(Don Carlos—Verdi) by Thomas Hampson
‘There is nothing historical in this drama…’. These words were written by Verdi to his publisher during the creation of Don Carlos. Verdi had pitted personal passion against social, religious, or political contexts in earlier works, most notably in La traviata.
Already historically compromised by the great German dramatist Friedrich Schiller [1759–1805], the story of Don Carlos presents a complex backdrop of political‐religious—i.e. public—conflict by which the very personal dilemmas of love, jealousy, family, and faith are brought into sharp relief. But with Don Carlos the essentially metaphoric use of historical context accomplishes the recreation of the ambiguity of successive moments found in reality. There is no scene in the opera that ends in the same political or personal context in which it starts. One is caught in the ebb and flow of events in King Philip II's life as mercurially manipulated by his son, set against the backdrop of absolutist religious fervour.
The Marquis de Posa is the most metaphorical figure in the opera, not least because the very essence of his existence and behaviour would have been impossible in Philip II's court. Posa's mission (but not the man himself) is historically founded: to free Flanders of oppression. Even more to the point is his unwavering determination to realize for himself and ‘his kind’ self‐determination.
Verdi's concern that Posa would be perceived only as a martyred hero, not only demonstrates the composer's understanding of the theatre public's hunger for cliché, but also illuminates his ‘use’ of Posa in this work. Posa is a constant and consistent force throughout the opera. His unwavering mission which, in fact, borders on the zealous, finds him in the role of confidant to the very source (Philip) of the massacre he protests, just as it prepares him to become a murderer in the name of protection of his only ally (and therefore hope), Carlos. He compromises one apparent allegiance to fortify the appearance of another (auto‐da‐fé) in order to attain the greater goal of his ‘beliefs’) and he is even treasonous in the simple act of serving as messenger‐boy for his love‐sick friend, Carlos.
Each event, however, is greater than Posa's participation in it. If anything, Posa's metaphoric existence as the emerging cry for self‐determination and greater democratic ideals, though it is very sympathetic, is suffocated in a larger social, personal, political, religious conundrum that requires a dramatic martyrdom to achieve any permanence to his character's existence.
The challenge artistically to a role like Posa is, in fact, to avoid the heroic. If one sings exactly as the master wrote, constant in his use of pianissimi, trills, phrase markings, rests, there emerges a character who is more intent on finding his way in each new circumstance rather than an operatic figure bent on delivering his message. Posa is intentionally given a separate musical tone for each of his ‘partners’—Elisabeth, Carlos and, most importantly, Philip—regardless of what it is he has to say. His lyricism is not impotence, but a rather pliant, even manipulating, dialogue. His outbursts are always born of passion that surprises even himself and thus require immediate further dialogue. Throughout all Verdi's revisions and translations from the original French libretto, the role of Posa remained intact, the only character not to be altered in form, tessitura, presence, and, therefore, intent.