Staged in the original Italian with Czech and English surtitles
Premiere 2nd February 2019 in the Janáček Theatre
It is more important how a person accepts their fate than what that fate is.
Political intrigue, religion and forbidden love – that would be a way of briefly summarising one of the supreme works of the Italian master Giuseppe Verdi – Don Carlos. This work, inspired by a play by the German poet Friedrich Schiller was for Verdi the culmination of the artistic stages leading to the completion of a drama of the highest theatrical quality. Although loosely inspired by historical events like all Verdi’s greatest works history is only a framework in the background and in the first place are a timeless story, the psychological sophistication of characters and masterful music capturing their deepest emotional states, whether it is the deeply moving confession of King Philip “Ella giammai m’amò” or the scream of the Princess Eboli “O don fatale” or Elizabeth’s famous aria “Tu che le vanita”. This chamber drama of several characters who find themselves in the midst of a game controlled by a higher power, is framed by magnificent choral entrances such as the auto-da-fé scene, which from Verdi’s creations is among the most impressive.
In the woods near the castle of Fontainebleau the voices of hunters can be heard. Peace is supposed to be made at the castle, a peace which is supposed to end the war between France and Spain, and which shall be sealed by the marriage of the successor to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos, to the French princess Elisabeth of Valois. Impatient to see his future wife, Carlos has arrived in secret with a Spanish delegation in an attempt to meet her. He is successful, as Elisabeth and her page have lost their way in the forest. Carlos introduces himself as one of the Spanish nobles and Elisabeth, curious about her fiancé, starts talking to him. Enchanted, Carlos hands over a gift from the infante to Elisabeth – a medallion with his portrait. Elisabeth is surprised to discover that the unknown nobleman is in fact Carlos himself. Their confession of love is interrupted by the arrival of a page, Tebaldo. He kneels down before Elisabeth and addresses her as Queen, as it has already been decided that she is not to marry Carlos after all, but rather his father, King Philip II. However, the King does give her a choice. Hearing an urgent plea to end the war, Elisabeth is reminded of her duty as the Queen´s daughter and accepts the hand of the Spanish king. The moment of personal happiness vanishes in the cheers of her people.
In the monastery of San Yuste, the monks commemorate the transience of worldly rulers. Carlos comes there, vainly seeking escape from his love for Elisabeth. He confides with his despair in his friend Rodrigue, Marquis de Posa. He urges Don Carlos to travel with him to Flanders to help save the country, which is dying under the cruel rule of King Philip´s governors.
Meanwhile, the Queen´s companions are enjoying themselves in the gardens. Princess Eboli sings a Saracen song about a veil which brings aid to lovers. The Marquis de Posa arrives carrying a letter to the Queen from her mother in Paris, and asks her to accept a visit from her stepson Carlos. Elisabeth agrees, for she has not forgotten their love, but when they are alone she tries to convince the desperate Carlos to forget her.
The courtiers return and so does the King, who is angry that the Queen had been left alone. As a punishment, he expels her French lady-in-waiting from Spain. The Marquis de Posa uses the opportunity to tell the King about the horrors that are taking place in Flanders. The King refuses to end the war as he considers the people there to be heretics and rebels against the throne. He then confides to Rodrigue that he isn´t happy in his personal life – he suspects Carlos of harbouring love for the Queen. Philip asks Posa to keep an eye on both Carlos and the Queen, and also warns him to be wary of the Inquisition.
Eboli is under the impression that Carlos loves her, and so sends him an invitation for a meeting one night in the royal gardens. Carlos appears hoping that the message came from the Queen, and when he finds out who’s waiting for him he cannot hide his disappointment. Angry, Eboli realises that Carlos loves the Queen, and promises revenge. Posa threatens her, and begs her to keep the matter secret, but in vain. Worrying about Carlos´ safety and the King´s revenge, Posa takes all of the compromising documents they have from Flanders into his own safe-keeping.
A festive parade with the King is proceeding from the temple to an auto-da-fé. A delegation from Flanders led by Carlos crosses their path. The envoys beg the King for peace, and Carlos asks the King to let him rule Flanders. Philip, enraged by their boldness, has Carlos arrested. Rodrigue himself takes Carlos´ weapon away; the King promotes him to the dukedom as a reward.
The King is alone and bemoaning the fact that no power in the world can give him the love of the Queen. The Grand Inquisitor appears and has a discussion with the King on how to punish the infante´s act of rebellion. The Inquisitor demands the highest punishment for Carlos, and also asks the King to hand over the Marquis de Posa to the Holy Tribunal. The King is unwilling to part with the only person who is close to him, but is forced to agree in the end. The Crown is, once again, subjugated to the Cross.
Elisabeth comes to the King. Her jewellery box has been stolen and she demands justice. Philip accuses her of infidelity: as evidence for his accusations he shows her Carlos´ portrait, which he found in the box. The Queen claims that she is innocent, but in vain. The box was given to the King by Princess Eboli as a means of taking her revenge on Carlos. When Eboli sees the woe she has caused, she regrets her betrayal and confesses all to the Queen. Elisabeth orders the princess to depart for a monastery the next day, but Eboli hopes that she can still save Carlos.
Rodrigue comes to Carlos´ cell. He has taken all the blame on himself, and Carlos is free. A shot immediately rings out – the Inquisition’s punishment is swift. The dying Rodrigue begs Carlos to continue fighting for the freedom of Flanders. The people rebel and demand the release of the infante. The Grand Inquisitor stops the bloodshed and Carlos manages to flee.
At the monastery of San Yuste, Elisabeth is saying her final farewell to Carlos. Philip and the Inquisitor storm into the temple, accompanied by guards. The King is determined to give up his son to the Inquisitor. Carlos draws his sword. At that moment the royal tomb opens, Emperor Charles V emerges and takes Carlos to safety.