OPERA The Italian Opera Company of Chicago

Don Carlo: Flawed Verdi masterpiece
By John Rizzo

There are some Verdi operas, such as Rigoletto, Il trovatore and Aida, that were resounding triumphs when they premiered and have continued to be box office blockbusters ever since. On the other hand, La traviata was an unmitigated fiasco on its opening night, but when it was reintroduced shortly thereafter with relatively modest changes and a far more appropriate cast, it was received with wild public and critical acclaim, and to this day it has maintained a place in the first circle of opera favorites. Then there are other Verdi operas, most from his "early period", like Nabucco, Ernani, I Lombardi and La battaglia di Legnano, that were initially smashing successes but have faded significantly in popularity over time. The composer's penultimate work, Otello, would be far more popular than it is today, but it suffers from a lack of exposure simply because there is a current lack of tenors with both the vocal power and that peculiar Italianate lyricism that can do real justice to the title role. (Placido Domingo is one who can, magnificently!)

There is still another group of operas, most notably Un ballo in maschera, La forza del destino and Don Carlo that are still very popular attractions, although they are not as universally appealing as the first four works mentioned. In the last two decades, however, Don Carlo has been on a critical roll of sorts. As a matter of fact, it is not unusual these days to read that this opera is Verdi's greatest masterpiece of all. That the frequency of performance of Don Carlo has not increased appreciably despite the efforts of its current champions is attributed to an unfortunate lack of audience understanding.

Where art of any kind is concerned, I am always skeptical, and sometimes downright insulted, when I am told that the only reason a work is under-appreciated is because it is not understood. To be sure, there has always been an ongoing ebb and flow of esthetic appeal that is driven by changing tastes and changing times. But I believe with all my heart that true immortality is only bestowed on works of art that embody certain formal principles and qualities such that they are in all ages perceived as being "beautiful," and thus are forever impervious to evolving attitudes that result from the mere passage of time. Don Carlo is a masterpiece, but a flawed one compared to Verdi's greatest works.


Teatro Communale di Modena

Don Carlo is another of those operas where the sum of its parts is greater than the whole. In this work there are indeed some scenes that are musically and dramatically as excellent as any that Verdi ever conceived. But as a complete work of art, it falls somewhat short of perfection. Before we go into the difficulties of this piece, let us first look at the qualities of brilliance that Don Carlo holds in common with Verdi's undisputed masterpieces. Overall the instrumental scoring is as creative and as interesting as can be found in any Verdi opera. As usual it is Verdi's instrumentation that establishes the work's tinta, or predominant tone color. The prominence of lower strings, brass and woodwinds emphasizes the dark richness of the score. The contrasting passages highlighted by "dancing" violins and plaintive melodies in the upper woodwinds define the hopeless emotions that run rampant amongst most of the characters. In this formula we are unmistakably reminded of earlier works, especially La traviata. In a few fortissimo passages, in conjunction with the percussion, the trumpets blast out rapid scales to underline violent passions, as will be so common in Otello.

As to the vocal scoring, Don Carlo is marked by the composer's clear preference for the duet, trio, etc. over the solo aria, an approach which he continually embraced in his more mature style. The famous tenor-baritone duet, capped by the familiar "Dio che nell'alma infondere" is strikingly akin to the blood-brother duets, "Solenne in quest'ora" from La forza and "Si, per ciel" from Otello. In the chilling scene with Filippo and the Inquisitore, their dialog is bracketed by a spooky bass-cello ritornello, which can't help but remind us of the similar device in the duet between Rigoletto and Sparafucile. The ominous choruses of monks are clear precursors to those of the priests of Aida. Another very interesting touch in Don Carlo is the "pants role", Tebaldo. Not only is this soprano part similar to Oscar in Un ballo in the contour of the melodic line but, in one Don Carlo passage, Verdi uses virtually the same music as in the earlier piece! There are also a number of memorable solo arias in Don Carlo, including Carlo's "Io la vidi," a tenor aria very typical of Verdi's earlier works, Elisabetta’s “Non pianger, mia compagna,” Eboli's "Nel giardin bello" (the “Veil Song” - the composer's last coloratura aria, perhaps a final farewell to the bel canto style) and “O don fatal” and Filippo’s pathos-filled “Dormirň sol nel manto mio regal.” We note that the role of Eboli is perhaps the most prominent among the principals and that a strong portrayal can easily steal the show, as in the case of those other bravura Verdi mezzos, Azucena and Amneris.

Of course there are many more fine points to this opera that could only have sprung from the genius of a master, passages that are not ever to be found in such quantity in a single work of a lesser composer. Yet with all its musical brilliance, Don Carlo fails to meet the standard of perfection established in a number of Verdi operas. Many operas can not be considered true masterpieces because they do not have enough good music, but this is not the case with Don Carlo. The heart of the problem with this opera is in the dramaturgy of its source, although not a weakness in characterization. For the most part, the characters in this opera all embody the inner conflict and divided loyalties that is red meat for any first class dramatist. Their relationships are somewhat complex, but not more so than in other Verdi operas. The fundamental difficulty of Don Carlo is that Verdi, despite a valiant effort, was unable to successfully adapt his text to the extent that he was able to do so with other subjects. Most apparent is the failure to establish a clear-cut dramatic focus and the sheer length of the piece. Thus the effectiveness of the musical excellence obvious in so many individual parts of the opera is diminished when taken as a whole.

The adaptation of the text of a play is the foremost problem faced by any composer-librettist team. Its solution often determines an opera's success or failure. The successful adaptation results from a compression of the text, while retaining the play's main dramatic ideas. As a rule Verdi was so good at this that almost every single opera he composed has outlived the plays upon which they are based, Shakespeare's works being the notable exceptions. One of the main reasons why the composer succeeded here was because he chose his subjects well. Four of his operas were adapted from plays by a master psychological dramatist, Friedrich Schiller -- Giovanna d'Arco, I masnadieri, Luisa Miller and Don Carlo (La forza del destino contains a scene derived from yet another Schiller play). Interestingly, only Don Carlo remains in the standard repertoire, so Verdi must have encountered more than average difficulties in their adaptation. Like those of any other decent dramatist, Schiller's works are dramatically multi-dimensional. In his Don Carlos the love interest and even the political interest are perhaps subjugated to more metaphysical questions concerning an individual's relationship to God as opposed to the state. This proposition may work in a play, but we can see the difficulty in setting to music such an abstract concept.

Verdi's librettists, Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, presented the composer a text with three points of conflict: a clear, if unusual, love triangle between Carlo and his father and Elisabetta, Spanish imperialism versus Rodrigo's fatal struggle for Flemish independence and a power struggle between Filippo and the Inquisition. Experienced at handling several levels of conflict simultaneously, Verdi was inspired in each case to compose the appropriate music. A major force in the Risorgimento, Verdi had written many operas before that had both a political theme and a love triangle of some sort, but in these works he was able to provide a dominant dramatic thrust. In these, the lyricism of the arias usually expressed the love interest and showcased vocal artistry, while the rousing choruses and muscular rhythms embodied the revolutionary spirit. Mixing in an additional conflict between Church and State should not have given Verdi any problem. The same three issues of contention in Don Carlo are also present in Aida, but in the latter, the love interest is supreme. In Don Carlo, however, all three of the major areas of conflict are equally important and, what is worse, none of them has a satisfying dramatic resolution. Moreover the opera’s ending (unlike Schiller’s) is incomprehensible. When Charles V's ghost (or whoever it is) drags Don Carlo into the crypt, we have one of the silliest examples of deus ex machina to be found in any drama.

Yet even the weak dramaturgy of Don Carlo might not in itself result in a flawed opera given the richness of its musical content. As we know from so many operas, great music can obviate a multitude of dramatic shortcomings. But this is not the case with Don Carlo - this opera is just too darn long! After its Paris premiere in 1867, certain critics remarked that the opera was somewhat "Wagnerian." (Naturally, Verdi, who at this time had never seen a Wagner opera, was extremely perturbed by this assessment. To Verdi, the term "Wagnerian" had immediate negative connotations. This was true even in Bismarck's Germany, as evidenced by the jailing of a Reichstag deputy who had the effrontery to publicly accuse the Iron Chancellor of displaying "Wagnerian tendencies!") But it was not the length of Don Carlo that prompted this criticism, but the predictable eagerness of the French to derogate the works of a foreigner. Many operas of Meyerbeer, the adopted French favorite son, are as long or longer. Meyerbeer typically strung together one extended spectacle after another, and it was this quality that endeared him to his Gallic admirers.


Jonas Kaufmann -- Don Carlo

The problem with the length of Don Carlo lies not in any fault with Verdi as a composer, but rather with the universal human susceptibility to occasionally place public adulation and wealth before principle. When he was approached to compose an opera for the 1867 Paris Exposition, Verdi was still in his self-imposed exile from La Scala and took a dim view of the state of Italian theater in general. Although at this time he let it be known to the public that he was retired from composing, the creative fires still burned within him and he continually, although very privately, considered various subjects for a new opera. Ultimately the promise of international attention and the kind of lavish fee that he could obtain only in the City of Light prompted Verdi to accept the commission for Don Carlos. In agreeing to this offer, he knew that he would be required to produce a full blown five-act grand opera complete with ballet. He also knew that he would have very little opportunity to influence the shaping of the libretto, a practice that was indispensable to him if he were to truly achieve his rigorous standards of musical and dramatic excellence. By accepting a structural formula that was clearly in conflict with his innate creative instincts, he had to be aware of the risks inherent in the project. In other words, he made his own bed and would have to sleep in it.

Verdi always sought to achieve musical or dramatic excellence and he did not think he achieved it with Don Carlo in its original French presentation. Almost immediately after the initial French production which, despite the critical sniping, enjoyed forty-three performances, Verdi had Don Carlos translated into Italian. But this was not the end of it. The five-act Don Carlo simply did not catch on in Italy as he had hoped. When it was performed, there and elsewhere, it was routinely cut significantly and haphazardly without any consideration except for its duration. This galled Verdi to no end, but he must himself have been concerned about its length, for in 1884 he revised the opera to a four-act version. This is the one most often performed today although ironically, the removal of the first act detracts from the opera’s dramatic focus. Although the five-act Italian version, even without the ballet, is still very long, the initial scene between Carlo and Elisabetta powerfully establishes the love theme and makes the piece somewhat dramatically comprehensible. But there is still a lack of dramatic resolution such that both versions lack the conciseness and the driving force of an ultimate Verdi masterpiece.

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