The following conversation with the tenor Jonas Kaufmann took place in Munich in January, when he was singing the title role in Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Bavarian State Opera. The production used the opera’s full five-act version, which Kaufmann told me he prefers. Some directors cut the first act, in which Don Carlo, the son of Philip II of Spain, secretly meets Elisabetta de Valois, daughter of Henri II of France, whom he is to marry as part of a peace treaty between the two countries. Alone in the forest of Fontainebleau the two young people fall in love, only to have their hopes crushed when Philip decides to marry Elisabetta himself. The shorter, four-act version of the opera begins in Spain with Don Carlo explaining to his boyhood friend the Marquis of Posa his despair at being in love with his stepmother.
Marie d’Origny: The Don Carlo that you portrayed seems fragile, on the edge of a precipice. It’s clear from the beginning that there’s no solution to his problem.
Jonas Kaufmann: Well, the more I do the five-act version, beginning with the meeting of Don Carlo and Elisabetta in the forest of Fontainebleau, the more I realize that this longer version is much better and more interesting: it helps so much to develop the character of Don Carlo, to establish him as somehow human and not simply crazy. To have these happy moments, to see that he’s a young man who falls in love, and everything seems to be so happy, and then suddenly destiny strikes him. If you don’t have that, the curtain opens and you’re suffering from the fact that you’re in love with your mother. And this goes on for the entire opera. So after a while the audience must be saying, “Oh, give me a break. We’ve got it already. You’re in love with your mother, so what?” It’s much more difficult to get the audience’s sympathy.
With the Fontainebleau scene included, it’s completely clear that this is what broke him. And even when they talk about Elisabetta [gasps], he can’t breathe anymore.
MO: How do you combine not being able to breathe with singing?
JK: That’s tough, because as you well know breathing is pretty essential for singing. And it’s not only the technical fact that you have to pretend to not breathe while actually breathing. It’s also that, unlike the original historical figure and also the one in the Schiller drama, in Verdi, musically, Don Carlo isn’t a weak character. He’s insecure and he doesn’t know what to do, but vocally the singing is strong most of the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.