Verdi’s Ghosts

Olivia Giovetti

The spirit of Charles V hovers over Don Carlo. The four-act version of Verdi’s opera (it has a complicated production history) opens at the Holy Roman Emperor’s tomb. ‘He wanted to rule the world,’ a monk sings, ‘but forgot who assigns the stars their path in the sky. His pride was great, his madness immeasurable.’ In the finale, Charles V rises from the tomb to drag his grandson, the Infante Don Carlos, off to death.

Another spectre that looms over the opera is the plight of Flanders. Charles V’s son and successor, Philip II, in 1567 sent ten thousand troops to suppress the Dutch Revolt. (Herod’s soldiers in Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents wear their uniforms.) As the infante’s friend Rodrigo puts it, the region is ‘a silent grave’ whose rivers overflow with blood. Philip shrugs: it’s the price to be paid for ‘peace’.

Verdi keeps Flanders as the ghost of an idea, focusing instead on the domestic drama of Don Carlos and Elisabeth of Valois, whose engagement was broken so she could marry his father, Philip. Still, the cause of Flemish independence – which would have resonated with an Italian audience for whom the Risorgimento was recent history – is in the opera’s rear-view mirror.

In the climactic auto-da-fé that closes out the second act, Verdi, with a full cast and chorus, ties together the Spanish Inquisition, the Eighty Years’ War and the goings-on of the imperial bedrooms. The opera hinges on the scene; by the end of it, the main characters’ destinies have been indelibly forged in the fires of the apostates.

The Deutsche Oper Berlin’s revival of Don Carloopened on 5 December. With Covid-19 cases rising steeply in Germany and a number of infections in the company’s chorus, there was a last-minute decision to place the chorus on a two-week ‘rest period’ and adjust the opera accordingly. A small group of male singers delivered the opening lines offstage. A female chorus was recast as an orchestral interlude. And there was no auto-da-fé.

The cuts left Don Carlo broken-backed: without the auto-da-fé, the subsequent two acts lose much of their dramatic force. In another way, however, the emergency amputations were illuminating: further removed from the outer world represented by the chorus, the opera now told the story of a handful of nobles cut off from reality, oblivious to the fact that their actions had ramifications for millions. Apart from Rodrigo, who sacrifices his life in an effort to save Flanders, no one, it seems, can be bothered to prioritise the collective good over their own personal interest.

Despite setting a standard at the beginning of the pandemic with quick, decisive action and at times unpopular decisions to preserve public health, Germany is now caught in a fourth wave with 55,000 new cases a day. The interregnum between Angela Merkel and Olaf Scholz – who, more than two months after Germany’s federal elections, was this week officially sworn in as the new chancellor – left a gap at a critical time in managing the crisis.

The protracted parliamentary debates since the election over how to respond to the pandemic seem more designed to serve careerist politicians than the public interest (though Germans can at least be grateful they don’t have Boris Johnson in charge). ‘Sire, half the earth is subject to you,’ Rodrigo says to Phillip II at one point in Don Carlo. ‘Are you the only one in your immeasurable kingdom that you cannot rule?’