Don Carlos – is it my favourite opera?

You don’t have to listen to the clip above but if you do you will know what I mean when I say how lucky I have been in my lifetime of going to the opera. I have heard some of the greatest opera singers of our time and as a consequent, I have been an opera enthusiast all my adult life so today, I feel I should share what is probably my favourite opera with you.

If you did watch the Japanese video extract above, the moving and tragic soprano aria from the last act of Verdi’s opera Don Carlos and stayed with it beyond the tape damage and weren’t put off by the Japanese subtitles, you would have heard one of the great soprano voices that Britain produced in the 20th. Century which, sadly, in my opinion at least, became painful to listen to later in her career when she took on heavier roles.

I heard Gwyneth Jones, now of course the grandly titled Dame Gwyneth Jones, in those early days at Covent Garden in the big-voiced, the so-called spinto roles, in two of Verdi’s mature operas, Il Trovatore and Don Carlos. In both productions I was taken by surprize and then blown away by the combined power and beauty of her voice. It was an early experience of the excitement that a big, well-controlled Verdi soprano voice could bring – something that has become a rarer experience recently.

The production of Don Carlos, by the late Italian film and opera director, Luchino Visconti also starred one of the undisputedly greatest singers of our age, the Bulgarian bass, Boris Christoff in the central role of King Philip II of Spain.

If I have to decide on a “favourite opera” then it might well be this and, if so, it would have been thanks to that astonishing performance of so long ago. I have finally reached it in my chronological journey through classical music where I have only been listening to music composed in my chosen year and before, so I have been looking forward to this moment, 1867, for, maybe twelve years now.

The opera, based on an epic play by the German Romantic playwright and poet, Schiller, concerns six main characters whose lives intermingle in the brutal, rigid and tragic world of Sixteenth Century Spain at the time of the Inquisition. The king, a bass role, isolated, unloved and whose total power is only limited by the ferociously blinkered and literally blind 90 year old Grand Inquisitor, another bass in this dark, brass dominated score, who is a vicious portrait of Verdi’s much-loathed Roman Catholic Church. Philip has married the Princess of France, Elizabeth, our spinto soprano, who had previously been engaged to his son, Don Carlos, a cruelly difficult role for the tenor whose is often placed awkwardly and precariously high. Elizabeth and Carlos fell in love before the change of plan and, consequently, all three lives were propelled into unhappiness and despair. There is also the beautiful but vengeful Princess Eboli who lives to curse her own beauty and who hurries the drama to its tragic and inevitable end whilst giving Verdi the opportunity to write one of the most exciting roles in the repertoire for the Italian contralto voice. His writing here foreshadows the voices he was thinking of when writing the spectacular Requiem Mass a few years later. The sixth part is for Verdi’s favourite voice, the high baritone, Rodrigo, the young passionate Romantic idealist of Schiller’s imagination who is Carlos’ friend and protector and would do anything for him, even die for him in the cause of liberty.

Verdi sneerers quote the highly romantic friendship duet between Rodrigo (Thomas Hampson) and Carlos (Roberto Alagna) as one of the examples of Verdian lack of taste when the provincial Italian town band overwhelms the great artist. If anything, I have always found the earthiness of Verdi’s inspiration all the more powerful in an operatic context. The ground moves for me every time I hear the pomp and circumstance of the passage that interrupts the duet with the arrival of the King, Carlos’ father, and Elizabeth, his love and now step-mother accompanied by Dominican friars and music that shows us how the unbalanced young man’s passion is going to be crushed under the feet of the state. The writing for the voices vividly captures their desperation.

These characters are all drawn with a depth that involves us intimately with their fate which, as can be foretold by the opera’s first chord, is going to be an unhappy one.

This is Verdi’s great Grand Opera written for the home of grand opera, the Paris Opera House in 1867 and superseding any grand opera before or after it. It was then revised a number of times, in French and Italian until no one can really tell which is the best version.

Even though the words undoubtedly fit better to the notes in French, all versions work in the right hands and with the right voices. Verdi is burning with passion and sympathy for these people with their overwhelming sense of love which can never be consummated and that is repressed but never destroyed even after it is crushed by church, fate and state.

Only Rodrigo finds true happiness and that is achieved by dreaming of sacrificing his life for his friend and the people of Flanders who are suffering genocide at the hands of Philip’s generals.

We are held in the grasp of Verdi’s unrelenting inspiration with music which boils beneath the majesty and solemnity of Philip’s autocratic court.

I showed you Elizabeth’s aria from the last act of the opera at the top of this blog where she acknowledges her love for Carlos and also realizes that there is nothing more for her in life apart from a frail agnostic thought that “if they still weep in heaven, weep over my sorrow”.

Her grief is the mirror of her husband’s, the unloved monarch himself who sings his solo at the beginning of the fourth act just before his almost literally terrifying encounter with the Grand Inquisitor and what is possibly the greatest act in any of the Verdi operas.

If you have the time, play this clip from the modern Paris opera production (1996) which restored as good a version of the French opera as we are likely to get. Here Phillip (José Van Dam)is asking for the Church’s approval of him handing over his son to the Inquisition and the Inquisitor (Eric Halfvarson) in return demands the life of Philip’s only confidant, the young idealist, Rodrigo:

No matter how many productions of Don Carlos I see, there will always be one performance which will tower above all others and that has to be the King Philip of Boris Christoff. I was fortunate enough to see him in the later days of his career, he died in 1996, and some of the very last airings at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, of Visconti’s pioneering production which, some years earlier had almost single-handedly fueled the opera’s popularity when previously it had been ignored as a difficult to produce, over-blown oddity.

If the opera is about love, regret and repression, no one better captures the darkness and bitterness of unrequited passion than Christoff whose voice, one of the greatest of the 20th. Century, is indelibly imprinted in my memory. His delivery of “Ella giammai m’amò!” (“She never loved me!”) still sends a chill down my spine. Here the king, having been up all night in his study grieving for his lot, finally opens his heart. Christoff dominated the stage with just the slightest of body movements, his powerful charisma, ability to project inner feelings and his peerless, if not gigantic, bass voice with its controlled pianissimo high notes, athletic breath control and its uniquely melancholy timbre. I have never been more impressed by any other performance on the opera stage.

If this is my favourite opera then maybe it is because that clash between idealistic passion and dark pessimism chimes with something deep inside my own subconscious – something, you will be pleased to know, I mostly keep to myself. When I am feeling more cheerful I turn to one of my other favourite operas, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, for its more balanced view of humanity’s darkness and light.

This video, I think, with, sadly, the first part of the aria omitted, was taken in 1979…I would love to have seen the rest of the act with the scene with the Grand Inquisitor. Underneath I have printed the words in Italian and English so that you can hear just how important the linking of music and words is in opera and in Christoff’s art.

Dormirò sol nel manto mio regal,
I shall sleep alone in my royal mantle

quando la mai giornata è giunta a sera,
when I attain the evening of my days,

dormirò sol sotto la vôlta nera,
I shall sleep under the black vault,

là nell’avello dell’Escurial.
there, in my tomb in the Escurial.

Se il serto regal a me desse il poter
If the royal crown could but give me

di leggere nel cor
the power to read human hearts

che Dio può sol, può sol veder,
which God alone can see!

Ah! se il serto regal a me desse il poter
Ah, if the royal crown could but give me

di leggere nel cor
the power to read human hearts

che Dio può sol, può sol veder,
which God alone can see!

Se dorme il prence, veglia il traditore;
If the prince sleeps, the traitor watches;

il serto perde il re, il consorte l’onore!
the king loses his crown, the husband his honour!

Dormirò sol nel manto mio regal etc.
I shall sleep alone in my royal mantle etc.

Ella giammai m’amò!
She never loved me!

No, quel cor chiuso è a me,
No, her heart is closed to me,

amor per me non ha?
she feels no love for me!

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