The first act of Verdi’s Don Carlos is almost an opera in itself: in a matter of minutes the prospect of a happy destiny is born, blooms, and dissolves. The elements of its setting—a forest in winter, a fire kindled in the wilderness, a starry sky—have a poetic openness not to be found in the sterner scenes toward which the story is headed. Perhaps that separateness accounts for its being so frequently omitted as inessential, although the loss seems drastic: in the Met’s persuasive and powerful new production, this prelude seems the indispensable glimpse of a world elsewhere, whose possibilities are never to be revisited. In retrospect it makes the setting of the four remaining acts—the Spain of Philip II in 1560—an even more hermetically sealed place of detention.

Two strangers encounter each other in the woods of Fontainebleau. They have never met, although they are engaged to be married. Don Carlos (Matthew Polenzani) has come from Madrid surreptitiously, braving his royal father’s anger, and, having merely glimpsed his promised bride, Elisabeth de Valois (Sonya Yoncheva), has fallen in love. She, lost in the woods and not yet aware of his identity, “afraid of the unknown,” is about to be married off as part of a diplomatic settlement to a drawn-out conflict between Spain and France—a war trophy exiled to a foreign court. Within moments, once the situation has been suitably clarified, they surrender to the elation of an instantly discovered mutual love. Their celebration has an almost frantic haste, appropriately since this is the first and last glimpse of happiness or freedom that will be afforded them.

It is shattered immediately by news that the peace agreement stipulates that Elisabeth marry not Carlos but his father, Philip II (Eric Owens). A chorus rejoices while the shocked pair sing of death and the abyss. There is only one formality: Philip has sent word he will only marry her if she assents. She has at least in theory the opportunity to say no, and there is a pause before—surrounded by Frenchwomen pleading for an end to the war—she answers with a faint Oui. The pause—punctuated by three widely separated pizzicato chords—feels like a chasm. It clears an area of silence around the syllable forced out “with a dying voice” (according to the score’s specification), a tone caught perfectly by Yoncheva at this early pivotal moment. As Elisabeth affirms, under pressure, the opposite of what she feels, wispy possibilities reverse into implacable realities. A contradiction is made audible in the clash of chorus against solo voices: what for the chorus marks the return of peace for Elisabeth and Carlos is the end of hope.

Their story thus is essentially over from the start; whatever they were looking for in each other will not be found or even properly defined. They will be thrown back on their original sorrows: he on an anguished relationship with his father now made even more torturous, she on her inconsolable grief at separation from her native land and the world of childhood. Involuntarily uprooted, Elisabeth is no longer at home in the world, while Carlos never was at home. Their story, though, is not precisely the story of the opera, just as Don Carlos is far from being its hero, far even from being an independent agent, but then who is? It is a decentered epic, or at any rate an epic whose ostensible hero has no fixed center.

The unconsummated passion of Carlos and Elisabeth will in the course of the opera figure merely as one element to be shunted about in a complex of political struggles: the Dutch revolt against Spanish oppression, the attempt by a liberal faction to achieve some degree of religious tolerance, the uneasy relations between Philip’s autocracy and the ecclesiastical power represented by the Grand Inquisitor. Each principal character will grasp at quite separate ends, by means extending from moral exhortation to espionage and blackmail, attempting to align their wishes with outer circumstances but never quite achieving the desired connection. Nothing is finally to be attained, everything will be postponed to an afterlife in an opera that, as described by Eugenio Montale, “develops and unfolds by successive additions and expansions, giving the impression that it can never reach a conclusion.”

Montale’s description mirrors the decades-long process of Don Carlos’s creation. Written in five-act form for the Paris Opera, it opened there in 1867 in a version already significantly cut. What Verdi initially composed on the basis of Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle’s libretto (largely but not exclusively derived from Friedrich Schiller’s drama) exceeded even the allowable limits of French grand opera. Its more than five-hour running time failed to accommodate the audience’s dining and commuting convenience, and thus significant dramatic sequences were sacrificed while still allowing room for the lengthy ballet considered mandatory by Parisian operagoers (and now routinely omitted).


Over the next two decades Verdi returned sporadically to Don Carlos, revising music, adding new text, cutting, replacing, reinstating. He expressed quite different opinions at different moments about the various elements—cutting the first act entirely in 1883, for instance, to make the opera “more concise and vigorous,” and then restoring it two years later in his final published version. As Verdi wrote to a friend before the Paris opening: “See what a big heap this opera is! We’re never done with it!”1

No version has become definitive; Don Carlos continues to be performed in countless variants, often in four acts, usually in Italian translation (as Don Carlo), but in recent years increasingly in French as well and with restorations of previously omitted music, including the cuts made for the Paris premiere that were reconstructed only in the 1970s. It is a mysterious masterpiece that refuses to settle down, as if continuing on its own to prompt new shapes and aspects into being. The Met is staging the French version for the first time in its history, or more precisely one possible French version, restoring some early material while accepting many late revisions. I regret the decision to omit (perhaps, again, for reasons of length, though the Met has included it in some previous productions) the very strong original opening, cut before the Paris premiere, in which woodcutters and their families lament the privations of war, a scene that, as many have noted, sets up a compassionate motive for Elisabeth’s acceptance of marriage to Philip. Aside from its great beauty, it also establishes from the outset a wider perspective on the political and psychological turmoil to come.

The opera is a historical fresco having, as Verdi well knew, very little to do with history. In her study The Don Carlos Enigma, Maria-Cristina Necula charts the disparity between the actual life of Don Carlos, the Spanish crown prince who died mysteriously in 1568 at the age of twenty-three, and its transmutation over centuries, through an influential seventeenth-century novel, Schiller’s eighteenth-century drama, and Verdi’s opera, into a myth of romantic rebellion more expressive than the murky facts that prompted it.

The “real” Don Carlos, to the extent that he can be known at all, appears to have been an erratic young man, “much given” (according to a foreign diplomat) “to violence to the point of cruelty.” He was said to be fond of torturing animals and abusing servingwomen, and he cracked his skull while chasing a woman downstairs, an accident that exacerbated his mental difficulties. As in the opera, Carlos did involve himself in the cause of Philip II’s Flemish subjects, but he was foiled in his efforts and, judged insane, placed in confinement by Philip until his death soon after. As Necula sifts the historical evidence, she speculates on how much the surviving accounts may themselves be politically calculated fictions and concludes that Verdi’s opera “refuses to give us a closed-ended, definitive Don Carlos. But then so does history.”2

Don Carlos is at once intimate and immense, a series of chamber operas punctuated by crowded epic intervals (the announcement of the peace treaty, the auto-da-fé, the uprising against Philip). The immensity is laid out in the Met production’s set design, with its high, oppressive walls and stony spaces, modified from scene to scene to serve as monastery interior, nocturnal palace garden, candlelit royal study, or dungeon. Sometimes a bit of sun is allowed to peep through, as in the long and crucial scene in the convent garden, before darkness resumes. From time to time a gigantic swinging censer and an even more gigantic figure of the crucified Christ reinforce the sepulchral religiosity of Philip’s era, an impression extended by predominantly black costuming. The motif of immuring has been established at the outset by a curtain depicting prison bars emerging from a murky blue background.

David McVicar’s staging is likewise suggestive of constraint. Characters are often spaced widely apart in almost statue-like isolation, even when addressing one another, their gazes averted; and when they do come into contact there is the effect of separate spheres colliding. The embraces of Carlos and Elisabeth seem to require tremendous effort and are hard to sustain, as if invisible magnetic poles repelled every attempt at uniting. The most fervent embraces are those between Carlos and his friend and liberalizing political mentor the Marquis of Posa (magnificently sung by Etienne Dupuis); but these have their own tension. Carlos clings to Posa as if to draw a renewing energy out of him, desperate to persuade himself that he has succeeded; Posa, on the other hand, since Carlos is incapable of finding his own way, will direct him toward his own idealistic political purposes.


But it is after all a drama whose flare-ups of action and spectacle—fainting fits, drawn swords, public executions, assassination, riots—only underscore how much it is about inaction, frustrated action, action belated, action misfired. Grand though it is, Don Carlos does not depend on luxuries of decoration or eye-popping deployment of multitudes; the music would be mise-en-scène enough, and the music is at its most powerful when action is suspended. Accepting a core of unknowability in his characters, Verdi creates a durable psychological realism embedded not in words but in the relation between words and music. The notes are far more precisely calibrated than the words to which they impart precision. Rhythmic and tonal shifts continuously interpret the intimate impulses and pressures that cannot be fully articulated.

Verdi here does not so much set words to music as put the words to the test, probing the distance between what people say and what they mean by what they say and pinpointing the moments when feeling, frustrated in finding an outlet, overwhelms the limits of language. In the extraordinary dialogues between Philip and Posa, and later between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor (John Relyea), the feints of ostensibly intellectual discussion acquire a sonic dimension that exposes their unspoken threats and hidden force fields. All these nuances seem even more striking in the French text—at many points more concise and pointed than the Italian translation—to which the music was originally set.

Within its vast frame, Don Carlos records with delicacy the moment-to-moment instability of emotions, loyalties, and intentions. It is at times so compressed that a single exchange or a handful of notes stand in for what could have been extended scenes. The monumentality of scale suggests the weight oppressing each character—the forces of circumstance, temperament, autocratic rigor, or superstitious faith that baffle every attempt to resist them or get around them. Resistance, however bewildered or insufficient, is the heart of the opera. It is not so much about the great themes of which its characters so often sing—peace, death, love, liberty, justice, law, the divine—as about humans bedeviled by systems they are unable to control and large historical patterns they cannot navigate.

That entrapment is distilled in the fourth act quartet in which Elisabeth, her unfaithful friend the Princess Eboli, Posa, and Philip simultaneously pour out their entirely incompatible motives and worldviews. The voices of the intimately estranged blend into a music none is capable of hearing. No one can break free of the roles and fates to which they feel condemned, and power crushes even those who wield it. Philip finally must tremble before the Grand Inquisitor, and even the blind Inquisitor is consumed with the gnawing sense that the world is escaping his grasp. (His loss of balance, just after he has successfully intimidated Philip in their basso-to-basso confrontation, was a nice directorial touch.)

At the Met the cast—and the orchestra, directed by Yannick Nézet-Séguin—rose repeatedly to those moments of tremulous uncertainty and simmering conflict that the music invites. As Carlos, Polenzani embodied the prince’s unstable turbulence, his cascades of emotional clarity diverted by mood swings, his tenderness curdling into neediness. Yoncheva, by contrast, made clear the deep-rooted self-control with which Elisabeth keeps Carlos’s and her own passion at bay, as well as the exhausted resignation in her great fifth-act aria at the tomb of Emperor Charles V.

Together they brought out the overwhelming, jagged intensity of their duet in the second act: oscillating between love scene and pitched battle, Carlos pleading, Elisabeth finally acknowledging that to live with him would have been paradise, Carlos fainting away, Elisabeth reviving him with her pitying voice only to fiercely reject his embrace, evoking an image of bloody parricide. The staple “love” of operatic tradition is broken down into components of unappeasable longing, self-pity, compassion, and deep anxiety and loneliness. The scene can only be ended by an abrupt separation—Carlos running off cursing his fate (“Ah! Fils maudit!”)—never resolved.

We come to know the characters in the ways they change, signaled by whiplash lurches of trust and perception. No relation or identity is secure from suspicion or a sudden change of heart. As Princess Eboli, whose misconstruing of Carlos’s feelings for her helps spur a disastrous outcome, Jamie Barton brilliantly suggested layers of contradiction. The self-confident show-off who sings the “Veil Song” (a solitary oasis of light music) to entertain the queen’s ladies in waiting swivels with her vengeful outbursts in the third act. These transformations prepared the way for the resounding force with which she tore into the aria “O don fatale,” shedding earlier selves to let out the anguish under her cultivated courtly persona.

As Philip—whose contradictions are the most consequential, since they are the contradictions of power itself—Eric Owens made a somewhat opaque impression. He expressed the king’s loneliness and fatigue more vividly than his capacity, despite any residual regrets, to murder for reasons of state. That someone who philosophically accepts the morality of killing his own son can still elicit sympathy is a mark of Verdi’s refusal to reduce his characters to types or symbols. He finds out who they are and lets them become that. At most they are compelled by circumstance to perform, however anxiously or imperfectly, symbolic roles; thoroughly human, they lend themselves to reinvention by each singer who performs them. Posa, for example, the stalwart freedom fighter who finally achieves martyrdom, could easily be a stick figure. But Dupuis, aside from the sheer beauty of his singing, was able to suggest at every turn Posa’s Machiavellian skills, possessed in full even if he chooses to apply them to virtuous ends.

The circumstances under which the performance I saw took place decisively shaped its effect. A few nights earlier, at the premiere, the Ukrainian national anthem had been sung at the outset. Such explicit acknowledgment was not required as Posa and Philip launched into their fraught second-act duet, Posa confronting the king with the Spanish oppression of Flanders—“a place of horror, a tomb…the air is filled with the cries of widows for their slaughtered husbands”—and Philip responding, “Only with blood can there be peace in the world.” With the orchestra’s discordant clamor and Posa’s interjection—“Terrible peace! The peace of cemeteries!”—the outside world broke into the theater.

The “peace” so constantly evoked is the most slippery of terms. It denotes in the beginning an end to the sufferings of war; in Philip’s mind it is something bought with slaughter; by the last act Elisabeth declares, “My heart has only one wish, the peace of death.” Yet the opera itself does not settle resignedly into the “sweet and profound peace” of the tomb, and there is little sense of consolation in the monks’ chanting of dust and ashes: the memory of Spanish heretics being marched to the stake onstage is a little too fresh. The opera’s conclusion is notoriously sudden and ambiguous: Carlos and Elisabeth, discovered together by Philip and the Inquisitor, are threatened with death; Carlos draws his sword; a monk (who may or may not be Charles V, who may or not be a ghost) pulls him into the depths of the convent (which may or may not be a symbolic representation of his death). In this production, Carlos is apparently welcomed into the afterlife by the martyred Posa, yet it would take more than that image to wrap this “big heap” neatly up. Perhaps it is an opera that simply cannot end. It wants to go on; too many questions remain unanswered. There is a promise of freedom in that very capacity to leave things so far from settled.