Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
Classical Music

Operatic revisions

How a Spanish prince was transformed for the stage in Verdi's 'Don Carlo'

Making an opera from Friedrich Schiller's historical drama "Don Carlos," Giuseppe Verdi knew his portrayal of the eponymous Spanish prince was perpetuating a myth. "Don Carlos was a fool, a madman, an unpleasant fellow," he wrote to his publisher. Other characters were equally false. "Elisabeth was never in love with Don Carlos. Posa is an imaginary being who could never have existed under Philip's reign."

And yet, seeking more potent truths, Verdi repeatedly returned to the piece for nearly 20 years, revising, reworking, rethinking. An opulent five-act French grand opera at its 1867 premiere, by 1884, "Don Carlo" was a lean four-act Italian drama; it is this latter form (still only the penultimate version) that will be heard in concert at Tanglewood on Saturday, with James Levine conducting an international roster of soloists and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.

Like the play, which Schiller also revised as he wrote it, the opera would become ever more focused on the corroding effect of power.

Originally, Schiller highlighted the conflict between the 16th-century Spanish monarch Philip II and his son Carlos over the latter's apocryphal, Oedipal love for his stepmother, Elisabeth of Valois. Halfway through writing, however, Schiller introduced a wholly invented character, the Marquis of Posa, who would eventually dominate the plot.

Posa seems the archetypal Romantic hero: a bold, noble mouthpiece for liberal ideas of freedom that Schiller had long espoused. Schiller finished the play in 1787, on the eve of the French Revolution -- but even by that time, he had come to suspect that idealists could be tyrants, too.

In the play's pivotal scene, Posa makes an impassioned plea to Philip to free Flanders, suffering under Spanish occupation and an Inquisition-led purge of Flemish Protestants. The historical Philip would have had Posa killed for such talk. But Schiller's (and Verdi's) Philip, intrigued by the young man's honesty, weary of sycophants and court intrigues, makes Posa his confidante.

Posa promptly exploits the situation by enveloping Elisabeth and the despairing Carlos in a scheme for Flemish insurrection. Posa eventually dies so that Carlos may temporarily survive, but the uneasy sense of Carlos having been unscrupulously maneuvered into treason by his friend is inescapable. If "Don Carlos" is ultimately about the fundamental incompatibility of idealism and absolute power, Schiller made sure not to gloss over the absolutism of many idealists.

Verdi was an idealistic Italian patriot; he was less enamored of messy political actualities. At the time he was writing this opera, the simple goal of Italian unity had given way to a complexity and compromise, as the new Italian kingdom labored to stay afloat among the formidable powers of France, Austria, and Prussia. Verdi was disgusted by the machinations; the disillusionment can be sensed in Verdi's handling of Posa's audience with Philip. The Paris Opera's proposed synopsis omitted the scene as imagined by Schiller; one of Verdi's conditions on agreeing to compose the piece was its reinstatement. But getting it right cost him more effort than any other scene in the opera.

Initially, Verdi wrote a fairly standard grand opera duet. Posa proclaims lofty sentiments of freedom and liberty; Philip, impressed, opens his heart; and the two sing a rousing cabaletta, ending in unison as temporary comrades.

But in the 1884 "Don Carlo," Philip's attempts at justification have been replaced by the habit of imperious command. Posa's lurid description of the Flemish occupation is answered by an all-too-familiar rationalization. "Only by blood can peace be achieved in this world," Philip says. The French original sets out his words with calm, firm reasoning. The later version is swifter, more declamatory: a statement, not an argument.

Posa, by turn, becomes more emphatic and, at the same time, more manipulative. Philip extols the domestic order resulting from fear of the Inquisition: "It is the same peace I give to Flanders." Posa's reply, taken directly from Schiller, was added by Verdi. "A horrible peace!" he exclaims. "The peace of the tomb!" A volcanic orchestral eruption underlines his rage. And yet, when Posa prevails upon Philip, in place of the previous optimistic abstractions is an appeal to vanity: "Remake the entire world; soar to sublime heights, higher than any other king."

At the end of the scene, Philip now warns Posa to beware the Grand Inquisitor over eerie harmonies, ending on a G-flat. Posa's grateful acknowledgement ("Sire!") is sung on a C: a tritone away, the most dissonant of intervals. The realities of their respective positions constitute an unbridgeable gulf.

Verdi insisted on spectacular set-pieces for the Paris premiere: an auto-da-fé, a trial before the court of the Inquisition, a deus ex machina ending in which the former emperor Charles V, now a monk, appears and rescues Carlos from execution (a far cry from Schiller’s finale, Philip handing Carlos over to the Inquisition with brutal bureaucratic coldness). But with each revision, as the characters are more precisely shaped -- their contradictions, their difficulties, their doubts -- the spectacle becomes as much an instrument of isolation as a grand backdrop.

Flawed, sympathetic individuals struggling to fix personal connections within the vast machinery of the state: hardly the conventional thrills of 19th-century opera. But Verdi turned to such themes again and again throughout his career. "Don Carlo" may fail as a history lesson, but in the way power strips human nature down to its ruthless core, history has proved its veracity countless times over.