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2009: Don Carlos

(Revised 4 Act Version in French)


Program notes by Robert J. Dennis


Giuseppe Verdi first considered Friedrich Schiller’s play Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien(1787) as an operatic subject in the early 1850’s, when negotiations began with the Paris Opera for the work that would become Les Vêpres siciliennes in 1855. A decade later, Émile Perrin, director of the Opera, approached Verdi with another project for a large-scale grand opera, and this time the full potential of this vast and uncommonly rich subject was realized. As was his custom, Verdi played an active role in shaping the text, advising librettists Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle on everything from overall structure to small details, requesting two pivotal scenes be added to the scenario, one between King Philippe and Rodrigue, the other between the King and the Grand Inquisitor.


Following a long and arduous rehearsal period (there were 133 rehearsals of one sort or another within seven months), the five-act grand opera was given its first performance at the Théâtre Imperial de l’Opéra on March 11, 1867. As rehearsals neared completion in February, it became apparent the opera was too long to be accommodated within the established social conventions of the day, so this magnificent, incomparably rich musical tapestry suffered the first of a long series of disfiguring cuts, many already in effect at the opera’s premiere, with further omissions as the initial run of performances progressed. 


London’s Royal Italian Opera House saw the next production of Don Carlos three months later, in an Italian translation by Achille de Lauzières; it too, was severely cut, with the order of musical numbers rearranged. Bologna was the first Italian city to hear the work, in October of 1867, but over time it became apparent to Verdi that the scope and demands of the opera in its original form exceeded the resources of most Italian theaters. In 1882, after the completion of Aïda (1871) and the Messa da Requiem (1874), and before the composition of his two final operatic masterpieces Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), Verdi began a major revision of Don Carlos, recasting the opera in four acts: “Seeing that my legs have to be cut off, I have preferred to sharpen and wield the knife myself.” 


Working with a revised French libretto by du Locle, Verdi refashioned his opera by eliminating one-half of the original score, including the first (“Fontainebleau”) act and the obligatory ballet sequence. One-third of the revised edition is newly-composed music. The La Scala premiere of this four-act version, given in Italian translation (Angelo Zanardini providing the Italian text for the new passages) took place on January 10, 1884, with Francesco Tamagno, Verdi’s future Otello, in the title role. It is important to note that, although the 1884 four-act version was first given in Italian, all of Verdi’s revisions were made to a French text; there is no “Italian version” of Don Carlos, only an Italian translation. The original French libretto meshes more smoothly with the musical line, and provides innumerable small instances of vivid textual specificity which are glossed over by the Italian translation. 


The four-act version presents the opera in its most concise form, the one closest in design to Schiller’s drama. Perhaps its most characteristic feature is the extraordinary sequence of confrontational duets: Élisabeth and Don Carlos, Philippe and Rodrigue in the first act; the interrupted encounter between Eboli and Carlos in the fountain scene; the monumental clash between Philippe and the Grand Inquisitor in the third act; the poignant farewell between Élisabeth and Carlos at the drama’s close. All of the principal players are of course given solo arias, notable among which are Carlos’ introductory “Je l’ai vue,” Rodrigue’s “C’est mon jour suprême” and death scene, and Eboli’s “Veil Song” and “O don fatal.” Two of Verdi’s crowning achievements in this genre are Philippe’s magnificent monologue, “Elle ne m’aime pas” which begins the third act, and Élisabeth’s luminous aria, “Toi qui su le néant” in the final scene. The second-act trio and third-act quartet are also highlights in an opera full of striking invention and arresting beauties, a high-water mark of nineteenth century lyric theater. 


These performances are the first in North America of the uncut four-act version in French, and the 25th different opera in Sarasota Opera’s Verdi Cycle.


Robert J. Dennis is Curator of Recordings Collections for the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library at Harvard University. He writes and lectures on opera and musical performances and has explored the history and discography of Don Carlos in “Setting the Record(s) Straight: ‘Don Carlos’ and Textual Harassment” in Opera Quarterly.


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