SFOpera - Verdi at His Most Ambitious

Verdi at His Most Ambitious

"Don Carlos has really thrilled him. I think that this drama, instinct as it is with real passion, is just what he needs,” reported Léon Escudier, Verdi’s French publisher, after a trip to visit the composer in 1865. He was sounding Verdi out on some possible topics for a fresh commission from the Paris Opéra. Another idea that aroused Verdi’s interest was King Lear—a project he had long hoped to realize—but Verdi opted for Don Carlos, a historical tragedy by Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), as more suitable for treatment in the French grand opera style.

Don Carlos—or Don Carlo as it would later be known in versions performed in Italian, as in San Francisco Opera’s current production— was a conspicuously bold yet somehow inevitable choice. Bold because of the immense artistic challenges Verdi already sensed it would pose; inevitable because here was dramatic material that summed up a lifetime of preoccupations for the composer: private versus public roles, conscience juxtaposed against conventional duty, the idealistic call to freedom in a fatal clash with political reality—and, underlying all of these, the tragic imperative to sacrifice all hope for personal happiness.

In Don Carlo these tensions play out against the backdrop of an immense power struggle between Church and State that inspired Verdi to push his art to new, unprecedented extremes. The result is arguably his most nuanced portrayal of the tragic sensibility—a profoundly dark lamentation of the human condition and a counterpart to the comic vitality of Verdi’s swan song Falstaff with its acceptance of our limitations.

Radical Reappraisal

“The schism between a duty rigorously carried out and a nature in which solitude and confusion are palpable gives the character [of King Philip] its modernity,” observes opera historian Gilles de Van in his provocative 1998 study Verdi’s Theater. Indeed, with Don Carlo, Verdi embarked on a subject that would take nearly a century to begin finding its proper audience. During the composer’s lifetime, its varied incarnations at best enjoyed a mixed success. Already for the Paris premiere in 1867, Verdi was obliged to trim structurally meaningful parts of his vast score—the most ambitious in his entire oeuvre. An even more streamlined version, which did away with the entire first act of the original five-act opera, was prepared for the Italian production presented by La Scala in 1884—and more revisions followed.

Encroaching Wagnerism, meanwhile, caused Verdi’s reputation overall to decline (with the exception, more or less, of his two final Shakespeare operas, Otello and Falstaff). Don Carlo—among the least susceptible of Verdi’s works to pigeonholing within the Italian operatic tradition—fell into relative obscurity but then underwent a dramatic reversal of fortune following the Second World War. In 1950 Rudolf Bing chose Don Carlo to launch his tenure as general director of the Metropolitan Opera (where it had last been performed in 1922), and in 1958 Covent Garden staged a highly lauded production directed by Luchino Visconti.

It is just one of the many paradoxes surrounding Don Carlo that an opera seemingly grounded in a specific historical era has proved to transcend the boundaries of history—those both of its setting and of its genre as grand opera—to speak to contemporary audiences with the timeless, mythic resonance and psychological acuity Wagnerians have wanted to monopolize on behalf of their idol. And despite Don Carlo’s dramaturgical flaws and exceptionally complicated revision history—no other work by Verdi was subjected to so many rewrites for so many different performance contexts—this opera has emerged in recent decades as a contender for the composer’s greatest overall achievement. “The best of Don Carlo remains unsurpassed by Verdi or anyone else,” according to Julian Budden, one of the most respected authorities on the composer. And even though “it is certainly not [Verdi’s] most perfect” creation, Don Carlo “is the most wide-ranging of all in the emotions explored and in its wealth of sharply drawn characters.”

“What Verdi responded to in his librettos above all was passion,” explains director Emilo Sagi who first staged his vision of Don Carlo for San Francisco Opera in 1998. “These characters have to deal with a chaos in their lives that creates passion. The Spanish court is a kind of setting for him to explore this. That, more the historical truth of the era, is what interests him.”

Verdi and Schiller

Verdi had actually rejected an earlier proposal for an operatic Don Carlo back in 1850, when he was searching for a subject for his first grand opera specifically tailored to the French stage. That work became Les vêpres siciliennes, which succeeded the premiere of Jérusalem, a French adaptation of his Italian opera I Lombardi. By that point Verdi had already written three of his four operas based on the work of Schiller who had so profoundly inspired Beethoven. (Beethoven was another of Verdi’s most cherished artistic models and the composer of the first great political opera of the post-Enlightenment era, Fidelio.) Verdi’s early Schiller-derived operas include Giovanna d’Arco (1845), I Masnadieri (1847), and Luisa Miller (1849), with which San Francisco Opera opened this final season of General Director David Gockley’s tenure. Verdi had also by now undertaken both his first operatic translation of Shakespeare with Macbeth (1847), which he substantially revised for Paris (1865) just before embarking on Don Carlo.

Budden points out that, in contrast to his relationship to Shakespeare (and to Victor Hugo, for that matter), Verdi’s affinity for Schiller “seems to have been slower to develop. … Not until Luisa Miller is there any indication that Verdi had read the drama before considering the subject for operatic treatment.” And he reluctantly agreed to his librettist’s manipulation of the content to conform to Italian operatic convention “in a way that he never would have done in a Shakespearian opera.” But with Schiller’s Don Carlos, “the situation is quite different. … It was the first time that he had confronted a Schiller play in all its vast complexity; and this is something which he could never have contemplated before the 1860s with the experience of La Forza del Destino behind him.”

Schiller based his vast five-act Don Carlos, which was first produced in 1787, very freely on events and individuals from the court of King Philip II of Spain. Head of the world’s leading empire at the time, Philip reigned from 1556 to 1598; the episodes involving his son, the eccentric Infante Don Carlos, and his young wife, Elisabeth de Valois, are essentially fictional, as is the completely implausible political libertarianism of Don Carlos’ close friend the Marquis of Posa whom Philip adopts as a kind of surrogate son in lieu of the real one he despises. Schiller aligns the personal and political conflicts to reinforce Philip’s fundamental dilemma as an “absolute” ruler who himself must bow to the ultimate power of the Church.

This struggle between Church and State becomes psychologically internalized in Verdi’s operatic portrayal, while at the same time manifesting itself in the epic spectacle of the third-act auto-da-fé at the opera’s pivot point (a scene only referred to briefly in Schiller’s play).

Verdi’s interest in Schiller’s text can be seen in the degree of his involvement consulting with his two French librettists, François Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle. All of the music Verdi wrote for Don Carlo, even in its later revivals for the Italian stage, was to French text. The libretto of necessity cut much of the material from Schiller’s Don Carlos but also incorporated new scenes taken from different sources. The most notable of the latter involves the entire first act, the only part of the opera that takes place outside Spain. Set in the forest of Fontainebleau, the opening act explains the “Oedipal” love between Don Carlo and Elisabetta who is suddenly transformed into his stepmother thanks to Philip’s last-minute decision to marry her himself.

It was Verdi’s idea to restore two key scenes from Schiller’s play, each of which provides an unforgettable opportunity to dramatize the power of the State and Church, respectively. The first is Philip’s personal encounter with Posa in the second act, in which the young liberal tries to persuade the King to free the Flemings from religious tyranny and is taken into the monarch’s confidence. For the other, in the fourth act—the interchange between the King and the Grand Inquisitor, the opera’s ultimate patriarchal figure—Verdi pits two bass voices against one another to music of powerfully oracular gloom.

Church versus State

According to Giles de Van, “Verdi strongly deflected the personality of Schiller’s king toward greater humanity, but he also sent it in the direction of greater uncertainty.” Nowhere is this ambiguity more in evidence than in Don Carlo’s signature scene, the great monologue opening the fourth act. For Wagnerians, the scene is reminiscent of Wotan’s turning-point monologue at the very center of the Ring in the second act of Die Walküre. For all the trappings of his power as absolute head of the State, Philip acknowledges his inner unhappiness and sense of impotence. He seems to anticipate that, in his ensuing meeting with the Grand Inquisitor, he will give in to the power of the Church and sacrifice the “son” he loves, Posa. “The King of Spain thus appears like a hostage to the temporal power of the Church while sharing in its blind intransigence,” notes de Van.

“Philip is not the commander in the opera. The Church is the real commander, and it demands blind faith,” says Sagi. “Verdi understood it was very clever to represent the Grand Inquisitor as blind, since the power of the Catholic Church in these times was blind and determinist.”

Schiller interpreted this struggle according to the philosophical framework of the Enlightenment, on the eve of the French Revolution’s violence. “Though the representatives of a better future are destroyed, the implication is that the course of history will vindicate them,” writes literary scholar Lesley Sharpe. “The tragedy is thus set within a framework of guarded hope.”

Drawing on the resources of opera with the mature technique of a master, Verdi creates a series of penetrating character portraits and confrontations from this material. Instead of a plot-driven melodrama, his Don Carlo is an epic of competing perspectives and power struggles—political, ideological, religious, and emotional—that acquire depth and vivid dramatic interest through his musical representations. All the while, Verdi continually invests conventional modes with fresh significance. Take the love duets between Carlo and Elisabeth whose “forbidden” feelings for each other become a metaphor for the impossibility of a private, intimate shelter from the all-seeing Inquisition.

Verdi’s ambiguous conclusion is that of a disappointed idealist, a reluctant realist. “My son, earthly suffering follows us even into this place [the cloister],” proclaims the ghostly monk/revived Emperor Charles V (Philip’s father). “The peace for which your heart hopes is found only in God!” For a committed freethinker like Verdi, this is essentially no less than the peace of death.

Thomas May is a longtime regular contributor to San Francisco Opera’s programs and the author of Decoding Wagner: An Invitation to His World of Music Drama. He writes criticism for Musical America and The Seattle Times and blogs about the arts at memeteria.com.

Music Director's Note