Arts Review

“Sauve la Flandre!”: Don Carlos at the Metropolitan Opera

On February 24 Russia invaded Ukraine with infantry, tanks, and missile attacks, shredding the post-Cold War international order in an enterprise of savage aggression. Four days later on February 28 the Metropolitan Opera presented for the first time the original French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos, as composed for Paris in 1867, extending over five acts that lasted almost five hours at the Met. Before the opera began the Met chorus sang the Ukrainian national anthem, “The Glory and Freedom of Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished,” written and composed in the 1860s and first performed in Lviv in 1864, just three years before Don Carlos in Paris, at a time when there was no Ukrainian state, when the lands of Ukraine were divided between the Romanov and Habsburg empires.

Standing at the center of the Met stage with his hand on his heart and singing with fervor was Vladyslav Buialskyi, the 24-year-old Ukrainian bass-baritone who was about to make his Met debut as one of the sextet of Flemish deputies in Don Carlos. The outbreak of the war in Ukraine had been a shock to international observers, including many experts who believed up until the very last minute that Putin was bluffing. Four days later, observers were perhaps even more shocked to discover that the Ukrainian army was resisting the Russian invasion and that the former-comedian President Volodymyr Zelensky was about to assume the mantle of Winston Churchill, courageously defying one of the world’s military superpowers. The glory and freedom of Ukraine had not yet perished and were being appreciated with stunned astonishment in parliaments, embassies, intelligence agencies, newspapers, universities, and even opera houses.

The six Flemish deputies appear in the third act of Don Carlos interrupting the horrific choral celebration of the auto-da-fé, the public execution of religious heretics—often secretly practicing Muslims and Jews—victims of the Spanish Inquisition. Don Carlos, the heir to the Spanish throne, introduces the Flemish deputies into the scene as an act of defiance against his father King Philip II, absolute ruler of Spain, master of the New World of the Americas with its precious lodes of gold and silver. A devout Catholic who unsuccessfully sent the Spanish Armada against England in 1588, Philip, in a lesser-known aspect of his reign, bloodily crushed an uprising of his subjects in Flanders. We would be more likely to associate Flanders with trench warfare during World War I or with an earlier age of Renaissance commerce and art: the great commercial centers of Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp, the sublime Flemish masters Hans Memling, Hieronymus Bosch, and Pieter Breughel. The Flemish lands form part of Belgium today, the lands where a dialect of Dutch is spoken rather than French.[1]

Yet, for Friedrich Schiller when he completed the play Don Carlos in 1787, and for Giuseppe Verdi when he composed his opera based on Schiller’s play in 1867, Flanders was the country that represented the sixteenth-century struggle against Habsburg rule for both religious and political freedom. Verdi therefore introduced into the score six Flemish deputies, all bassos, who appeal to King Philip in stirring unison, darkly accompanied by the cellos in the romantically expressive key of A-flat major. Representing “an entire people weeping,” the deputies commence with a long descending melodic line, ornamented by a plaintive grace note.

La dernière heure, a t’elle donc sonné, pour vos sujets flamands?

Has the last hour struck for your Flemish subjects?

It would have been impossible not to think of Ukraine on February 28 in the Metropolitan Opera House, as the Flemish deputies issued their desperate appeal, face to face with their pitiless Spanish oppressor. They appealed in vain: Don Carlos is set in the 1560s, and it was in the 1570s that Philip unleashed against the city of Antwerp the “Spanish Fury”—three days of horrific sacking of the city with the murder of thousands. Later in the seventeenth century, Holland would achieve its definitive independence from Spain and become a republic, but the Flemish lands, south of Holland, remained under Habsburg rule. For Schiller, and then for Verdi, sixteenth-century Flanders represented the cause of freedom.

Though it is Carlos who interrupts the auto-da-fé and defiantly presents the Flemish deputies to his father Philip—and is therefore arrested at the end of the scene—the actual apostle of freedom for Flanders is Carlos’s closest friend Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. In Schiller’s play Posa appears almost immediately, after 100 lines, returning from Brussels unexpectedly, and Carlos exclaims:

I must be dreaming! Is it you?
Can this be really you—tell me, It is!
I hold you to my soul; I feel your own
Beating against it, indestructible!
Oh all is well again, and this embrace heals my sick heart.
(In dieser Umarmung heilt mein krankes Herz.)
I lie upon the neck of my Rodrigo.

From the beginning, Schiller signals that this is passionate friendship, perhaps more than a friendship, but Posa almost immediately directs this passion into a political dimension:

I do not stand before you as a friend,
As Rodrigo your boyhood playfellow,
But as a representative of all humanity
(Ein Abgeordneter der ganzen Menschheit)
I embrace you—it is the Flemish provinces
Who weep upon your neck
And solemnly cry out for salvation.

The ostensibly primary romance and tragedy of Schiller’s drama and Verdi’s opera is Carlos’s secret love for his father’s wife, the Queen of Spain, formerly the French princess Elisabeth de Valois, who was betrothed to Carlos before being eventually married off (even more grandly) to Philip. Yet the secondary romance, which can also dominate the story, is Carlos’s passionate friendship for Rodrigo, a passion that—in an intricate parallelism of elective affinities—is also shared by his lonely father, King Philip, who hopes that Posa will be his one true friend.

Schiller wrote his “Ode to Joy” in 1785 at the same time that he was working on Don Carlos, and the ode would eventually feature as the text for the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The verses perfectly expressed Posa’s embrace of humanity, with such famous phrases as “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” (Be embraced, you millions!). Indeed, there has long been speculation that Schiller’s original intention was to write an “Ode to Freedom” rather than an “Ode to Joy”—Freiheit rather than Freude—and both words neatly fit the rhythm of the verse.

It requires no small amount of stage charisma to play the part of Rodrigo, who embodies all of humanity, who speaks only of freedom and liberation while somehow attracting the passionate friendship of every powerful man he encounters along his way. At the Metropolitan Opera the role was performed brilliantly by Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis, the only Francophone among the Met principals for this landmark first French-language production, not counting of course his fellow Montréalais, the conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Dupuis dominated every scene and ensemble in which he was present right up until his death scene when he died, assassinated, in Carlos’s arms. The director David McVicar decided to bring Rodrigo back on stage at the very end of the opera, resurrected, for a final tableau that confirmed his place at the romantic heart of the opera, allowing Carlos the hallucination that he is dying in Rodrigo’s arms as the curtain falls.

Schiller’s interest in the homoeroticism of male friendship in Don Carlos in the 1780s roughly coincided with the emergence of the same theme in opera in the 1770s, in Christoph Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. Placing on the operatic stage the inseparable mythological companions Orestes and Pylades, Gluck conceived of this particular attachment in the harmonizing of tenor and baritone voices—and Iphigénie en Tauride had a landmark revival in Paris in 1868, just one year after Don Carlos arrived in 1867.

For Verdi the passionate friendship of tenor and baritone had never been so powerfully expressed as it was in Don Carlos. He postponed the appearance of Rodrigo, by creating a first act in which Carlos and Elisabeth met at Fontainebleau, fell in love, and then learned that she was to marry Philip. Tenor and baritone were then brought together in the second act which is set in the Spanish monastery of San Jerónimo de Yuste, where Habsburg Emperor Charles V, also King of Spain, abdicated to live as a monk in 1556 and died in 1558, leaving the Spanish crown to his son Philip. McVicar’s monastery set which, with some rearrangement, serves for the whole opera, involves catacomb structures with levels of shelves cut into stone, marble sarcophagi, and a swinging pendulum lamp, though this is a dark production.

As a solo monk begins to chant in a bass voice, Carlos thinks superstitiously that he hears the voice of his dead grandfather and namesake, Charles V, and then Rodrigo enters. Verdi’s French librettists Joseph Méry (who died in 1866 before the premiere) and Camille du Locle (who completed the job) want the audience to be aware immediately that there is something illicit about the intimacy between the two men. When Carlos cries out “Oh, mon bon Rodrigo!” Posa draws back from the Schillerian embrace in the monks’ presence and says, very formally, “I request an audience with the noble son of the King.” They can embrace when they are alone, but Rodrigo’s first words, as in Schiller, are to plead for Flanders. He tells Carlos that a whole people, “a race of martyrs,” are on their knees begging for help, and Carlos immediately promises to follow Rodrigo back to Flanders and join the crusade. “I will follow you, my brother,” sings Carlos, as Verdi shifts the key to C-major for maximal clarity and the two men prepare to launch into one of opera’s most famous duets, addressed to God and to one another, if not entirely appropriate for the monastery:

Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes
Un rayon des mêmes flammes,
le même amour exalté,
L’amour de la liberté!

God, you have planted in our souls
A spark of the same fire
The same exalted love,
The love of liberty!

We know it best in the Italian version (Dio che nell’alma infondere), but the French is much more tender. The regular 4/4 time has the final two beats each set as triplets for which the French text allows greater agility, and Dupuis, together with tenor Matthew Polenzani as Carlos, harmonized gently in thirds. The lyrics suggest an anthem, and there is a more forceful middle part of the duet, but the principal musical line—“Dieu tu semas dans nos âmes”—is written to be sung softly, piano (p), with pizzicato strings and a pianissimo brass figure. The melody will recur in the full orchestra fortissimo at the end of the scene, but for the duet itself the music is tender and intimate.

Polenzani, over the course of 25 years at the Met, has been mostly a light tenor, particularly fine in Mozart, with almost no Verdi except for Fenton in Falstaff and Alfredo in La Traviata. His voice has retained its sweetness, and he had a big success at the Met on New Year’s Eve 2015 in Georges Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, where, together with baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, he brought down the house with another exceptionally delicate and suggestively homoerotic tenor-baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” sung by two Sri Lankan pearl fishers who happen to be in love with the same temple priestess. Les Pêcheurs de Perles had its premiere in Paris in 1863, four years before Don Carlos.[2]

The gorgeous costumes for the new Don Carlos, designed by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, mimic the styles of Rubens and Velázquez court paintings, with Philip and Carlos wearing the Habsburg Order of the Golden Fleece around their necks, and Elisabeth’s attendants styled in hair and dress to resemble the ladies in waiting in Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas. Yet, Dupuis as Rodrigo appears anachronistic, a heroic figure who transcends place and time, with a striking mohawk haircut and leather court dress. He dominates his long duet with Philip (bass Eric Owens)—in which Posa pleads for freedom in Flanders and denounces Spanish oppression, but leaves the King still craving his friendship.

Rodrigo joins the magnificent “garden trio” of the third act, doing damage control after Carlos has inadvertently betrayed his secret passion for Elisabeth to the jealous Princess Eboli (mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton), who is in love with him. She positions herself as Posa’s great rival for influence at the court, mocking him, with a hint of lewdness, as “le favori du roi”:

The King’s favorite!
Yes, I know about that, but I myself am a dangerous enemy!
I know your power, you do not know mine (tu ne connais pas le mien).

She throws out an intimidating high A-flat on the word “mien”—showing that she is more than just a mezzo-soprano, indeed a rival to the soprano Queen. In fact, Eboli herself is the favorite of the King (la favorite), his mistress, which she will eventually confess to the Queen in the fourth act. In the extravagantly complex charting of Schiller’s and Verdi’s emotional drama, she is both Elisabeth’s rival for Carlos’s love and Rodrigo’s rival for Philip’s favor.

The first scene of the fourth act of Don Carlos is possibly the single greatest scene Verdi ever composed. It is introduced by a ruminating nocturnal cello solo, which leads into the King’s great basso aria “Elle ne m’aime pas,” reflecting on the Queen, “She does not love me.” In Italian it is instantly more dramatic: “Ella giammai m’amò,” she never loved me, using the Italian passato remoto, the historic past tense, to obtain the strong accent on the final syllable that the original French text mandates. The score specifies “comme un rêve,” like a dream, and the unfamiliar French version is unmistakably dreamier. Eric Owens, who performed as an aged Philip supporting himself with a cane (his other role this season was the disabled Porgy), was most compelling in the gorgeous cantabile passages when the King dreamed of his own eternal rest in the royal tomb of El Escorial. (In fact, the historical Philip was only 32 when he married Elisabeth de Valois in 1559 and was still a very vigorous tyrant in the 1560s.) The King’s aria is followed by the darkest scene Verdi ever wrote, the King’s duet with the old and blind Grand Inquisitor, written for two basses and the darkest instruments of the orchestra: the King asking whether he must put his own son to death and the Inquisitor demanding also the death of Posa as an enemy of the Church. “When you say that the Inquisition duet is too long,” wrote Verdi defiantly to a colleague in 1871, “I reply: you have understood nothing.”

After the Inquisitor is led out of the King’s chamber, Philip jealously confronts Elisabeth; when she faints, he calls for help, and the audience discovers that both Rodrigo and Eboli, those two “favorites,” are instantly available from adjoining rooms. There follows a wondrous quartet for Philip, Rodrigo, Eboli, and the gradually reviving Queen. The ascending principal melodic line belongs to the jealous Philip, while Elisabeth’s soprano voice appeals to heaven, Eboli feels remorse, and Rodrigo comes to the realization that “someone must die for the sake of Spain”: himself. Eboli concludes this astonishingly rich first scene of the fourth act with her great aria cursing her own beauty.

The second scene of act four on the Met stage was something so completely new to me and so stunningly dramatic that it transformed the whole shape of the Verdian drama. The opening section is familiar enough, the death of Rodrigo, who has implicated himself in the Flemish conspiracy so as to cover for Carlos. He explains this to Carlos in a moving cantabile aria, singing, “La mort a des charmes, mon Carlos, pour celui qui meurt pour toi!” (Death has its charms, my Carlos, for he who dies for you!) With an elegantly lovely turn on the word death (la mort), Posa reaches up to a baritone’s high E-flat on charmes and then descends, pianissimo, a full octave, to conclude on E-flat, pour toi. “Save yourself for Flanders,” he urges Carlos, as he himself is about to be assassinated by an agent of the King, dying in Carlos’s arms with the name of Flanders on his lips: “sauve la Flandre!

Up to this point the scene is familiar from the Italian version that has been performed at the Met ever since the opera was rediscovered by Rudolf Bing in 1950 to inaugurate his long reign as the Met general manager. In 1950 Robert Merrill died to save Jussi Bjoerling, in 1972 Sherrill Milnes to save Franco Corelli, and in 2013 Dmitri Hvorostovsky for Ramón Vargas. What usually follows, however, is a choral popular revolt against the King on behalf of the Prince, allowing Carlos to escape and survive into the next act. In the original French conception, however, there is an extraordinary additional section in which Philip and Carlos both mourn over the body of Rodrigo—competitively—with music that is uncannily familiar because, though Verdi cut it from Don Carlos just before the premiere of 1867, he reused it as the Lacrimosa in his Requiem of 1874. Here Philip has the chance to mourn his only friend after having him killed: “Oui je l’aimais, sa noble parole,” to the solemn melody we know as “Lacrimosa, dies illa.” Carlos defiantly, even aggressively, claims Posa as his own—“He loved me, we were brothers . . . it was for me that he died”—but Philip has his own magnificent moment of mourning in this original French version.[3]

The final act belongs to Carlos and Elisabeth, meeting in the monastery at the tomb of Emperor Charles V. At the Met, Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva was utterly elegant and deeply moving in the Queen’s great aria, addressed to the ghost of Charles V, clearly more idiomatic in the French—“Toi qui sus le néant des grandeurs de ce monde” (You who knew the emptiness of the great things of this world)—than the somewhat awkward stress pattern of the Italian version, “Tu che la vanità conoscesti del mondo.” Elisabeth, singing in French, is particularly meaningful, since her character actually is French, and, as Queen of Spain, she suffers pangs of nostalgia for France.

In the last act, she is waiting at the monastery for Carlos to arrive: Yoncheva and Polenzani were exquisite together in their three long duets, in act one at Fontainebleau, in act two at the Spanish court, and now in the fifth act at the monastery. In a military marziale, they renounce each other, and she sends him off to fight for liberty in Flanders, accompanied in C-major by a brass fanfare but also delicate arpeggios on the harp: “oui voilà l’heroïsme,” yes this is heroism, she sings. It is the conception of heroism that has been bequeathed to them both by Rodrigo. The tempo slows, the dynamics drop, and the lovers sing their farewell, hoping to meet again in a better world: “Au revoir dans un monde où la vie est meilleure.” Yet, in the final tableau, after Carlos has been killed by the King’s men, he hears the consoling voice of his dead grandfather Charles V and finds himself in the loving arms of Rodrigo.

The historical Don Carlos died in 1568 at the age of 23 and never succeeded to the throne of Spain. By the time Verdi’s Don Carlos was produced three hundred years later, Flanders was part of independent Belgium, but Verdi was composing in the decade of Italian unification and independence. The cause of Flanders, as plaintively sung by the sextet of Flemish deputies, expressed for him the long-desired and finally-achieved Italian freedom—freedom from centuries of Habsburg domination as wielded by the descendants of Philip II on the Italian peninsula. Up until the 1860s, Milan and Venice, along with much of northern and central Italy, were ruled from Vienna. Verdi had hated the Habsburgs, and his animosity surely inflected the representation of the tyrannical Babylonians in Nabucco and, later, the cruel Egyptians of Aida. In Don Carlos (as earlier in Ernani), he put the Habsburgs themselves on the operatic stage.

The fantasy of freedom for Flanders would have touched upon the national aspirations of many of the subject peoples of the Habsburg monarchy in the nineteenth century; the opera appeared in Paris in 1867 at precisely the moment that the monarchy sought to reinvent itself as a multinational constitutional state, Austria-Hungary. Among the Habsburg nationalities were the Ukrainians of eastern Galicia, the territory around Lviv, though the greater number of Ukrainians lived under the autocratic rule of the Russian Empire. Don Carlos, following its French premiere in Paris in 1867, was produced in Italian in Bologna and Milan in 1868; it was also presented in 1868 in St. Petersburg by the Imperial Italian Opera Company. One wonders whether anyone in the audience reflected on what Flanders might signify for the oppressed national minorities of the tsarist Russian Empire, including the Ukrainians.[4]

On March 12, 2022, two weeks after the outbreak of war, the Ukrainian orchestra and chorus of the Odessa Opera offered an outdoor performance of “Va Pensiero,” Verdi’s chorus from Nabucco of the exiled Hebrews singing in their Babylonian captivity: “O mia patria, sì bella e perduta!” (O my country, so beautiful, and lost!) Every patriotic nineteenth-century Italian knew the words and knew that Verdi’s Hebrews were also singing about Italian captivity under foreign rule, while every Ukrainian in Odessa in 2022 surely knows that those same Verdian Hebrews, right now, represent Ukraine.

For Schiller and Verdi, Habsburg Spain was the emblem of tyranny, and Flanders the totem of freedom. In 1937 when the Spanish republic was being assaulted by Franco’s Fascist uprising, W. H. Auden made Spain itself into the emblem of international liberty.

What’s your proposal? To build the Just City? I will,
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision: yes, I am Spain.

Auden’s twentieth-century perspective on Spain was curiously close to the way that Schiller in the eighteenth century, and Verdi in the nineteenth century, thought about Flanders. Rodrigo represented the cause of political liberty for Schiller and national liberty for Verdi, and the great composer even let Flanders sing for itself through the sextet of Flemish deputies. In fact, for Schiller and Verdi, “Flanders” was wherever people might be fighting for freedom. At the Metropolitan Opera on February 28, it was clear that right now, and possibly for a long time to come, our Flanders is Ukraine.
[1] There is a Flemish movement within Belgium today, promoting autonomy and even independence. Despite the national commitment to bilingualism, Flemish separatists still protest against what they see as the privileged ascendancy of the French language in Belgium. For them it would appear as an operatic irony that in Verdi’s Don Carlos the Flemish deputies sing their national lamentation in French rather than Flemish.

[2] The duets from both operas, Pearl Fishers and Don Carlos, were featured in the legendary first LP of tenor-baritone duets, issued by RCA Victor in 1953 with Jussi Bjoerling and Robert Merrill; their Don Carlos duet was magnificent but recorded in Italian of course, and Polenzani and Dupuis clearly demonstrated how French language and French style can transform and refine Verdi’s music and drama.

[3] In Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Kröger of 1903, young Tonio, infatuated with his friend Hans Hansen, tries to interest him in Schiller’s Don Carlos: “For instance, when the king has been weeping because the marquis [Posa] betrayed him . . . but he only betrayed the king for love of the prince.” For Thomas Mann the rivalry of father and son for the same charismatic male friend was deeply imbued with emotional resonance.

[4] Don Carlos was also produced in Moscow in September 2020, an ill-fated production in which several of the principal cast members became infected with Covid; this perhaps overshadowed the question of how Verdi’s opera might have tugged at the Russian conscience at a moment of increasingly oppressive and aggressive Putinism.