Don Carlo - Synopsis

Don Carlo: Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros Don Carlo: Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape Don Carlo: Anja Harteros, René Pape

Don Carlo

Giuseppe Verdi
Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle
Italian translation by Achille de Lauzières and Angelo Zanardini


Act One

The Spanish Crown Prince, Don Carlos, has taken refuge in the monastery of San Juste in an effort to forget his misery at losing the woman he loves, Elisabeth of Valois, the daughter of Henry II of France. The two were betrothed and then fell in love with each other when they first met in Fontainebleau. But Don Carlos' father, King Philip II of Spain, decided to marry Elisabeth himself, for reasons of state. With this marriage, the war between France and Spain could be brought to an end, and Elisabeth acquiesced.


Act Two

Carlos awakes from his nightmare near the tomb of his grandfather, Emperor Charles V, in San Juste. He confides, in his despair, in his friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa. Rodrigo comforts him and begs him to devote himself to the cause of the oppressed people of Flanders, which is under Spanish rule. Philip and Elisabeth come to pay their respects at the emperor’s tomb and the sight of Elisabeth is too much for Carlos, he is quite overcome and agrees to Rodrigo's proposals. Both swear that they will fight together for the cause of liberty.

Outside the monastery, Princess Eboli and the Queen's entourage are whiling away the time; Eboli has started singing a frivolous song which is interrupted by the arrival of the Queen. Rodrigo slips the Queen a message from Carlos requesting a private audience, which she grants. Carlos begs her to use her influence in persuading the King to send him to Flanders. He quickly loses his self-control, however, and reproaches her bitterly for seemingly having forgotten their love for each other. The Queen forces herself to remain calm. Carlos rushes from her presence.

When Philip finds the Queen unattended, which is strictly against the court protocol, he bans the lady-in-waiting responsible, Countess Aremberg, from the court. The King dismisses the Queen and her entourage but bids Rodrigo remain behind as he wants to talk to him. Rodrigo avails himself of this unexpected opportunity to describe to the King the suffering of the people of Flanders and pleads with the monarch to give them their freedom. Philip is impressed by his openness and now confides in him that he suspects that Elisabeth and his son are having an affair. Posa is to observe them.


Act Three

At midnight Carlos sees the veiled figure of Eboli, who is in love with Carlos, in the Queen's garden. Believing the figure to be that of Elisabeth, Carlos pours out his love for her. Eboli, disappointed at his dismay on realizing his mistake, accuses him of loving the Queen and threatens to expose their secret. Posa appears on the scene and tries to threaten her into silence. Upon this Eboli reveals that Rodrigo is in the King's confidence and swears to be revenged on him for humiliating her. When they are alone, Posa succeeds in persuading Carlos to give him any incriminating papers he may have about the unrest in Flanders.

The people of Valladolid are waiting impatiently for the beginning of the auto-da-fé, which is to take place in the presence of the King and the clergy. As the sign is given for the heretics to be burned Carlos, attended by six deputies from Flanders, interrupts the proceedings and begs his father for help for his suffering Flemish subjects. When the King refuses his request, Carlos draws his sword. With great presence of mind, Posa takes the sword off him. The ceremony continues and the fires are lit.


Act Four

Philip, accutely miserable, admits to himself that he has not been able to win Elisabeth's love. In spite of his power he is growing increasingly suspicious of all around him. He tries to discuss Carlos' grievous offence with the Grand Inquisitor and hopes for some advice as to how to deal with his son, who has been taken prisoner and should perhaps now be sentenced to death. The Grand Inquisitor reminds him of his duty as a monarch by the grace of God: if God was not afraid to give His only son that the world might be saved, then a king might surely also do so. For his part, the Grand Inquisitor denounces Posa as a free-thinker and demands his life. Philips resigns himself to handing over his new confidant to the will of the Church.

Elisabeth comes in bewailing the theft of her jewel casket, which she finds in the King's room. Philip has discovered a portrait of Carlos in it and now accuses the Queen of adultery. The Queen faints and Rodrigo and Eboli rush to her aid. Eboli confesses to the Queen that it was she who stole the casket and that she has been the King's mistress. Elisabeth bans the princess from the court. Eboli pours forth her grief and misery at what she has done – all that remains for her before she leaves the court is to do everything in her power to save Carlos.

Rodrigo visits Carlos in prison. By taking the incriminating letters into his own possession he has drawn suspicion onto himself and is now awaiting the reaction of the Inquisition. He is shot in the back by henchmen of the Inquisition. Dying, he urges Carlos to continue to fight for the liberty of the Flemish. When Philip comes to fetch his son from prison, Carlos rejects him and accuses him of murder. In the face of Carlos overwhelming sorrow at the death of his friend, Philip also comes to realize that he has lost the only man he could trust. The mob, urged on by Eboli, gains entrance to the prison and tries to force the King to release Don Carlos. The Grand Inquisitor appears, brings the revolt to an end with the sheer force of his personality and rescues the King from the anger of the mob.


Act Five

Elisabeth is waiting at the tomb of Emperor Charles V to pass on to Carlos Posa's last request. Don Carlos decides to flee secretly to Flanders, where he hopes to realize Rodrigo’s vision of a life in liberty. Philip surprises the two of them as they are taking leave of each other and now hands his son over to the Inquisition. Before Carlos can be seized by the guards of the Grand Inquisitor, the Emperor himself appears as a vision and takes his grandson into the safety of the cloister.

Translation: Susan Bollinger