From time to time someone will ask me to name my favorite opera. I suppose the assumption is that since I am an opera fan the surely I must have A (one) favorite opera. I find the question not so easy to answer though. It depends on my mood and what I can see at any given time. The fact is that I love a lot of operas – Cenerentola, Cosi, Don Giovanni, Aida, Wagner's Ring - and I am hard pressed to whittle it down to one. But even so, there is one opera that I would put in the top of any list I would create and that opera is Verdi’s Don Carlos. This is, in my view, a terrific opera and I never tire of it. It is always interesting and exciting to see a production. This is partly because Verdi himself was never pleased with it and he kept tinkering with it. So there is at least about 5 hours of music that has been composed for this work. A traditional production of this opera however usually clocks in at around 3 to 3 and a half hours. And then there is the French version, which has even more different music composed for it. Don Carlo is a great treasure that has so much depth that one will never be able to exhaust the riches of this work.
I have seen it only once live, and that was at the Met with a wonderful cast (Furlanetto as Philip II, also with Lee as Carlos, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Posa, Frittoli as Elizabeth) but I have seen many productions online or on disk. I hope in the years to come to have the opportunity to see this opera live on many more occasions. (La Scala is doing a 5 hour version of the opera next season and Paris is doing BOTH the French and Italian versions of the opera in alteration – wouldn’t I love to see both of those productions!)
The opera is based on a play of the same name by Schiller, which was based on a novel by César de Saint-Réal, which was based on several tracts written during Philip’s lifetime by men who were his enemies, the most notable is an “Apology” by Prince William of Orange (who led the Dutch rebellion against Philip and was eventually assassinated, on Philip’s orders). The plot of the opera is convoluted, but I will attempt to lay it out simply (note that the play is even more complex).
The Plot of the Opera:
• PROLOGUE: Carlo has been betrothed to Elizabeth of Valois and he accompanies the guards sent to meet her and escort her to Spain. He slips away, as does Elizabeth from her train and they meet accidentally and without her knowing who he is at first they fall in love. Then the message comes that Philip has changed his mind and will marry Elizabeth himself. After listening to the pleadings of the French peasant women for her to accept and bring peace to their land she accepts the offer of Philip’s hand with a heavy heart. Carlo is crushed. This is the famous Fontainebleu scene which in the past was often cut. It is a great scene and IMHO should never be cut.
• ACT I, SCENE 1 - Several years has passed. Elizabeth and Philip are married. They are not happy. Carlo haunts the monastery where his grandfather Carlo V is buried and often his elaborate tomb is a part of the set. He meets an old monk (who may be Carlo V himself). Suddenly Carlo is interrupted by his friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa. Rodrigo is particularly concerned about Spanish oppression in Flanders and asks Carlo to join him in trying to help the people of Flanders. Carlo hesitates and Rodrigo is able to get Carlo to admit his love for Elizabeth – his step-mother, the Queen! Rodrigo is horrified, but they sing a famous duet committing themselves to each other as friends. This duet is interrupted by the King and Queen who have come to pray at the tomb. The scene ends with a reprise of the famous and glorious duet between Posa and Carlo – BFF for ever!
• ACT II - The Queen is attended by her ladies. The Princess of Eboli sings a Spanish song to amuse them. Rodrigo arrives and passes a secret letter to the Queen from Carlo asking for an audience. Posa is able to distract the nosey Eboli and the Queen meets Carlo with great dignity. He, however, is a wreck. He begs her to run away with him. She finally looses her cool and suggests that what he is suggesting is that he murder his father the King and take his step-mother to bed. Would that make him happy? Carlo runs away terrified just as the King enters. Philip is unhappy that the Queen has been left alone and dismisses one of her ladies for neglect. This prompts a beautiful aria by Elizabeth, expressing her sorrow, remorse and humiliation. Posa arrives as the ladies leave and the King asks Posa to ask for a reward, suggesting that his faithful service has deserved a reward from the King. Posa responds that he wants nothing for himself, but for others… “Others?” Asks the King. Yes, the people of Flanders. The King is uncomfortable with this suggestion and Posa gets so worked up that he forgets himself and suggests that Philip’s legacy will to be remembered as a tyrant, like Nero. Philip forgives the indiscretion and changes the subject. Would the Marquis act as a spy for me on Elizabeth and Carlo? Philip suspects something. Posa is amused by this but agrees. “But,” cautions the King, “Beware the Grand Inquisitor!” Ti guarda!
• ACT III, SCENE 1 - Carlo thinks he will have a midnight rendezvous with the Queen at which he intends to tell her he is going away. But the Queen doesn’t show. It is Eboli who loves Carlo but who Carlo doesn’t recognize in the dark. After pouring his heart out he realizes his mistake. It is too late, Eboli has put it together and swears to be revenged on Carlo and the Queen. Posa arrives and is ready to run Eboli through with his sword but is restrained by Carlo. After Eboli leaves Posa demands that Carlo turn over any incriminating papers. “To you, the King’s confidant?” Says Carlo. Posa is hurt and stunned to be distrusted, but Carlo finally agrees.
• ACT III, SCENE 2 - The day of the great Auto-da-Fé. The crowds have assembled, the heretics are marched to the stake. The King and Queen arrive with much pomp. Suddenly Carlo bursts in accompanied by ambassadors from Flanders. They interrupt the proceedings and plead for justice and mercy. The King is about the order their arrest when Carlo asks to be made Regent of Flanders. Philip refuses and Carlo, incensed draws his sword on the King. Everyone is shocked until finally the Marquis of Posa steps forward and disarms the Prince. As a reward the King on the spot gives Posa the title of Duke while Carlo is arrested and the fires are lit to burn the heretics. A voice from heaven floats down promising salvation for the so-called heretics. (It has always been unclear to me if the cast and crowds on stage can actually hear this voice, or if it is just for us the audience.)
• ACT IV, SCENE 1 - Philip is alone in his study. He has the Queen’s chest of jewelry open in front of him. Inside he has found a portrait of Carlo. He is despondent and sings one of the great bass arias in all opera:
Ella giammai m'amo - Met Feruccio Furlanetto
He is interrupted by the entrance of the Grand Inquisitor (and this is my favorite scene in all of opera – this dramatic scene between these two basses is tremendous). Philip tells the GI that he has arrested his son and feels that Carlo needs to be executed for the sake of the realm. Would he, the GI, offer him absolution if he condemns his son the death. He never gets an answer for this question from the GI. Instead the GI asks the King to give him Posa for his work in support of the Flemish rebels. No, jamais – No, Never! Shouts the King. "Don’t think that just because you are King that I can’t pull you before the tribunal," thunders the GI. Finally, Philip asks that there may be peace between them. “Perhaps,” says the GI.
No sooner has he left the room than Elizabeth bursts in angry and demanding the King’s justice for the theft of her Jewels. “Is this what you are looking for?” Asks the King. Elizabeth is stunned and further embarrassed when the King demands to know why she has a portrait of Carlo. The Queen tries to explain that there is nothing between them but the King accuses her of being unfaithful at which point she swoons. Eboli enters as the King leaves with Posa. Eboli is mortified that he anger has caused all of this heartbreak. It was she, she tells the Queen, who stole her box and gave it to the King. And not only that but she is the King’s mistress. Elizabeth, hurt and betrayed, softly asks for the gift back she had given to Eboli and gives her a choice of exile or life in a convent. As she leaves the Queen tells Eboli she has 24 hours to be gone. Eboli sings her great area “O Don Fatale” at the close of which she sees the warrant for Carlo’s death on the King’s death. She resolves to save Carlo before she leaves the court. (This 4th act is perhaps one of Verdi’s greatest achievements. It is great music, exceptionally dramatic and brilliantly structured.
• ACT IV, SCENE 2 - In the prison cell where Carlo is being held Posa comes to visit and tells Carlo that he has implicated himself for Carlo’s sake and is expecting to be arrested that day. He has come to say goodbye. Suddenly a shot rings out. The Inquisition has assassinated Posa. As he dies he begs Carlo to “Save Flanders!” The King enters and tells Carlo he is pardoned and free, but Carlo turns on his father and accuses him of Posa’s death. Philip denies it but at that moment there is a commotion. A band of peasants is besieging the castle. The GI appears and orders them to kneel before their King.
• In the monastary again. Elizabeth has come to say goodbye to Carlo who is leaving to help the people of Flanders. She sings an aria and they sing a duet. They are then interrupted by the King and GI who orders their arrest. Suddenly the voice of Carlo V rings out proclaiming the innocence of his grandson and Elizabeth as both of them disappear inside the tomb.
(Frankly the weakest act of the opera dramatically is the very last scene. In my opinion it is very unsatisfying after everything that went before. And this is a scene that no two stage directors do the same. The live production at the Met I saw had Carlo fighting with the guards and being killed. I have never seen a production that I thought made sense of the last scene. And frankly, the Schiller is not much better. I should get the novel and see how he ends the story).
So how does the opera stack up to the history of Spain and King Philip II? I recently finished reading The Imprudent King – A New Life of Philip II by Geoffrey Bush. It is an excellent and detailed account of the life of this great monarch who’s legacy continues to be felt in our world. Reading this book it is clear that the Schiller/Verdi version of the story is fiction for the most part. There are some basic historical truths represented but for the most part the basic plot is completely fiction, beginning with the cast list.
Elizabeth of Valois was Philip’s third wife (Mary Tudor - "Bloody Mary" was the second), she was never betrothed to Carlo who would have been too young at any rate. It was discussed for a while that Carlo would marry Anne of Austria, his cousin (the Hapsburgs all married sisters and cousins and aunts!) Ultimately Carlo’s behavior and incompetency led Philip to break off negotiations and he did eventually marry her himself (she was quite a bit younger so the age difference fits the opera). However, it is debatable whether Anne ever met Carlo. He was imprisoned and in solitary confinement by the time Philip married her. And why was he imprisoned? It became clear to Carlo that his father was having second thoughts about Carlo’s marriage to Anne. (It is important to bear in mind that royals at that time contracted marriages as political moves, love and compatibility were irrelevant!) But Carlo had become fixated on her. He had her portrait and devised a secret plan to escape Spain, travel to Austria and sweep her off her feet. It was a wholly impractical plan. But nevertheless he decided he would do it, but needed the help of his Uncle, Don John, the Admiral of the Spanish Navy to assist in the travel part of the plan. Carlo confided his plan to John who promptly reported it to the King. Carlo was so incensed that he asked to see his uncle again and this time had planned to murder him. His astute servants managed to thwart the murder plan and John was bigger, stronger and quicker by far than Carlo and he was easily able to protect himself. But this was the last straw. The King had had enough. Carlo was arrested and confined in solitary until he died. It seems harsh. And it is clear that Carlo suffered from some kind of psychological disorder, exacerbated by years of parental neglect and a bad head wound he had sustained. At any rate, it is highly doubtful that Anne of Austria would have ever even considered accepting a proposal from the Prince, much less carry on a secret love affair with him. She eventually gave birth (died in childbirth actually) to Philip III.
Everyone’s favorite baritone Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa is a fictional character. There was a treasury official who corresponded with the King near the end of Philip's life who was the Marquis of Poza, but this man and the baritone character have nothing in common at all. In the opera, Posa is a heroic man, who sacrifices himself for his friend Carlo and for Flanders. The only historical character who even comes close is William of Orange. But he was never a friend of Carlo.
The Duke of Lerma does not appear as a historical character until Philip III begins to prepare to take over the throne from his father. Lerma was the best friend of Philip III, who made him a Duke.
Princess of Eboli. There is a long, sad story involving her. She gets caught up the murder of Philip’s secretary de Esconbedo, who was her cousin. She was married to one of Philip’s closest advisors – Ruy Gomez – until his death. After that she started an affair with another secretary Antonio Perez who is the one who arranges the murder of his friend and colleague de Esconbedo. Despite the fact that Philip himself ordered and approved this assassination Perez is eventually arrested and tried and Eboli is also arrested. Initially she is confined to her home, but eventually she is moved to a windowless cell where she is kept in solitary confinement until she dies. She was never the King’s mistress. She was never in love with Carlo. She did have the eye patch, but that is about all the similarity there is.
The Grand Inquisitor – there is absolutely no evidence that any Inquisitor of Spain had the kind of power and commanded the kind of fear in Philip that the operatic character does. The character created by Verdi has more to do with Verdi’s own conflicted and difficult relationship with the church. If there is a wholly evil character in the opera it is the Grand Inquisitor, but there is no one like that at Philip’s court. In fact several of the Inquisitor Generals of Spain also served Philip as counselors, often very trusted counselors. They certainly had influence, but their influence was not to be found in direct confrontation. But rather indirect subtle “spiritual blackmail” as Parker puts it.
Carlo V did in fact resign and retire to a monastery. However he only lived there a few years before his death and he died before Carlo was born.
It’s a wonderful day for an Auto-da-Fé - Yes Philip attended several of these during his reign. They were always festival occasions and often would bring his children to watch (how horrid!) If you can say anything about Philip and his reign it is this: he saw himself in Messianic terms and he took his role as defender of the faith very, very seriously. His entire foreign policy was based primarily on this foundation. His wars with the Turks were basically religious; his subjugation of Flanders was prompted by the growth of Protestantism; his attempts to dethrone Elizabeth I, the debacle of the defeat of the Spanish Armada all were an attempt to reestablish Catholicism in England; the wars in France were also prompted by an effort to undermine Protestantism. Under Philip literally thousands were executed, many by being burned alive at the stake. He was quite proud of this and saw it as an accomplishment. I think it is disgusting, but I am not living in the 16th century. He also celebrated the massacre of the French Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s day! The circumstance of this scene is historical, however, that anyone (especially the Crown Prince) would threaten or challenge the King in public is not historical.
Flanders was a constant problem for Philip for his entire reign. The issue was primarily Religious freedom, but there were economic issues as well. Philip had three different taxes imposed that were designed to help pay for the occupation. Not surprisingly the Dutch were not enthusiastic and many rebellions flared up as a result. The most serious one was led by Prince William of Orange. Philip sent the Duke of Alba (who is a character in the Schiller and bears no resemblance whatsoever to the historical Alba) whose philosophy of putting down rebellions was a scorched earth policy. He was (in Philip’s name) brutal and exacting. The Flemish problem was never resolved in the 40 years of Philip’s reign.
The personality of Philip II is captured pretty well by Verdi and certain singers – like Feruccio Furlanetto – do an excellent job of bringing certain personality quirks out which are in fact historical. Philip was a micromanager. He had to do everything himself. He really did not trust others. His biggest failure was probably the defeat of the Spanish Armada and this came about because he devised the strategy in his study and would not allow his field commanders either input or deviation from the plan. Neither of them for their parts thought it would work, and they were right. Philip was always reading and writing letters. (Furlanetto incorporates this into his portrayal of the King.) He preferred to be alone and to deliberate alone. He was an absolute ruler and he ruled absolutely. He could be mistrustful. But he could also be ruthless and cruel. He was never noted for his mercy and many times preferred to exact harsh punishment on those who opposed him. He was not above using deception and lying to accomplish his goals or to entrap someone. And he did this on several notable occasions. He was not cowed by anyone, even the Pope. He was very devout, but while he was always respectful he still never allowed the church to push him around. He was a complex man.
The fact is that Philip ruled over a Kingdom that extended from the New World to Spain, Portugal, Flanders, parts of Italy and out to the Philippines (named in his honor). It was a huge job and his micromanaging style where he had to do everything himself was too overwhelming. He was simply not capable of managing it all. No one could. But he refused to accept this and would never take no for an answer. Before the Armada sailed the Admiral he had appointed came down very ill and had to be replaced. The man tapped to replace him tried for months to get out of this job, but in the end was unable to and despite his recognition that the plan would never succeed had no choice but to do it as best as he could.
The opera is based solely on propaganda devised by Philip's enemies and has little basis in historical fact. Even so the opera is a brilliant work – one of the greatest works in all of opera. Several scenes are simply iconic and magnificent, not only musically but also dramatically. That the historical details don’t match up is really not important in the long run, one should not look to the theater for historical information anyway. Verdi (and Schiller) capture the basic setting and personality of the King in particular and give us a magnificent study on the issues of power and love and betrayal and loyalty.