Don Carlos (again)

Don Carlos is my favorite Verdi opera. It is difficult to put my finger on why – certainly Falstaff and Othello are also up there in terms of operas by Verdi that I enjoy. Also Traviata, sometimes. Then there is Macbeth, certain parts of which always make me either smile or cringe. There is something not quite right about Macbeth, but that is perhaps another subject for another day.

On the face of it, it is hard to explain why I find Don Carlos so compelling. But I think I can work out the reason, most of which is in the music, but part of which is the work of Friedrich Schiller, on whose play the story is based.

The impression that I get from this opera when it’s performed well is one of intense longing for something unattainable. Certain parts of this contain all the sadness in the world. But it is not just sadness – it’s mixed with a suffocating feeling of frustration that the thing wanted is not only unattainable, but it might have been attainable and is now lost. The person who is allowed to get angry about this is the Princess Eboli. Eboli is the ‘bad woman’ in this story, and one of the ways that we know this is that she tends to react not with resignation as Elisabeth usually does, but with fury. One example of this is her scene with Carlos in the queen’s garden. The two have met in the garden at night, with Carlos under the impression that the veiled Eboli is Elisabeth, and when Eboli figures it out she lets fly, beginning at 4.50 (this is the same recording I mentioned before, with Domingo as Carlos and Verrett as Eboli and Sherrill Milnes as Posa):

A mezza notte, ai giardin della Regina

Edio, che tramava al suo aspetto

We get angry Eboli again in ‘O don fatale.’

O don fatale, o don crudel

Eboli has learned something by ‘o don fatale,’ in the sense that she is angry at fate and at herself (via her own beauty) rather than at any other specific person. But she is lucky, in a sense, that she gets to rail at fate and/or other people. Everyone else is just frustrated and miserable. Posa is unable to reconcile his ideals with his desire to be a good subject; Carlos does not get Elizabeth; Philip realizes that Elizabeth will never love him; Elizabeth does not get Carlos. Everyone wants precisely what they can’t have.

But we’re not just talking ‘longing for the unattainable’ in general here. To move from the story to the music, it’s a specific sort of late-Romantic longing. This is a longing that we have seen before elsewhere. It is specific to a certain type of late nineteenth-century music. The emotion is a little wilder than in baroque or classical music, but is still operating in an a world that is assumed to be, ultimately, an orderly one. I had to think about this for a minute, but the best non-operatic example of this that I can think of is the chamber music of Brahms, for example his violin sonatas.

A violin sonata is not ‘about’ anything in the same way that an opera is ‘about’ something, but there is something in that music that evokes a feeling that, if it is not precisely that lurking in Don Carlos, is very close. It is weird to think that certain flavors of emotion are historically specific but this one sort of is. I don’t get it from Mozart, for example, even though there is certainly emotion in his music that is similar.

The other thing that is at work in Don Carlos is that it’s set in what even for Verdi was the past. It is a nineteenth-century opera based on an eighteenth-century play about the sixteenth century. And it is set in a place that was real, and based on people that did exist. This might seem irrelevant to the opera itself, but it isn’t. Sixteenth-century Spain was real and now it is not. And we can never retrieve it. Verdi was a Romantic, and one of the things that appears again and again in music and literature and art from that era is a nostalgia for an often romanticized version of the past. Don Carlos is saturated with this, sometimes to the point where it’s almost a bit much, as in some of the Carlos/Posa moments where they speak in high-flown language, with music to match, about Spain (around the line “alla Spagna, un salvatore” or so). The fact that this feeling of longing for something that cannot be grasped is built into the setting of the story as well as being a thing that the characters feel is sort of neat. It means that the emotion operates on several different levels at once.

But this would go nowhere if the music were not so effective. This opera is full of melodies that are both beautiful and either painful or somehow uneasy. The best example I can think of is Elisabeth’s ‘Non pianger, mia companga / O ma chère compagne,’ which goes from a kind of eerie tension into a long, slow bright flare of longing, frustration and, depending on the interpretation, even resentment.

(Three additional points with this particular performance: one, Alastair Miles is not the most subtle actor; two, keep your eye on where they put Eboli; and three, the Countess of Aremburg’s initial reaction to Elisabeth’s gift of the veil seems to me to be entirely correct: given what that thing was symbolizing about thirty minutes earlier, I wouldn’t want it either.)

And that is probably enough for one day.