SFOpera - Don Carlo, The Guy

Don Carlo, The Guy

Hi, let’s talk about Don Carlo. Not the opera, the guy. He was heir to the throne of Spain in the mid-1500s. He was just as interesting—and way more eccentric—than his counterpart in the opera. He was weird, actually. 

In the opera he’s a misguided idealist infatuated with his stepmother. In real life he was a badly inbred basket case. People in his Spanish Hapsburg family liked to marry their relatives, and Don Carlo’s inbreeding was so thorough that he only had four great-grandparents, instead of the usual eight!  And two of those were sisters. And one of them was certifiably insane: his Spanish great-grandmother Juana la Loca (Mad Jane).  So no wonder the guy was a little odd.

Young Carlo was described as pale and short, with one shoulder higher than the other. He had the typical Hapsburg elongated chin and jaw. You can see it in their portraits.

As a result, he had a speech impediment. He also suffered from seizures. (He has a mild one in the opera, swooning during his Act II duet with his stepmother Elizabeth. Though he’s in love with her in the opera, but probably wasn’t in real life.). He was prone to fits of homicidal mania. In what must have been a nightmare for the palace HR office, he once tried to throw a servant out a window. And for sure he was on the SPCA’s hate list: He roasted rabbits alive, bit the head off a lizard in front of his courtiers, and locked himself in a stable and beat 23 horses nearly to death. Unhappy with some new boots, he forced the shoemaker to eat them. He even once attempted to stab the Grand Inquisitor. (None of those scenes is in the opera.  Verdi already had enough material to work with.) Carlo’s father King Philip finally got fed up and put him under house arrest, and he died six months later at age 23, supposedly from gluttony. Or was he poisoned . . . ? Well, that’s a subject for another opera.

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