LA Opera Blog: James Conlon on Don Carlo

A Note from Music Director James Conlon

And Samuel said to Saul: “Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?” And Saul answered: “I am sore distressed; …and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more…therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.” (First Book of Samuel, 28:15)

“Then why do you evoke the shadow of Samuel,” thunders the Grand Inquisitor at the climax of his bracing confrontation with Philip II, king of Spain. The biblical reference, hurled as a coup de grâce from one potentate at another, is emblematic of the dimensions of Giuseppe Verdi’s 23rd and perhaps most ambitious opera. Those dimensions refer not only to the length, but also the breadth of its historical roots and the depth of its profoundly expressive portrayal of the human drama.

Don Carlo is unique in Verdi’s output. It is not bridge leading on to the future; it is mountain peak standing on its own, complete within itself.

It is “about” a family conflict between father and son, a nostalgic and impossible love between that son and his young stepmother, and the unsteadiness of the son searching to find himself. Those elements alone would suggest just another domestic drama, were it not for who they are.

When the father is King Philip II, the world’s most formidable monarch at the height of the Spanish Empire, son of Emperor Charles V, whose brief appearances at the beginning and the end of the opera in monk’s robes establish his awe-inspiring authority; when Carlo, son and grandson of two monarchs, is the Infante of Spain, in line for the succession to the throne; when Elisabeth, once Carlo’s betrothed now his stepmother, is the daughter of the French king; when the representative of the Roman Catholic Church is no less than the Grand Inquisitor; when the closest friend and confidant of the Infante, Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, is a spokesperson for progressive ideas on freedom and personal liberties for post-Reformation Flanders—the magnitude of these historical personages invites a musical and dramatic expression far beyond the normal scope of melodrama.

All of this, put in the hands of someone lacking genius, might not have come to much. But Verdi, the profoundly human moral realist, born of the earth and now in his maturity with almost two dozen works behind him, produced a stunningly majestic opera. There are those who consider Don Carlo his greatest work, even in the face of his final late-life masterpieces Otello and Falstaff. The blend of history and personal drama, bathed in richly austere colors, gives it a unique status amongst his works.

It was common, if not a commonplace, to present historical figures and settings in both Italian and French operatic life. This was often essentially decoration to dress up a love story. Don Carlo is much more. The competing exigencies of length, grandeur, pageantry of French grand opéra and the relative concision and intimacy of Italian melodramma generated a destabilizing, explosive chemistry, which was equally scourge and inspiration. Italian 19th-century opera repeatedly retold a conventional love story in which, as George Bernard Shaw tersely put it, “a tenor and a soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.” Verdi had used this formula his entire career, albeit with an ever-increasing sophistication.

Now his acceptance of the grandiose, a condition of French grand opéra, created a disequilibrium of proportion and values. The political and social issues reflected in the work, more or less veiled, show tastes already in evidence much earlier in Verdi’s work. The Risorgimento period had provided him with much fodder and inspiration for patriotic themes during the 1840s, but by the 1860s, now that the first unification of the Italian peninsula had been accomplished, Verdi’s interest in it waned and he was ripe for something more. His attraction to the works of Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) led him into a more profound relationship to the expression of political drama. (Don Carlo was the fourth and last of his operas based on works by the German author) In the matured interrelationship between individual stories and social context, the needle moved further towards the latter.

An important caveat: opera—whether based on history, literary works, pre-existing theater or dramas—never has had nor believed it had any obligation to serve either the spirit or the letter of the original source material. Composers have always taken what they needed from their sources, freely changing, rearranging, modifying and excising while also reinventing and blending them into an intelligible new entity. Their success or failure in doing so is not measured by the story’s fidelity to its predecessors, but by the final theatrical/musical creation. The finished product must justify its own existence, on its own terms, without anterior reference.

Opera is emphatically not History, with a capital H, nor the literature from which it is derived. Don Carlo is no exception, nor is Schiller’s dramatic poem (1787), whose primary source was a romanticized 1672 novel by the French author Abbé de Saint-Real, added and abetted with subsequent variants and often apocryphal 18th-century accounts. What actually transpired at Philip’s court was quickly mixed with rumors and gossip, which then morphed into fiction. Verdi is at a considerable remove from history.

The evolution from reality to invention posed no crises of conscience for these two respective geniuses of German literature and Italian opera. Verdi admired Schiller and profoundly loved Shakespeare. Schiller evokes the shadow of Hamlet and Verdi that of King Lear. The Oedipal triangle (in Philip, Carlo, Elisabeth) and Biblical triangle of Saul-Jonathan-David (in Philip, Carlo, Rodrigo) enhance a rich mix of personal and archetypical interactions. The Grand Inquisitor plays the prophet Samuel to Philip’s King Saul for his own ends.

Verdi was completely fluent in non-historical themes: love versus duty, the conflict between father and son (spread from grandfather Carlos V over three generations through Philip to Don Carlo), the plight of the tragic father, vengeance for spurned love and frustrated ambition (Princess Eboli). Several triangular matrices are operative (Philip, Elisabeth, Carlo) (Philip, Elisabeth, Eboli) (Philip, Carlo, Rodrigo).

The Grand Inquisitor, intractable, as sightless as he is ruthless, was a gift to Verdi’s inveterate, deeply anti-clerical muse. In the scene, painted in dark and somber tones that proceeds like a ghostly ritual of confession, the Inquisitor bends the King to his will. In their encounter, Verdi produced one of the most chilling and unique scenes in all of opera.

But it is in Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, Carlo’s friend and the king’s confidant, that we discover something unique. He is virtually the only Verdi baritone who is related to the tenor by friendship, not opposition. Rodrigo is an anachronism, both in Philip II’s 16th-century bastion of Spanish Catholic Absolutism and in Verdi’s 19th-century world. Enlightenment-era values and liberal philosophy are totally out of historical (though not poetical) context. He is a foil posing secular rectitude against religious piety.

Complex and ambiguous in Schiller, Rodrigo is somewhat sanitized in Verdi: a model of idealism, selfless generosity and amicable fidelity. He is no stranger to court intrigue and employs questionable means to attain his ends. The hero who would reform the world corrupts his own ideals and brings about both his own death and that of his loved ones. Yet his ideals clearly have the composer’s sympathy, represented by Verdi in an “outmoded” melodic style reminiscent of the earlier Risorgimento period.

Another important element challenged Verdi to once again expand his art: the Parisian public’s expectations and demand for the adherence to certain traditions. He had to come to terms with a five-act structure (de rigueur in French theater since the 17th century) and a lengthy, centrally located ballet, forcing him to struggle with proportions that were not natural for him. His earlier opera Les Vêpres Siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers, 1855), which was also written for Paris, shows the same difficulties posed by the enlarged scope and length of French grand opéra.

But Verdi had always stretched his own boundaries. His capacity and willingness to do so goes a long way to explain the monumental transformation of Italian opera that he accomplished, and the heritance that he left in the world.

Verdi wrestled continually with the length and abundance of musical material he created. From the Parisian dress rehearsal in 1867 to a final variant in Modena in 1886, he made four major re-workings and seven identifiable versions of the opera. To go into the myriad details is beyond the scope of this essay, but the two principal (“competing,” one could say) versions are the above-mentioned five-act Don Carlos in French (1867) and the four-act Don Carlo, premiered in Milan (1884), translated into Italian.

But can there ever really be a “definitive” or “correct” version? Pierre Boulez, the great composer and conductor, observed that musical works often exist in several or even many variants. In the art world, Claude Monet’s numerous representations of water lilies and the Rouen Cathedral are famous examples of this. One wonders if Verdi ever considered his opera finished. Did Michelangelo’s consider the Slavesor the Palestrina and Bandini Pietàs completed? Completed or not, they are all masterworks. The pros and cons of the various versions of Don Carlo(s) have been widely discussed. A choice must be made for any given performance, but that choice cannot, and should not, be considered binding.

The Italian version’s suppression of the French version’s original first act—set in the forest of Fontainebleau where the young Carlo and Elisabeth fall in love—thus setting the stage of the ensuing drama, is a loss. And yet it can be argued that the “reminiscence” of that scene is more poignant and potent in the audience’s imagination for not having seen it. (Unlike Puccini, Verdi rarely shows a couple falling in love; it is almost always a given at the beginning of his operas.)

The advantage of the four-act version, aside from its relative concision, is that it opens and closes in the powerfully evocative austerity of the monastery where the Emperor Charles V is entombed. These bookends to the story introduce us and leave us with a formidable impression on 1) the power of the supernatural on the human imagination, and 2) the omnipotence of the temporal Roman Catholic Church, arbiter of all discourse concerning the supernatural, and its iron influence on society.

Lastly, the translation into Italian is a double-edged sword. All translations are compromises with the original and this no exception. Music and word fit together better in the original. However rich the French text is, however, there is still, at least to my ears, a fundamental dissonance between the Gallic tenor of the French language and the quintessentially (almost defining) Italianate expressivity of Verdi’s music.

Regardless of language, version or tenuous relationship to history, ultimately the music subdues all discussion. The few remaining vestiges born of the pre-Verdian bel canto structures are now approaching the apex of Verdi’s art with two love duets (or three, depending on the version) and several arias that have found their way out of the opera house and into the concert hall: the king’s monologue, arguably the greatest solo in the 19th-century bass repertory; Eboli’s “O don fatale,” Verdi’s last and perfected traditional scena and aria for mezzo-soprano; Elisabeth’s last-act aria at the tomb of Carlo V; and Posa’s farewell and death—all top-drawer arias in each of their categories. The confrontational duets for two basses (Philip/Inquisitor) and for bass and baritone (Philip/Rodrigo) are the logical conclusion of a Verdian tradition that stretched back to his first compositional decade.

In the course of the drama, public places give way to the private domain, and the court and crowd empty out to leave the last two acts predominantly intimate. The so-called “closet scene”—with Philip’s aria, his duet with the Grand Inquisitor, the quartet and Eboli’s aria—is the core of the opera. Here we see a deeply melancholy and intimate portrait of Philip the Man, vulnerable and human despite his apparent omnipotence. He is desolate, isolated, broken-hearted as husband and father, and ultimately worn down by the Inquisitor.

Absent from this scene is only Carlo, an absence symbolic of his isolation in the court and his rejection by his disdainful father. He has experienced one moment of happiness in his life: his brief betrothal to Elisabeth of Valois, only to lose her to his father.

Verdi’s increasing mastery of orchestration, his expanding harmonic vocabulary and ever-deepening expressivity were both the impetus and the fruit of a hybrid operatic form. A rare incursion into the unexplored landscape of a “guilty” and secret (not solely impossible) love; the glow of romanticized history; spectacle for the French tastes (no less than the infamous auto-da-fé), and the marriage of French and Italian traditions is consummated even as the heretics are consumed in flames. The “shadow of Samuel” has charted a kind of “Twilight of the Gods” for the Spanish royal family. The outsized personalities of Charles V, Philip II, the human drama of the Queen and Infante of Spain, the conflicts amongst nations and religions, Church and State, are all played out on the world stage.

Don Carlo, created by the great Italian master on French turf, paradoxically claims its place as perhaps the greatest and most enduring grand opéra of all. Verdi bequeathed to the world a work like no other, not even one of his own.

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