Verdi wrote Don Carlos for the Paris Opera in 1867 when he was 54. He had built his reputation with many operas including Nabucco, Il trovarore, Rigoletto, Macbeth and La Traviata and was already famous across Europe, although arguably his greatest works - Aida, Otello and Falstaff were still to come. However, in writing Don Carlos, Verdi was constrained by the five Act convention traditional in Paris and this lead to a sprawling and demandingly long piece with the absorbing story line (drawn from a story by Schiller and based on historical events) somewhat dissipated as a result.
Subsequent revisions, including those of Verdi himself, have tried to pull the work into a more compact shape which restores the muscularity of the narrative drive and allows the many superb musical moments to tumble out at a greater pace. In line with this tradition we have cut altogether the original first Act (of five) in which the doomed pair, Carlos - heir apparent to the throne of Spain - and Elisabeth - daughter of the King of France, meet in the forest at Fontainbleau and fall in love, only to be cruelly torn apart by the news of an arranged marriage between Elisabeth and King Philip, Carlos' Father. We have tried to overcome the problem caused by this omission (why should Carlos be so upset at the start of Act II - now the start of the Opera?) by capturing through mime, during the overture, the story of the first Act.
We have exploited what chances we can to trim and prune other bits and bobs - taking care to leave the many 'jewels' intact. We were assisted in this by the fact that many of the orchestral interludes are originally of a length designed to permit a very large chorus to get on and off the vast Paris stage!
This is a magnificent opera, both musically and dramatically. It has one of the strongest story lines of all Verdi's works. We have striven over the past four months to make the piece work as a drama, building from the development of character for each member of the chorus as well as for the principals. As a result I hope you find that the performances have depth and are convincingly 'real'. Above all the cast has tried to make Don Carlos accessible and understandable.
The opera is set in 16th century Spain, the time of the Inquisition and the supremacy of the Catholic Church. Through David Wood's deliberately austere sets and investment in high quality props and costumes we have tried to create a sense of a society which is strictly ordered from the King downwards and where power is absolute; everyone knows their place. There are many creative tensions in the opera; between Church (in the person of the Grand Inquisitor) and State (King Philip); between love (Carlos and Elisabeth) and duty (Elisabeth and Philip); between loyalty and political idealism (Rodrigo and Carlos); between lust and honour (Princess of Eboli).
There is much violence inherent in Don Carlos, both on and off stage. This ever-present threat of force and death underpins the power-relationships which pack the story; King over subjects; Church over State; Spain over Flanders; bigotry over mercy; husband over wife.
I hope that you enjoy the performance as much as I have enjoyed directing it!
John Palmer 18 March 2001