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2015: Don Carlos (Paris version)


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, the confrontation between King Philippe and Rodrigue which ends the second act, and the supremely powerful one between the king and the Grand Inquisitor in the fourth act.


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 Impérial 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 conventions of the day (nor within the established train schedules linking Paris with its surrounding arrondissements), so this magnificent, incomparably rich musical tapestry suffered a series of long and disfiguring cuts, many in effect at the opera’s premiere, with further omissions as the initial run of the opera 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 became 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 Aida (1871) and the Messa da Requiem (1874), working with a revised French libretto by du Locle, Verdi undertook a major revision of Don Carlos, recasting the opera in four acts, first heard in this form at La Scala in 1884 in Italian translation.


In refashioning his opera, Verdi omitted the first, “Fontainbleau” act, which depicts the initial meeting between Carlos and Élisabeth, not found in Schiller’s drama, but derived from the play, Philippe II, Roi d’Espagne by Eugène Cormon (whose other operatic claim to fame was as co-librettist of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles). While the four-act opera is closer in design to Schiller’s drama, the loss of the Fontainebleau act diminishes the work’s effectiveness later on: without the first duet between Carlos and Élisabeth, the subsequent reminiscences lose their resonance and the sense of nostalgia is lost. Without the Fontainbleau act, there is no real “action” until the dismissal of the Countess of Aremberg, thus creating a dramatic stasis uncharacteristic of Verdi. In 1886, the composer sanctioned the restoration of the Fountainbleau act for a production in Modena, though grafted on to the revised version (1884) of the remaining four acts. When the opera is heard today in a five-act form, it is most often in this Modena conflation (recorded by Solti, Giulini, Haitink, Levine, and Abbado).


The version of the opera you will hear this evening, however, contains music composed solely for the 1867 premiere and thus follows closely Verdi’s original conception. Among the many musical numbers in this version with which audiences may be unfamiliar, several are of major importance. The first of these is the very opening “Woodcutters Chorus,” omitted by Verdi at the opera’s initial run, yet crucial to the drama. This scene not only depicts the adversity of war and famine but establishes a direct contact between Élisabeth and her subjects, of vital importance to her decision, made in front of them all, to accept Philippe’s hand in marriage. Another is the scene beginning with the chorus of maskers (“Mandoline, gais tambours”) which opens the third act, during which Élisabeth and Eboli exchange cloaks, thereby making clear why Carlos so easily mistakes Eboli for the queen in the ensuing scene by the fountain. In the fourth act, this version of the opera contains a brief duet for Élisabeth and Eboli (“J’ai tous compris”) following Eboli’s confessions of her love for Carlos. Also in this act, one hears the original versions of the quartet (“Maudit soit le soupçon infâme”) and the insurrection finale. In the last act, the opera’s original ending is heard, in which the Grand Inquisitor and the king heap accusations on Carlos before the “Monk-Emperor” appears to lead Carlos into the cloister, to a quiet musical close.


With this production of Don Carlos, Sarasota Opera has performed every note of Verdi’s magnum opus. The company staged the 1884 four-act version of Don Carlos (in its North American premiere in French) in 2009; all of Verdi’s music – including the four versions of the Rodrigue-Philippe duet, the Ballet de la Reine (La Pérégrina), the revisions for a Naples production in 1872 (the only music Verdi ever composed for this opera to an Italian text, by Antonio Ghislanzoni, librettist of Aïda), the large ensemble on the death of Rodrigue which concludes the fourth act, and the three versions of the final Élisabeth-Carlos duet – has been heard either on stage or in the popular series of Verdi Concerts. Thus the incomparable breath of Verdi’s genius in this opera has been revealed and explored in full, an opportunity as rare and rewarding as this astonishing work itself.


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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