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The true story behind Verdi’s opera Don Carlo

High dramatic tension, low historical accuracy: Verdi’s magnificent opera tells a story too good not to set to music.

By Rev. Sarah Lenton (Writer and lecturer)

3 May 2017 at 3.35pm | 3 Comments

Don Carlo isn’t an opera famous for its realism. It looks real enough, set almost invariably in its proper historical period, but its action is curiously artificial: bound on one hand by the conventions of French grand opera and, on the other, by the curious fictions that have clustered round the Spain of King Philip II. How did Verdi make anything of the fantasies that surround the story of Don Carlos?

Of course it would be idle to deny that Philip II really existed, or that he didn’t, in some ways, behave as he does in the opera. His loneliness and curiously repressed nature were notorious: ‘Being by himself’, said the Venetian ambassador, ‘is the King’s greatest pleasure’. Even more remarkable, the heartache, not to say despair, found in Verdi’s Philip II can be matched by the King’s own writings. Indeed that is the only place one would find them: Philip sat at his desk for eight or nine hours a day, working in self-imposed isolation in a small study deep in El Escorial, the monastic palace he’d had built near Madrid.

It is with Philip’s son Don Carlos that the fictions begin. Prince Carlos, backward and ungovernable as a child, grew into a violent, unstable young man. His behaviour worsened after an accident in 1562 (when he fell head first down a flight of stairs), and the courtiers watched appalled as he threw people out of windows, went for the Duke of Alva with a knife and made his bootmaker eat a pair of ill-made boots. Rumours flew around that he was sleeping with four loaded guns and two drawn swords under his pillow.

In 1568, aged 23, he appeared to be amassing money and preparing to leave the court, possibly for the Netherlands, certainly to escape his father’s control. The King asked for public prayers to be said for him – why he did not say – and headed the party that arrested the Prince and put him under confinement. From that moment Don Carlos disappeared. The French ambassador noted: ‘The poor young man is becoming more deranged every day and rapidly passing into oblivion’. The Prince was dead within six months. His death made little impression on the court, in fact his keeper actually rejoiced: ‘His removal to Heaven is a great boon to all Christendom: he is very well up there, and all of us who knew him thank God for his death.’

Well, practically everyone. The King’s consort Elizabeth of Valois wept for two days after the young man’s death. The Queen was exactly the same age as Don Carlos and clearly enjoyed his company – he was playing cards with her the night before he was arrested (when he lost 100 crowns). But there the relationship ended. Even if tenderer feelings were involved, for which there is no evidence, Elizabeth was never left alone. Her principal lady-in-waiting, the austere Duchess of Alva, knew as well as her mistress that an affair would cost both women their heads. It seems more probable that Elizabeth enjoyed the strictly limited company of the only person at court of her rank and age.

However, the story of a melancholy prince imprisoned in a tower by his tyrannical father was too good to pass up, particularly when the father was Philip II, the scourge of Protestants. Stories began to circulate that the Prince’s interest in the Netherlands was more than just opportunist. He eventually began to figure as a crypto-Protestant, ardent for Dutch liberty. Even more fancifully, he was credited with having an affair with his stepmother. That story first appeared in the Apology of William of Orange, written in 1580, and was soon a standard feature of all Protestant biographies of Philip II.

Verdi himself seems to have known that a great deal of his libretto was inaccurate, but remained unfazed: ‘Nothing in the drama is historical’, he wrote, ‘but it contains a Shakespearean truth and profundity of characterizations’. In other words, he treated his material as myth. The story was too good not to set.

This is an edited extract from Sarah Lenton’s article ‘The Don Carlos Myth’, available to read in full in The Royal Opera’s programme book for Don Carlo.

Don Carlo runs 12–29 May 2017. Tickets are still available.

The production is a co-production with Norwegian National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, New York, is sponsored by Coutts and is given with generous philanthropic support from Ian and Tina Taylor and The Taylor Family Foundation, Aud Jebsen, Simon and Virginia Robertson, the Patrons of Covent Garden, The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund and The Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation Cover Awards.

By Rev. Sarah Lenton (Writer and lecturer)

3 May 2017 at 3.35pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Nicholas Hytner, Don Carlo, Don Carlos, Elizabeth of Valois, fact, fiction, history, Philip II, Production, programme trail

This article has 3 comments

  1. David O'Brien responded on 5 May 2017 at 11:43am Reply

    Verdi was not interested in historical accuracy, but was drawn to the successful play by Schiller.,whose drama was more interested in promoting ideas of the Enlightenment- freedom of expression, equality and justice -controversial concepts to share in those days prior to the the French revolution. These ideas certainly chimed with Verdi and were still relevant at the time of the French premiere as well as in Italy half a century after the play. The opera owes much to the play, and Schiller's rewriting of history,reflecting the Enlightenment agenda.

  2. Sarah Lenton responded on 6 May 2017 at 6:48pm Reply

    Yes indeed. You will find references to Schiller's play in the rest of the article - and other articles in the Don Carlo programme.

  3. Emma Lewis Thomas, PhD responded on 28 August 2018 at 12:50am Reply

    Schiller is clearer !
    Read his version first - then Verdi's version is easier to understand in the Sturm und Drang context.

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