Across the monumental, hourslong opera “Don Carlo,” two female characters take a journey unparalleled in Verdi’s canon of 28 operas. No witches here. No coughing courtesans. Just two real-life characters from history caught in a love triangle that rocked 16th-century Spain.
And for the Royal Opera’s revival of Nicholas Hytner’s 2008 production (running for six performances from June 30 to July 15), two of the world’s top female singers are onboard: the Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen making her role debut as Elisabeth of Valois. For her and Yulia Matochkina, a Russian mezzo-soprano, it’s a chance to delve into two of Verdi’s most complicated and fully realized female characters.
“Don Carlo” is based on the play by Friedrich Schiller. It portrays a real-life Spanish prince, Don Carlo, and Elisabeth of Valois, a French princess, who are secretly in love, although she is betrothed to his father, King Philip II of Spain. Princess Eboli, also in love with Carlo, threatens to expose the affair. And Carlo’s dearest friend, Rodrigo, has maneuvers of his own. It all plays out against the grim backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition.
The male characters often dominate the sprawling story, from the duet between Carlo and Rodrigo (one of the rare tenor-baritone duets in opera) to the Grand Inquisitor’s famous bass aria, which brings the opera’s menacing tone to a crescendo. But for many, it’s the women who move the story forward and offer perhaps the richest characterizations in Verdi’s repertoire.
“One thing to remember with all of Verdi’s operas is what he learned from Victor Hugo, which is that conflict is at the heart to characterization,” Susan Rutherford, the author of the 2013 book “Verdi, Opera, Women,” said in a phone interview. “That idea really governs most of his output. I think in both ‘Aida’ and ‘Don Carlo,’ the women are very well rounded. It’s not melodramatic, like one is good and the other is evil.”
Verdi’s interpretation of a Hugo piece —“Rigoletto” is based on Hugo’s 1832 play “Le roi s’amuse,” or “The King Amuses Himself” — and his works inspired by other writers of the 18th and 19th centuries may be part of the reason for such rich characterizations. It’s something that both Ms. Davidsen and Ms. Matochkina are aware of in their respective characters, which they discussed in interviews at the Royal Opera during the first week of rehearsals in early June.
“Schiller’s drama deals with political and social conflicts and with numerous palace intrigues, but the opera is focused primarily on the characters,” said Ms. Matochkina, who has sung the role in several major opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera. “Enchanting women use their beauty and charm to influence politics. It’s a rumor reflected in the opera that Princess Eboli had a love affair with the king and betrayed his trust, and she paid and suffered for it in every sense.”
That sense of portraying a moment in history — no matter how fictionalized Schiller and Verdi and his librettist made it — is part of the excitement for both singers. Ms. Davidsen said she had empathy for Elisabeth’s predicament of being torn between the prince she loves and the king she must marry.
“Forced marriage is not something most of us know up close, but we know that it exists, and we certainly know about royal families here in this country and also where I come from,” she said, referring to England and her native Norway. “We are not the royals, but we see it from outside: what it takes to be an official person, and how it is controlled by so many others.”
That control — and the control of the Catholic Church during one of its darkest periods — is at the heart of “Don Carlo,” and the female characters react accordingly.
“Both women cross boundaries of what are expected of nice girls, shall we say, but ultimately both of them find a more generous sense of their rivals,” Ms. Rutherford said. “Verdi’s female characters are in some ways stronger than their male counterparts.”
“Don Carlo,” written by Verdi in 1867, preceded his astonishing output that included “Aida,” “Otello,” and his final opera, “Falstaff,” a life-affirming comedy at the end of a prolific career defined almost entirely by tragic operas.
For Ms. Rutherford, the female characters in “Don Carlo” are not merely products of the machinations of men in past centuries.
“I think it’s important not to look at them simply from our eyes,” she said. “We can look back at these operas and wring our hands, but their initial audiences saw these women as having different strengths and weaknesses.”
Ms. Davidsen is making her debut not only in the role of Elisabeth but also in a Verdi opera. She covered the role of Desdemona in “Otello” when she was studying at the Opera Academy at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen and was going to sing “Un Ballo in Maschera” in Oslo in 2021, but that production was canceled because of Covid. She has sung the famous “Don Carlo” aria “Tu che le vanità” in concert several times, but it was still a slightly intimidating prospect to jump into Elisabeth’s shoes. Part of the lure for the Royal Opera production, sung in Italian, was that it would be the five-act, four-plus-hour version (Verdi and his librettists wrote several versions, in French and Italian, and at least one skips part of the first act, where Elisabeth is hunting in the forest and has a bit of time to frolic before the palace intrigue kicks off).
“I like that we’re doing five acts, so that we start at Fontainebleau in the forest,” she said. “It’s much lighter. You see the love and joy and all of the positive things instead of starting when she’s miserable. You need the happy Elisabeth. You see that she’s young and curious. She grows up so quickly.”
Princess Eboli also can be seen as a reflection of Verdi’s commitment to his characters — particularly the female ones — and Ms. Matochkina sees the role as the ultimate vehicle for her voice and acting ability.
“Almost all of Verdi’s roles, especially for mezzo-sopranos, are contradictory and bright,” she said. “Eboli contains everything — love, jealousy, agony over unrequited love, a fierce desire for revenge and attempts to influence politics — and a huge range of feelings and situations, all with great energy.”
In the end, “Don Carlo” is about love and the boundaries of commitment to God and to the crown. It’s about a continuum of history, rather than what could feel like a stodgy story from nearly half a millennium ago.
“Even if it’s about royals, or an old story, these are things we know from our lives now,” Ms. Davidsen said. “Do I trust you? Do I dare to live with you? Do I dare to give myself to you? What do I do with these emotions? All of these things are what we recognize, and it’s all told in such a brilliantly written opera.”