Of all his operas, Verdi’s “Don Carlo” (or “Don Carlos), which had its world premiere on March 11, 1867, is often referred to as his most “Shakespearean.” For most people, this description comes down to one thing – tragically complex characters.
That said, when they talk about “complex,” King Philip and Princess Eboli are perhaps the most talked about with Elisabetta getting some mention. Rodrigo of course, despite his purity provides an emotional counterpoint that strengthens the potency and contradiction inherent in the King.
The titular character is often overlooked in the mix. People turn to his lack of a solo music as one reason. Where he gets a brief romance at the start of the opera, the other four major players get at least two arias with the lone exception of the King, who gets a massive monologue that dominates over all other solos in the opera.
Others note that Don Carlo himself is a rather weak and passive character, his actions directed by the characters around him.
While all of this is true, it overlooks a very basic component of the character himself and what makes him so emblematic of the opera as a whole.
Don Carlo is nothing more than a massive failure, but not because he sits around and lets things happen to him. He fails because he tries to take his destiny into his own hands.
He seeks out his betrothed instead of just hanging out in the courts and waiting for her to come to him. When Rodrigo urges him to make a case for ruler of Flanders he does as he is told and presses on. He does his best to win back Elisabetta’s affections even though they are forbidden. At the end of the opera he sets out on a quest to free the Flemish, even at the cost of open war with his father.
But at the end of the day, each of his actions is stymied. His search for Elisabetta results in his leaving empty-handed. When he approaches her later on, she vehemently rejects him. When he returns with ambassadors from Flanders, they wind up burned at the stake. When he tries to escape Spain to fulfill his promise to the slain Rodrigo, he is captured and either killed or forced into seclusion in a monastery.
The historic Don Carlo was said to be a madman and a coward and perhaps Verdi’s interpretation of this character, while “heroic” on the surface, actually falls in line with the true life character in more ways than we can imagine.
But Don Carlo’s failure is actually a reflection of every other major character in the opera. The King is a failed father, husband and friend. He stunts his son’s growth, can’t inspire love from his wife and ultimately murders his only friend. He is also a failed ruler, submitting himself to the power of the church.
Eboli can’t control her infatuation with Don Carlo and out of vengeance hatches a plan to damage the queen’s reputation. But even then her plan fails and she is forced out of regal society. Elisabetta attempts to help Don Carlo at the end of the opera, only to have her plan foiled. Ditto for Rodrigo, who can’t win the King over to his cause, winds up dead and sees his dream mission come to an abrupt end with the capture/death of the titular character.
In this light, the title character of Don Carlo is not a simple banal creation, pining over lost love, but a reflection of the entire world of this great opera.