France and Spain, c. 1560s.
Don Carlos, Infant of Spain, has come secretly to France to see Elisabetta de Valois, to whom he is betrothed but whom he has never met. In the wintry forest of Fontainebleau the two young people meet by chance and fall in love. But when Lerma, the Spanish ambassador, arrives, he tells them that as a condition of the peace treaty between France and Spain, Elisabetta's father has given her not to Carlo but to his father, Filippo.
Carlo, in his misery, visits the cloister of the monastery of St. Just, where his grandfather, Carlo V, became a friar and retreated from the cares of the throne. When Carlo confesses to his friend Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, his love for his father's wife, Rodrigo urges him to devote himself instead to the cause of Flemish independence from Spanish oppression. The two men pledge friendship and devotion to liberty.
Outside the convent, Princess Eboli entertains ladies of the court with a Moorish love song. When the queen arrives, Rodrigo slips her a note from Carlo. She agrees to see Carlo, who reiterates his love for her; when she reminds him that she is now in an impossible position, the distraught Infante rushes off. Filippo, finding Elisabetta unattended, sends her lady-in-waiting into exile. When Rodrigo speaks frankly to the king about his hopes for Flanders, Filippo asks him to watch Carlo and the queen, whom he suspects.
Carlo goes to the queen's gardens at midnight to see Elisabetta but instead is met by the masked Eboli, who is in love with him. When he realizes who she is and shows his disappointment, Eboli threatens to bring about his downfall. To protect him, Rodrigo takes incriminating papers from the Infante.
In the square before the cathedral, a crowd gathers to witness an auto-da-fé. Carlo leads a delegation of Flemish deputies to plead for clemency for the heretics. When the king refuses, Carlo raises his sword against his father. To his astonishment, Rodrigo disarms him. As the condemned are led to the stake, a voice from heaven announces the salvation of their souls.
Alone in his study, Filippo laments his wife's indifference. He then calls in the aged Grand Inquisitor, who urges the death penalty for both Carlo and Rodrigo. After the implacable old priest has left, Elisabetta bursts in, crying that her jewel casket has been stolen. The king produces it, and when he forces it open, Carlo's portrait falls out. He accuses his wife of adultery. The queen faints, and Filippo summons Eboli and Rodrigo for help. When the men withdraw, Eboli confesses responsibility for Elisabetta's betrayal - it was she who stole the jewel casket - and when she goes on to confess that she once was the king's mistress, the queen banishes her to a convent. Eboli, cursing her own fatal beauty, vows to save Carlo.
In Carlo's prison cell, Rodrigo explains that he has allowed Carlo's incriminating papers to be found on his person and thus taken the blame for the Flemish insurrection. As he takes his leave, he is shot to death by a soldier of the Inquisition. The Infante is given his freedom by his father as a mob storms into the cell to defy the monarch. Filippo is protected from the throng by the arrival of the Inquisitor.
Back in the cloister of St. Just, Elisabetta waits to bid farewell to Carlo. The lovers are surprised by Filippo and the Inquisitor, but the Infante is saved from them when Carlo V emerges from the shadows and draws him into the tomb.
"The stars were well aligned when this production was staged at the Thйàtre du Châtelet in Paris during March of 1996, when it was recorded live for this DVD. To have this many major stars together, all of them fine singing actors, in one place at one time was already remarkable. But to combine them in a major Verdi opus, staged by famed filmmaker Luc Bondy and conducted by one of the hottest young talents in the pit today, deserved the attention it received.
It was also an important, and rare, opportunity for opera lovers to see Don Carlos as it was performed at its world premiere, in the five-act version and in the original French language. French taste at the time demanded operas of elaborate display, and with ballets, according to the traditions established by Meyerbeer. These over-long evenings at the opera were pared down in subsequent Italian productions and it was the remarkable music of the first act which was usually jettisoned in its entirety. Modern recordings of Don Carlo have restored this fine music but French language versions are still rare so this production fills an important void in the Verdian repertory.
Of the current stars of the opera stage, this recording has the crème of the crop. In the title role, French tenor Roberto Alagna is in fine voice and displays all of the necessary ardour and youthful passion, both vocally and dramatically. While not probably destined to be one of the legendary Verdi tenors, he is at the top rank of those who sing these roles today. Soprano Karita Mattila, however, as Elisabeth, is moving in the direction of legendary status and, for many, has already reached it. The wonderful vocal gifts she possesses are complemented by a fine acting sense. Her involvement in her character and uncanny ability to shape a vocal line to this purpose makes her enchanting in this role.
Baritone José Van Dam, for many years among the pantheon of legendary stars, delivers a strong and convincing Philippe II. His Act IV aria "Elle ne m'aime pas" should be studied by all aspiring Verdi bass-baritones. It is a textbook example of how richness and beauty of sound, combined with a passionate, nuanced delivery, can create magic in the theatre.
This DVD is distributed by Warner Music Video and is available at most major outlets. It has the 16/9 format and subtitles are available in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. In a CD-ROM player, you can access the libretto, articles about this opera, and biographies of the artists. It also has Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround Sound options."