Opera Australia Blog

Cheat sheet: Don Carlos

Everything you need to know about Verdi’s take on the passions of the Spanish royal family.

Who was the composer?

Lithograph of Giuseppe Verdi

By G.dallorto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Giuseppe Verdi – the most famous of Italian opera composers.

Verdi was born in Italy to a poor family. By the time he died, his fame was such that more than 200,000 people lined the streets at his funeral to pay him tribute.

How do you know you’re listening to Verdi? Verdi wrote big, beautiful melodies and expressive, dramatic orchestral music. As a composer, he was always seeking out strong subjects, demanding his librettists create realistic, human characterisations.

He had a special gift for taking a character marginalised by society and putting them centre stage – whether it be a courtesan in La Traviata, a hunch-backed jester in Rigoletto or an enslaved Ethiopian princess in Aida.


What happens in the story?

In the Royal court of Spain, duty to King and country comes before personal happiness. Elisabetta is betrothed and in love with the prince Don Carlos, but when it is decided she should marry his father instead, she accepts her duty and marries the King. Devastated, Don Carlos throws himself into a cause at the request of his friend Rodrigo – the liberty of the oppressed Flemish people.

The Spanish inquisition is raging, and suspicion is everywhere. The people suspect their neighbours of heresy. Princess Eboli suspects that Elisabetta loves Don Carlos. King Phillip suspects his wife does not love him at all. The Grand Inquisitor suspects Don Carlos and Rodrigo of heresy. No one suspects that Eboli loves Don Carlos, too, a jealous love that will lead her to betrayal.

And when the inquisition comes for Don Carlos’ blood, no one suspects how it will end.

Who are the main players?


Philip II – King of Spain, son of Charles V

Don Carlos – Son of the King of Spain

Elisabeth de Valois – a French princess, engaged to Don Carlos in the hope that the marriage might bring peace between France and Spain, but marries King Philip instead

Princess Eboli – an aristocrat in the Spanish court, mistress to the King, secretly in love with Don Carlos

Rodrigo, Count of Posa – Don Carlos’ best friend, quiet revolutionary

Grand Inquisitor – aged and blind, the grand inquisitor is still the most powerful man in Spain – the Spanish inquisition

(For more on the characters, read our guide.)

What’s the big hit?

‘Dio, che nell’ alma’ – a rousing tenor-baritone duet about friendship and unity

“God thou sowest in our spirits love and hope,
inflame our hearts with the love of freedom!
Let us vow to live together, to die together!
In heaven, on earth, your goodness can unite us!”

Something to listen out for?

  • In the famous duet between Don Carlos and Rodrigo, the two are singing of everlasting friendship. Verdi gives us a musical metaphor: the pair sing in unusually close harmony, and the baritone line rises to the tenor range until the singers meet on one note: a not-so-subtle musical symbol of unity.
  • Verdi makes powerful use of the lower-register woodwinds and strings to convey a sombre mood, and uses rhythm to tell the audience when a mind is restless or troubled. Listen out in King Philip II’s aria ‘Ella giammai m’amò’ as the score jerks and stutters.

This production is…

… Opera Australia’s biggest since the Ring Cycle. From masterful director Elijah Moshinsky and designer Paul Brown comes a dramatic take on Verdi’s story of politics and passion.

This is a period production, with a rich and moody set design inspired by Velazquez’ paintings of the Spanish court. Light gleams off dark marble – the effect is of a kingdom of shadows. The magnificent Spanish pannier skirts give the Spanish women a regal power, while elaborate French period costumes highlight the politics at play in this court.

This is grand opera at its best: impressive sets, elaborate costumes and a dramatic auto-da-fe (burning at the stake).

A little history…

1867 poster of Don Carlos. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Copyright: Public Domain

At age 53, Verdi had fame and fortune enough to pick his commissions. While he detested the Paris Opera – scorning it as a “grande boutique” – the director must have found a way to woo Verdi, and at last, he agreed to a new commission. He considered Cleopatra and rejected it, but Don Carlos took his fancy as a “magnificent drama”.

Everything from French traditions to the Paris train timetable affected the shape of the opera.  The Paris Opera demanded a ballet, but couldn’t allow the opera to begin before 7pm (so as not to interfere with dinner) or overrun midnight, (so the French society set could catch the last train). Verdi had to shorten the score.

When it premièred on March 3, 1867, Verdi was convinced it was a failure, but the public disagreed.  When it premièred in Italian at Covent Garden a few months later, some judicious cuts by a brave conductor ensured the opera was a critical success. Verdi’s pleasure turned to fury when he discovered the cuts, but as he revised the opera over his lifetime, it became obvious the Covent Garden version foreshadowed some of his own changes.

Opera Australia is performing the 1884 four-act version in Italian.

Conversation starters

  • Don Carlos exists in five different versions
  • The opera is largely fanciful, like the Schiller play it was based on – there is no evidence Don Carlos loved his stepmother and plenty of evidence to tell us Don Carlos was not a heroic, rebellious prince at all.
  • The real Don Carlos was a sickly child who hated his father, especially after a botched brain operation left him prone to violence and fits of rage.
  • Catholic societies in New York actually picketed a performance at the Met Opera in the 1950s, objecting to the anti-church sentiment in the opera
  • As the opera is based on the historical figure of Don Carlos, the company has chosen to call the opera Don Carlos, instead of the Italianised Don Carlo.

Don Carlos is on at Sydney Opera House from July 14 until August 15. Tickets and more information via the Opera Australia website.

7 Responses to “Cheat sheet: Don Carlos”

  1. Millicent

    re Don Carlos

    Can you tell me how many intervals there will be in this production?



    Enjoyed reading the cheat sheet – didn’t know anything about Don Carlos, but now it is clear that this is opera at its most dramatic – it will have us on the edges of our seats!
    However, in ;’What hap[pens in the story’ line 6 – surely ‘bequest’ should be ‘behest??
    a bequest is a legacy, as in a Will
    behest means/a command or bidding
    Thank you, Jeanette

  3. Nicholas Siebold

    The OA 1999 production was called “Don Carlo” as it was, and this revival is; the Italian 1884 version, however this time it is called “Don Carlos” because he was a real historical person. Does this new policy of naming operas that are based on real historical people mean that, if OA was to produce “Maria Stuarda” or “Anna Bolena” (both operas by Donizetti) they would call them “Mary Stuart” and “Anne Boleyn”? Or “Nabucco” (Verdi) be called “Nebuchadnezzar “? Or “Andrea Chenier” (Giordano) be “Andre Chenier”? Or “Giulio Cesare” (Handel) be “Iulius Caesar”?

  4. Caroline

    Have just got off the phone from my mother whose enjoyment of Don Carlos was greatly reduced by the historical inaccuracies of the costuming. She thought either the designer hadn’t bothered to research the fact that the Velasquez paintings were a century out from the period in which the opera was historically set, or that the design team thought the audience too uneducated to recognise a Spanish setting that wasn’t straight out of a Velasquez painting. I said that it was more likely to be an artistic rationale to fit in with a directorial vision. Can you shed any light on this?

    • Jennifer Williams

      Hi Caroline,
      You are right. The designer chose to create a stylised picture of the Spanish court, and drew inspiration from Velasquez paintings, even though the artist was painting a century later than the historical period presented in the opera.

      Verdi presented a fictionalised account of Spanish history, with no regard for the actual history of the period (Don Carlos being a weak and sickly child, for example, with no evidence of attachment to Elisabeth de Valois). So I believe the designer felt liberty to do the same.

      I’m sorry to hear that your mother did not enjoy the opera as much as possible because of the costuming. Artistic choices are always subjective, and don’t always appeal to everyone. I hope she was still able to enjoy the stunning music and incredible talents on the stage.



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