What shall a young, liberty-loving prince do when his fiancé, a princess of a rival nation, is instead wed off to his father, the king? How can the prince balance the conflict between the obeisance his father expects and their very different approaches to governance? How can the king establish his own authority when the state is reliant on a terrifying grand inquisitor of the Catholic Church?
Those are some of the driving questions that Giuseppe Verdi ponders in his magnificent opera, Don Carlos (1867). Composed in the fraught times of the Risorgimento, the Italian reunification movement of the 1850s and ’60s, Verdi uses Don Carlos to express his own concerns about tyranny.
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Verdi strongly supported the Risorgimento, as evidenced by his personal documents and music. The phrase “Viva VERDI” appeared all over Italy starting 1858; the composer’s name was an acronym for “Viva Vittorio Emmanuel, Re D’Italia”—i.e., “Long live Victor Emmanuel, king of a unified Italy.” It was amid the tumultuous struggle for Italian national identity that the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra in Paris commissioned Don Carlos in 1864.
Meanwhile, the storms of war clouded over Italy as the newly formed kingdom, along with its ally Prussia, battled the Austrians in 1866. When France, Prussia’s ally, gained control of Venice, a furious Verdi attempted to cancel his contract with the Paris Opera but failed and had to indignantly remain in France. His father and his father-in-law died in early 1867, causing further grief to the exasperated composer. It was under these grim personal and political circumstances that Don Carlos premiered in Paris in 1867.
Verdi’s Craft is Nothing Short of Remarkable
Musically, the opera sits squarely in Verdi’s late middle period, forming a stepping stone from his “high noon” hits of Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1853), and La Traviata (1853) to his later grand operas’ like Aida (1871) and even Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893).
As an avid Verdi enthusiast, Verdi develops the characters and rather complicated plot of Don Carlos through new, intense musical mechanisms that are merely hinted at in his earlier operas. Monologues, duets, trios, musical dialogue, and grand choruses, all without a hint of pure recitative, demonstrate the various inner and outer conflicts that beleaguer his characters.
For example, Act I ends with the dissolution of Carlos’ engagement with his beloved Princess Elisabeth of France and her subsequent engagement to Carlos’ father, King Philip II of Spain. Though this news is horrifying, a celebratory chorus gleefully heralds the end of the war between France and Spain. The couple joins in, using darker tonal palettes to note their fatal destiny. Only Verdi can take a chorus of festive songs and, with expressive tonal harmony, successfully convert it into a harbinger of doom.
Liberty vs. Powers Temporal and Spiritual
Of all the tensions in Don Carlos, I am most intrigued by Verdi’s portrayal of the antagonism between King Philip, a firm espouser of the Crown’s authority, and Carlos and his friend Rodrigue, the marquis of Posa, who are passionately devoted to liberty. Looming eerily above the liberty vs. prerogative contest is the grand inquisitor, whose power intimidates even bold King Philip.
In an enchanting duet, Carlos and Rodrigue dedicate their lives to obtaining liberty and peace for Spanish colonies in Flanders. This melody, which I call the liberty motif, appears in different forms later in the opera. In contrast, Philip obstinately refuses to entertain Rodrigue’s plea for the relief of Flanders by chillingly remarking, “The king has heard nothing, but beware my inquisitor.”
“Beware,” indeed. In Act IV, the inquisitor demands Rodrigue’s life because, by sparking Carlos’ radically liberal ideas, the marquis of Posa went too far in sparking the flame of rebellion against both the Crown and the inquisitor’s dogmatic authority. And when Philip refuses to execute Rodrigue, the inquisitor, in starkly bitter tones, threatens to drag the king before the inquisition himself. His menacing, deep bass voice set against a rumbling brass motif always gives me goosebumps.
A trembling Philip placates the inquisitor, noting that the “pride of the king bows before that of the priest.” And the inquisitor wins out on policy: Agents of his office shoot and kill Rodrigue when he visits Carlos, then imprisoned for raising his sword publicly against his father on being denied the governorship of Flanders. Verdi’s liberty motif rings faintly in the background as Carlos embraces a dying Rodrigue.
When Philip later faces open rebellion, the inquisitor helps the king by invoking God to induce obedience in the masses—an example of Church and state working in tandem to maintain power, flouting even staunch Catholic beliefs by using faith to intimidate and coerce rather than inspire and empower.
Is the King’s Pride the Subject of Verdi’s Ire, or the Priest’s?
Verdi himself was not particularly religious. However, he wasn’t an atheist, and Don Carlos does not entirely reject God—only callous abuses of the Christian faith for political ends.
Act II opens at the monastery of San Juste, where Philip’s father, Emperor Charles V, retired after his abdication and later died. Monks chant of Charles’ life and of his soul trembling before God. One monk in particular stresses that God alone is great and advises a forlorn Carlos that he will only find solace in God. Carlos recognizes the monk’s voice as that of his grandfather: Could this be his ghost?
Soon after, the monks return to their chants regarding Emperor Charles as Philip and Elisabeth enter to pay respects at Charles’ grave. As Rodrigue comforts a heartbroken Carlos, the same monk extolls God again, castigating terrestrial comforts in favor of celestial ones.
Act V opens with the chanting motif, albeit in brass instruments, and interspersed with tense melodies in the strings. Elisabeth weeps before Charles’ grave at San Juste, begging her dead father-in-law, who “knew the emptiness of the world” and now enjoys a “sweet, profound peace”, to take her tears to the feet of God. The opera concludes when Philip’s soldiers deliver Carlos a mortal wound. The monk appears and sweeps Carlos into the monastery. Yet again he utters that the prince will only find solace before God, all while Philip and the inquisitor reel in astonishment, recognizing him beyond doubt as Emperor Charles’ ghost.
Verdi’s Studies in Contrast
Compare Charles’ rejection of earthly pleasures for divine grace with the inquisitor’s use of temporal powers to reinforce seemingly divine authority. Contrast Charles’ humility in death with Philip’s self-assurance in his authority in life. Verdi beautifully depicts these contrasts in an auto-da-fè scene in which heretics are burnt at the stake on Philip’s orders, only to hear a voice from the heavens welcoming them to God. That was Verdi’s response to Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-78), whose censorship and autocracy he abhorred.
While Don Carlos can be interpreted as a call to disassociate ecclesiastical and temporal authority, what does the opera say about Verdi’s choice of Carlos as the standard-bearer for liberty? He is anointed thus by Rodrigue’s dying breaths, as the liberty theme rings softly in the background.
However, Carlos fails to actualize his and Rodrigue’s dream of liberty for Flanders. He instead spends the entire opera, except for a couple of scenes, grieving over lost love. His initial plan to drown his sorrows in Flanders, working constructively, are immediately brushed aside as he renews his love to a conflicted but dutiful Elisabeth. After his heroic (or foolish) standoff with his father and subsequent imprisonment, he finally agrees to leave for Flanders at Rodrigue’s urging, only to be caught saying a final goodbye to Elisabeth and subsequently suffering wounds.
As the monk—the ghost of Carlos’ grandfather—sweeps him into a monastery, the opera ends on a mysterious note. Did Carlos die? What became of the miserable Elisabeth? Did Rodrigue really sacrifice himself in vain? Verdi left the ending open to interpretation. Verdi showed us his disdain for authoritarian regimes, Church and State collusion, and despots and zealots of all stripes. His life shows us his love of liberty, free thought, and his homeland. However, Don Carlos leaves more questions asked than answered; Verdi’s opera assigns to his audience the liberty of thought and interpretation that he so desperately craved.
Very interesting! I need to learn more about Verdi’s work. I was in Italy one summer, and at a concert in the square, a choir began to sing Verdi’s “Va Pensiero”. The whole plaza full of people stood up and sang with them! It’s sort of their unofficial national anthem, I guess.