Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Verdi - Don Carlo, Grand Inquisitor Scene

Guiseppe Verdi's longest opera is Don Carlo, and was written in 1866 to a French libretto that was taken from a German play by Friedrich Schiller titled Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien (Don Carlos, Infante Of Spain) as well as elements from a contemporary play about Phillip II of Spain. As if that isn't enough rigamarole for an opera subject, the opera went through an Italian translation almost immediately as well as numerous changes and versions over the years. The original opera was in 5 acts and took almost 4 hours to perform, so Verdi himself made some of the changes to accommodate the action and the audience. 

The story is based on the conflicts of Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias, and his father King Phillip II of Spain. One of the main dramatic points of the opera was taken from the fact that the wedding plans for Don Carlos were changed by a peace treaty that demanded that the same woman marry his father instead! 

The opera had its French premiere in March of 1867 and was titled Don Carlos. The Italian version premiered not in Italy, but London in June of 1867 and was titled Don Carlo. With many version over the years, the opera was performed in the remainder of the 19th century but fell out of favor at the turn of the 20th century. It wasn't until the latter half of the 20th century that the work entered the repertoire in two main versions, both in Italian. 

There are some fine scenes in the opera, with one of the best being the Grand Inquisitor Scene. As with many grand opera plots, the only way to make any sense of a scene is to know what in the works is going on, so here's is a synopsis of the goings-on up until the scene:

King Phillip indeed marries Don Carlo's former fiancee, but he suspects that Don Carlo is having an affair with her. Don Carlo does tell his step-mother that he still loves her, but she refuses his advances. His friend Rodrigue, Marquis of Posa tries to convince Don Carlo to leave Spain and go to Flanders to engage in political work and forget his lovesickness. 

Another woman, Princess Eboli loves Don Carlos, and tries to blackmail him into marrying her by threatening to tell the King that his wife has been unfaithful with Don Carlo. (When he rejects her, she does just that. Meanwhile, preparations are being made by the monks for an auto-da-fé, the burning in public of heretics.) The public celebrates and King Phillip II tells them he will protect them. Don Carlo enters with envoys from Flanders that plead for their country's freedom. Don Carlo demands that that the King give him authority to rule Flanders, but the King scornfully refuses. Don Carlo draws his sword, but Posa takes it from him. The King is impressed with Posa's loyalty and considers him a friend, even when he knows the Grand Inquisitor is watching Posa because of his concern for the Flemish nation. Guards arrest Don Carlo as the wood is ignited and the heretics are burned alive.

The King can't sleep, and bemoans the fact that his new bride doesn't love him in an aria in his study Ella giammai m'amòAfter his lament, the Grand Inquisitor scene begins. It is a duet for King Phillip and the Grand Inquisitor, both roles sung by a bass.

The blind, ninety-year-old Grand Inquisitor is announced and is lead into the King's apartment by two monks. When the King asks if the Church will object to him putting his own son to death, the Inquisitor replies that the King will be in good company: God sacrificed His own son. In return for his support, the Inquisitor demands that the King have Posa killed. The King refuses at first to kill his friend, whom he admires and likes. However, the Grand Inquisitor reminds the King that the Inquisition can take down any king; he has created and destroyed other rulers before. Frightened and overwhelmed, the King begs the Grand Inquisitor to forget about the past discussion. The latter replies – perhaps! – and leaves. The King bitterly muses on his helplessness to oppose the Church.

The first video of the scene has English subtitles, the libretto is at  the end of the post:

The next video is a great performance by Nicolai Ghiaurov as King Phillip, and Martti Talvela as the Grand Inquisitor:

The final video is from a production for German television with Josef Greindl as the King and Martti Talvela once again as the Inquisitor. It has been translated to German, and the performance is stunning.

The libretto for the scene:

The Grand Inquisitor!

Exit Lerma. The Grand Inquisitor, ninety years old and blind, enters, assisted by two Dominicans.

Am I before the King?

Yes, I need your help, my father, enlighten me.
Carlos has filled my heart with bitter sadness,
the Infante has rebelled in arms against his father.

What have you decided to do about him?

Everything … or nothing!

Explain yourself!

He must go away … or by the sword …

Well then?

If I strike down the Infante, will your hand absolve me?


The peace of the world is worth the blood of a son.

Can I as a Christian sacrifice my son to the world?

God sacrificed his own, to save us all.

Can you justify in all cases such a harsh faith?

Wherever a Christian follows the faith of Calvary.

Will the ties of nature and blood remain silent in me?

Everything bows and is silent when faith speaks!

It is well!

Philip II has nothing more to say to me?


Then I shall speak to you, Sire!
In this beautiful land, untainted by heresy,
a man dares to undermine the divine order.
He is a friend of the King, his intimate confidant,
the tempting demon who is pushing him to the brink.
The criminal intent of which you accuse the Infante
is but child's play compared with his,
and I, the Inquisitor, I, as long as I raise
against obscure criminals the hand which wields the sword,
while forgoing my wrath against those with power in the world,
I let live in peace this great wrongdoer … and you!

To see us through the days of trial in which we live,
I have sought in my court, that vast desert of men,
a man, a sure friend … and I have found him!

A man? And by what right do you call yourself King,
Sire, if you have equals?

Be quiet, priest!

The spirit of the reformers already enters your soul!
You wish to throw off with your feeble hand
the holy yoke which covers the Roman universe!
Return to your duty! The Church, like a good mother,
can still embrace a sincere penitent.
Deliver the Marquis of Posa to us!

No, never!

O King, if I were not here, in this palace
today, by the living God, tomorrow you yourself,
you would be before us at the supreme tribunal!

Priest! I have suffered your criminal audacity for too long!

Why do you evoke the shade of Samuel?
I have given two kings to this mighty empire,
my whole life's work, you want to destroy it …
What did I come here for? What do you want of me?

He starts to leave.

My father, may peace be restored between us.

continuing to move off

Let the past be forgotten!

at the door, as he leaves

The pride of the King withers before the pride of the priest!

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