The Story of Verdi's Opera Don Carlo

A bust of Giuseppe Verdi

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Composed by Giuseppe Verdi, Don Carlo premiered on March 11, 1867, in Salle Le Peletier, Paris. Verdi's Don Carlo takes place in France and Spain during the late Renaissance. ​

The Story of Don Carlo

Don Carlo, ACT 1

France and Spain are at war. Don Carlo, son of the King of Spain, but not heir to the throne, has secretly come to France. By happenstance, he meets with Elisabeth, his betrothed and whom he has never met, and the two instantly fall in love. They become even happier when they reveal their identities. In the distance, a cannon sounds signaling the end of the war. Moments later, Elisabeth is told by Thibault that as a condition of the peace treaty, her father has given her hand in marriage to Don Carlo's father instead. The news is confirmed by Lerma, the Spanish ambassador. Elisabeth is torn but decides to agree to the condition to uphold the peace treaty. She leaves behind Don Carlo who is inconsolable.

Don Carlo, ACT 2

Back in Spain, Don Carlo miserably sits inside the cloisters of St. Just, where his grandfather once joined and became a friar many years prior to escape the duties and responsibilities of the throne, contemplating the loss of his true love and her marriage to his father. He is approached by a man named Rodrigo. He is the Marquis of Posa, who has come from Flanders seeking means to put an end to their Spanish oppression. Don Carlo tells him that he is in love with his step-mother. Rodrigo urges him to forget about her and join his cause and fight for Flanders independence. Don Carlo agrees, and the two men swear friendship and allegiance.

In a garden outside of the church, Princess Eboli sings a love song about a Moorish king to her court. When Queen Elisabeth arrives, Rodrigo delivers a missive from France along with a secret note to her from Don Carlo. After a bit of nudging from Rodrigo, she finally agrees to meet with Don Carlo alone. Don Carlo asks Elisabeth to convince his father to allow him to go to Flanders, and she quickly agrees. Finding her quick dismissal of him shocking, he confesses his love for her once more. She tells him she is not in a position to return his love. Don Carlo runs away brokenhearted. Moments later, King Filippo, Don Carlo's father, finds his Queen unattended. He fires her lady-in-waiting, and Elisabeth mourns her departure. The King is approached by Rodrigo, who asks for him to ease up on the Spanish oppression. Though the King favors his character, he says that it is not possible. The King, then, warns him that they will be keeping an eye on him. When Rodrigo exits the garden, the King tells his aid that they will also keep an eye on the Queen.

Don Carlo, ACT 3

Elisabeth does not want to attend a coronation later that evening, so she instructs Princess Eboli to don a mask and attend the party dressed as her. She agrees to do so and attends the party without a hitch. Don Carlo, who has received a letter requesting a rendezvous with him in the garden, shows up at the party. The note is from Eboli, but Don Carlo thinks it is from Elisabeth. He meets the disguised woman and confesses his love to her. Suspecting something is amiss, Eboli removes her mask, and Don Carlo is horrified that his secret has been revealed. Rodrigo arrives just as Eboli threatens to tell the King. Rodrigo intimidates her, and she runs away. Fearful of Don Carlo's future, Rodrigo takes any incriminating papers from Don Carlo.

Outside the church, a large crowd has gathered to watch a parade of heretics being lead to their executions. Trailing the parade is Don Carlo and a group of Flemish deputies. When they plead for the heretics clemency, King Filippo denies them, and Don Carlo angrily draws his sword against his father. Rodrigo quickly disarms his friend even though the King's men dare not attack him. The King is impressed with Rodrigo and promotes him to duke. As the pyres are lit and the heretics prepared for death, the heavens open and an angelic voice announces that their souls will find peace.

Don Carlo, ACT 4

King Filippo sits alone in his bedroom contemplating his wife's seeming indifference towards him. He calls in his Grand Inquisitor who has been keeping watch over Rodrigo and Elisabeth. He tells the King that Rodrigo and Don Carlo should be executed. When the Inquisitor leaves, Elisabeth runs into the room screaming that her jewelry box has been stolen. The King retrieves the box having discovered it earlier. When he pries open the box, a small portrait of Don Carlo falls out of it onto the floor. He accuses his wife of adultery. When she faints and collapses, Princess Eboli confesses to stealing the jewelry box and admits the picture belongs to her. She also admits to having once been the King's mistress. Filled with regret, the King apologizes to his wife. Eboli apologies profusely, but the Queen feels betrayed and sends her away to a convent.

Rodrigo visits Don Carlo in his prison cell and tells him that he has allowed Don Carlo's incriminating papers to be found. However, Rodrigo has taken the blame for the insurrection. When he takes his leave, he is shot and killed by the inquisitor's men. King Filippo pardons his son just as an angry mob storms the prison. Luckily for the King, the Inquisitor and his men can safely escort the King away.

Don Carlo, ACT 5

In the cloisters of St. Just, Elisabeth has decided to help Don Carlo go to Flanders. Don Carlos enters, and the two share a final goodbye and pray that they shall meet again in heaven. They are interrupted by King Filippo, and the Inquisitor, who announce that there will be a double sacrifice made that night. Don Carlo draws his sword against the Inquisitor's men. Before the fight can go any further, the voice of Don Carlo's grandfather is heard. Suddenly, to everyone's horror, the tomb of his grandfather opens and a hand grabs Don Carlo's shoulder, pulling him back into the tomb.