The scene in the king’s apartment of Verdi’s Don Carlo(s) is my choice for the greatest in all opera. [It is Act 4 scene 1 in the 5 act version.] Its moral grandeur, psychological insight, and musical characterization place it on an artistic level reached by only a handful of art’s supreme masters. The most interesting part of the scene is the encounter between King Philip II and the Grand Inquisitor. This 10 minute confrontation for two basses is unique. The text followed by an English translation is at the end of this article.
This conflict of church and state is in Schiller’s play Don Karlos, Infant von Spanien from which the opera is derived. Verdi’s librettists Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle wanted to exclude the episode, but Verdi was irresistibly taken by it and required them to put it in the libretto.
In the play Posa has already been murdered when the king meets the inquisitor. The latter is furious that the killing, ordered reluctantly by the king, has deprived the Holy Office of a victim. Almost as an afterthought does the king ask ecclesiastical permission to kill his son – Carlos. The setting in the opera has more dramatic thrust than in the play. Verdi saw in an instant what what he could make out of this conflict between the throne and the altar.
The role of the king is one of the greatest, for a bass. in opera matched only by Boris Godunov. The inquisitor is typically assigned to either a bass on the way up or going down after a substantial career. Thus it is common to find good basses who have sung both roles in the progression just outlined. This titanic struggle by two princes results in the total defeat of an aged monarch by a priest blind and decades older. To realize its full effect two great basses are needed. The inquisitor’s part may be brief, but it is of pivotal importance to the opera.
Occasionally a bass still in his prime is cast as the inquisitor. Such was the case in a 1954 recording of the opera that featured Boris Christoff as the king and the stupendous bass Giulio Neri as the terrifying cleric. Neri’s voice is so cavernous, huge, and sepulchral that it makes Christoff sound underpowered. The Bulgarian basso was one of the greatest of the 20th century allowing one to be awed by Neri’s immense instrument. Neri died suddenly four years after this recording at age 48; thus he was in his prime when this recording was made. Christoff/Neri Grand Inquisitor
Another combo of two basses in their primes is that of Nicolai Ghiaurov and Marti Talvela who were both in their thirties when this 1968 La Scala performance was recorded. Both singers give a riveting reading of Verdi’s summa of operatic exchanges. Ghiaurov/Talvel Grand Inquisitor
Finally, here are Paul Plishka and Jerome Hines from a 1980 Met performance. Both singers sang both roles during their Met careers. And they both are in splendid voice in this performance. James Levin’s conducting is compelling. Plishka/Hines Grand Inquisitor
For another take on the Grand Inquisitor, here’s that of Dostoyevsky. The video below features John Gielgud as the tyrannical priest dealing with Christ’s Second Coming. The text is adapted from the famous depiction of that event in The Brothers Karamazov. As Youtube videos depart more rapidly than Spring an audio file is linked below the video.
IL CONTE Dl LERMA
Il Grande Inquisitor!
Son io dinanzi al Re…?
Si; vi feci chiamar, mio padre!
In dubbio io son,
Carlo mi colma il cor
d’una tristezza amara.
L’infante è a me ribelle,
Armossi contro il padre.
Qual mezzo per punir scegli tu?
Noto mi sial
Che fugga… che la scure…
Se il figlio a morte invio,
M’assolve la tua mano?
La pace dell’impero i di val d’un ribelle,
Posso il figlio immolar al mondo
Per riscattarci Iddio il suo sacrificò.
Ma tu puoi dar vigor a legge si severa?
Ovunque avrà vigor,
se sul Calvario l’ebbe.
l’amor tacer potranno in me?
Tutto tacer dovrà per esaltar la fè.
Non vuol il Re su d’altro interrogarmi?
Allor son io che a voi parlerò, Sire.
Nell’ispano suol mai l’eresia dominò,
Ma v’ha chi vuol minar
L’amico egli è del Re, il suo fedel compagno,
Il demon tentator che lo spinge a rovina.
Di Carlo il tradimento che giunse a t’irritar
In paragon del suo futile gioco appar.
Ed io, l’inquisitor,
io che levai sovente
Sopra orde vil di rei la mano mia possente,
Pei grandi di quaggiù, scordando la mia fè,
Tranquilli lascio andar un gran ribelle…
e il Re.
Per traversare i di dolenti in cui viviamo
Nella mia Corte invan cercato
ho quel che bramo,
Un uomo! Un cor leale! Io lo trovai!
Perchè un uomo?
Perché allor il nome hai tu di Re,
Sire, se alcun v’ha pari a te?
Non più, frate!
Le idee del novator in te son penetrate!
Infrangere tu vuoi con la tara debol man
Il santo giogo, esteso sovra l’orbe roman…!
Ritorna al tuo dover;
La Chiesa all’uom che spera,
A chi si pente,
Puote offrir la venia intera;
A te chiedo il signor di Posa.
O Re, se non foss’io con te nel reggio ostel
Oggi stesso, lo giuro a Dio,
Doman saresti presso il Grande Inquisitor
Al tribunal supremo.
troppo soffrii il tuo parlar crudel!
Perché evocar allor l’ombra di Samuel?
Dato ho finor due Regi
al regno tuo possente…!
L’opra di tanti di tu vuoi strugger, demente!
Perchè mi trovo io qui?
Che vuol il Re da me?
Mio padre, che tra noi la pace alberghi ancor
Obliar tu dei quel ch’è passato.
Dunque il trono
piegar dovrà sempre all’altare!
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!
He must go away … or by the sword …
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!
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!