garden at night, and upon meeting her (as he supposes) he cannot resist professing his love for her. Yet he is mistaken: he has met Eboli, and she wrongly takes his profession of love as intended for her. The mistake realized, Don Carlo rejects her, and she, calling herself “a tigress with a wounded heart”, vows to revenge herself on him. At this point Rodrigo enters the garden and intervenes. What follows is a marvellous trio, sung here by Luciano Pavarotti (Don Carlo), Luciana d’Intino (Eboli), and Paolo Coni (Rodrigo) in Milan. This clip begins with Rodrigo’s entrance; the trio really starts to gather steam about one minute in.
Later in this act we get one of Verdi’s splendid choruses: the scene depicts the preparations for an auto-da-fé, and the unruliness of the crowd is well captured in the music. Probably you’ll recognize the tune. This is a concert performance, and a pretty good one:
I’ll select just one highlight from Act III: King Philip sings Ella giammai m’amò (She never loved me), in which he meditates on the inevitability of death and laments his loveless marriage. This is one of the great arias for bass voice, sung here by Ildar Abdrazakov. I cannot find a version with English subtitles, but the text and translation can be seen here.
Likewise, one highlight from the fourth and final act: Don Carlo must leave Spain to avoid his father’s wrath, and Elisabetta prays for strength to be parted from him forever. As her thoughts turn to France and the early days of their romance, she sings Tu che le vanita conoscesti (You who have known the vanity). Here is a treat: rare footage of Maria Callas singing live!
This is from 1962, so quite late in her career, when she was past her prime, but what a voice! Mesmerizing. (To hear her sing the same aria in 1958, go here. This is a calibre of singing from which one never quite recovers.)
Don Carlo has a dramatic finale which, however, I shall not showcase here. Suffice to say that all the main elements I stressed at the beginning — politics, religion, and tragedy — come together for a conclusion that is ne’er to be forgotten. If you think it ends well, you’ve not seen enough operas.