An Introduction to the Opera
by Dr. Robert Blackburn
The libretto of Verdi's Don Carlos, by Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle, was drawn from one of the longest earlier plays of Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), the great German dramatist, historian and thinker of the Enlightenment, and friend in later years of Goethe. In Verdi's life, Don Carlos comes between La Forza del Destino (original version premiered at St Petersburg in 1862) and Aida (Cairo Opera House, 1871). Nowadays it is regarded as one of Verdi's greatest achievements, a musical and dramatic tour de force. But for most of its career since the work's first appearance in French at the Paris opera on 11 March 1867, its reputation has been problematic. Verdi himself was never fully satisfied with the original five-act version, itself subjected to last-minute cuts in 1867. In 1883, he revised the work into four acts with an Italian (translated) text by Angelo Zanardini based on the French libretto. This version was given at La Scala Milan on 10 January 1884, with further changes being made in 1886. In 1887, the same opera house gave the premiere of Otello (libretto by Boito after Shakespeare) followed almost exactly six years later by Falstaff (also Boito after Shakespeare) bringing Verdi's astonishing operatic career to a close, in his eightieth year.
If Shakespeare was always Verdi's greatest theatrical love (shared with several 19th century composers, such as Berlioz and Tchaikovsky), Schiller always came a close second. Before Don Carlos, Schiller had already provided source-material for four operas. Giovanna d Arco (Joan of Arc) came first in 1845, based on Schiller's play Die Jungfrau von Orleans. Then came I masnadieri, based on Schiller's first, deeply influential play Die Rduber (The Robbers, 1781). This was Verdi's only opera to receive a London premiere, in 1847. Two years later, in December 1849, came Luisa Miller, loosely based on Schiller's Kabale and Liebe (Intrigue and Love). During the next twelve years, Verdi's triumph as the greatest opera composer of his day was affirmed through a succession of works from Rigoletto (1851) to Un ballo in maschera (1859) which have held the stage ever since.
Schiller's play Don Carlos, Infante of Spain (1783-87) was chosen by Verdi as a vehicle for a grand opera designed to rival and surpass those of Giacomo Meyerbeer, and to establish his reputation at the Paris Opera following a commission in 1865. Here, his own Sicilian Vespers (Scribe and Duveyrier) had been given in 1855, while in 1861, Wagner's Tannhauser (1845) had appeared there in a revised (and problematic) version. It was always recognised that Schiller's profoundly human and moving drama was not really historical, but was drawn from a French novel of 1672 by the Abbe de Saint-Real. The historical Don Carlos, weak and deformed, had died, mysteriously, aged 23. His doomed love for his stepmother, Elisabeth de Valois, is pure conjecture. Schiller wanted to attack religious bigotry through his portrayal of the Inquisition; his Spanish Royal family's misery reflects a wider unhappiness of the state in the grip of the Inquisition's power. In such an atmosphere, Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, champion of the oppressed Flemish people, could never have been such an open dissenter. Schiller's drama is of its own time; its theme is freedom of thought and action amid the Enlightenment concepts of natural law and natural justice. The background 'Flemish freedom' theme parallels that of Goethe's play Egmont (1775-87) known now mainly through Beethoven's incidental music of 1810.
In the current production, the great Forest of Fontainebleau scene (1867 version) is omitted. What you will see is the 1884 version slightly adapted. Six figures stand at the heart of the opera, as they do in the play, though the atmosphere of the work is heavily affected by the lords and ladies of the court, monks and people, guards and pages. Don Carlos is a tenor, pitted against the bass baritone of his tragic father, King Philip of Spain, the baritone of his close friend Posa, and the bass of the ruthless Grand Inquisitor. A high soprano sings Elisabeth de Valois, with the role of the ambitious Princess Eboli, sometime mistress of Philip II and now would-be consort of Don Carlos, a mezzo. Verdi had never before used such a range of voices and stage personalities in so intense a drama. His musical inventiveness was at its height, and, if Don Carlos has its flaws, dramatically, it is, overall, one of Verdi's grandest conceptions.