Musical highlights: ‘Dio, che nell’alma infondere’ from Don Carlo
Verdi's political thriller offers one of his finest duets.
‘Dio, che nell’alma infondere’ is one of Verdi’s most radiant duets, and one of his most dramatically potent. A thrilling hymn to friendship, it gleams beacon-like out of the sepulchral gloom of Act II part 1 of Verdi’s political thriller Don Carlo.
Carlos has so far had a pretty rough time of it (and to be honest it’s not going to get better). In Act I he sneaked away from his princely duties to catch a first glimpse of his betrothed, Elizabeth of Valois, in the forest of Fontainebleau. Luckily they fell instantly in love – or rather, very unluckily, as no sooner had they declared mutual adoration than news arrived that the treaty had changed and Elizabeth was instead to marry Carlos’s father, King Philip II of Spain. Remembering her people and the desperate need for peace between the two kingdoms, Elizabeth consented, and Carlos despaired.
In Act II Carlos has returned to Spain to hide himself in the San Yuste monastery, where his grandfather Carlos V devoted his life to prayer after abdicating the throne. Alone in this dark and oppressively holy place, Carlos has been menaced by the offstage chanting of the monks (in brilliantly weird minor/major) and the stern pronouncements of a monk who bears a terrifying resemblance to Carlos V.
Rodrigo – Marquis of Posa and Carlos’s only friend – rushes in, dispelling in a gust of rationalism all the ghosts of Carlos’s inheritance. Brave, strong and true, Verdi’s idealistic hero has absolute faith in the power and goodness of his friend. In some tightly detailed accompanied recitative he discovers the cause of Carlos’s woe and instructs him to silence his heart in devotion to a worthy cause: to free the people of Flanders from the aggressive Spanish occupation. ‘I will follow you, my brother’, sings Carlos, quiet and sincere – and immediately a bell sounds announcing the approach of King Philip and his new queen. Carlos’s heart jumps in a rising 5th – ‘Elisabetta!’ – but, steadfast, Posa intones over sober brass, ‘Ask Heaven for the strength of the brave’.
And then we’re into the show-stopping duet. ‘God who kindles love and hope in our hearts’, Carlos and Posa sing, bound fast together in intimate 3rds in lucid, open C major. A spare orchestral accompaniment beats a regular four-square rhythm out of which the voices spin triplets – breathing as one, a smooth legato after the anxious palpitations earlier in the act. A rapid key progression quickens us into the short middle section: a mirror image of the earlier part but now in the relative minor, as the friends solemnly swear to martial rhythms ‘to live together and to die together’.
A return of the first section rounds off this first hearing, but the orchestra continues; the strings now regularize the triplets and Carlos and Posa’s song becomes a grand processional for the new King and Queen. What is Verdi doing here? He reminds us of what’s at stake for Carlos, and he shows Posa supporting Carlos as, trembling, he bows before the Queen. But perhaps he’s also showing that the earthly grandeur of Philip II and his retinue is only a pallid shadow of the vibrancy of the friendship of the two men.
As Philip leaves the bass line warps far from the friends’ C major down into the F sharp major/minor of the chanting monks. They and the Carlos V simulacrum sing their dirge and Carlos begins again to slide into melancholic despair. He is supported once more by Posa, in a brilliant ensemble of classic Verdian bravura. The monks disappear and in unison Carlos and Posa reaffirm their pact as the melody of their song beings to rise out of the pit. ‘Libertà!’ they declare, Posa’s baritone leaping up to join Carlos in the tenor pitch, before we dive into a glorious rendition of the melody in the full orchestra.