I’m going to do a few posts devoted to great operatic scenes. The first is devoted to the that in the king’s apartment from Verdi’s Don Carlo. This is the first scene of Act 3 or 4 depending on which version of the opera is performed. Don Carlo, one of greatest masterpieces, exists in more versions than a politician’s promises. As great as is the whole opera, irrespective of what language or version it is performed, this scene is of such magnificence that it would be on any very short list of opera’s greatest moments. To do it full justice, I would have to present it in its entirety, which is almost what I have done.
Ella gemmai m’amo is unquestionably the greatest bass opera in Italian opera. Boris Christoff’s interpretation plumbs the depth of the loneliness of the world’s most powerful ruler who can’t manage his own family.
The scene that follows this great aria is unique in opera – a prolonged duet between two basses. Duet is an inadequate noun. It’s an intense confrontational clash of power between church and state. It’s in the Schiller play on which the opera is based. Verdi’s librettists urged him to leave it out as they were sure it would narcotize an audience. But Verdi the master of the musical theater knew that with genius it could be made into an unforgettable encounter. It is one of opera’s towering achievements. The two performers here are Nicolai Ghiaurov as King Philip and Martti Talvela as the terrifying Grand Inquisitor. Il Grande Inquisitor
The next event is the Queen’s appearance. She protests the theft of her jewel case which contains a portrait of Don carlo who had been her fiance before her marriage to Philip. He falsely accuses her of adultery. She faints leading to an intricate and dramatically compelling quartet. Giustizia, giustizia, Sire! The singers are Boris Christoff, Ettore Bastianini, Fiorenza Cossotto, and Antonietta Stella. The scene ends with the great mezzo aria O Don Fatale sung by Giulietta Simionato.
A synopsis of this scene which I have adapted from the Wikipedia’s is below. In the hands of a lesser composer it would contain enough material for several operas assuming he could achieve this level of artistry.
Dawn in King Philip’s study in Madrid
Alone, the King, in a reverie, laments that Elisabeth has never loved him, that his position means that he has to be eternally vigilant and that he will only sleep properly when he is in his tomb in the Escorial (Aria: “Ella giammai m’amò”). The blind, ninety-year-old Grand Inquisitor is announced and shuffles into the King’s apartment. 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 “Forse!” – perhaps! – and leaves. The King bitterly muses on his helplessness to oppose the Church.
Elisabeth enters, alarmed at the apparent theft of her jewel casket. However, the King produces it and points to the portrait of Don Carlos which it contains, accusing her of adultery causing her to faint. In response to his calls for help, into the chamber come Eboli and Posa. What they were doing there at this early hour is unexplained. Their laments of suspicion cause the King to realize that he has been wrong to suspect his wife (“Ah, si maledetto, sospetto fatale”). Aside, Posa resolves to save Carlos, though it may mean his own death. Eboli feels remorse for betraying Elisabeth; the latter, recovering, expresses her despair.
Elisabeth and Eboli are left together. Eboli confesses that it was she who told the King that Elisabeth and Carlos were having an affair, for revenge against Carlos for having rejected her. She also confesses that she herself has had an affair with the King. Elisabeth orders her to go into exile, or enter a convent. After Elisabeth exits, Eboli, left alone, curses her own beauty and pride, and resolves to make amends by trying to save Carlos from the Inquisition (Aria: “O don fatale”).