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The Met 2022: Don Carlos

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France and Spain, c. 1560. Against the wishes of the Spanish King Philippe II, his son and heir, Don Carlos, has traveled incognito to Fontainebleau, where negotiations are underway for a peace treaty between Spain and France. He has seen his intended bride, Élisabeth, daughter of the French king, and fallen in love with her on sight. When he meets Élisabeth and her page, who have been hunting and become lost in the forest, Carlos offers his protection without revealing his identity. Élisabeth questions him about her future husband, apprehensive over her marriage to a stranger. Carlos gives her a miniature portrait of himself, and she realizes that he is the prince. It is clear to them both that their feelings of love are mutual. Their happiness ends, however, when news arrives that the treaty arrangements have been altered, and Élisabeth is instead to marry King Philippe, Carlos’s father. Élisabeth reluctantly accepts. While all around them celebrate the end of the war, Élisabeth and Carlos are devastated.

Carlos seeks peace at the monastery of St. Just in Spain, where he prays at the tomb of his grandfather, Emperor Charles V. A monk, who seems to be the emperor’s ghost, confronts him. His friend Rodrigue, the Marquis of Posa, arrives to remind Carlos of his commitment to the cause of the Flemish people, who are oppressed by Spanish rule. When Philippe and Élisabeth arrive, Carlos confesses to Posa his love for the queen, and the two men pledge themselves to the cause of liberty and swear eternal friendship.

In a garden outside the monastery, Princess Eboli entertains the other ladies of the court with a song. Élisabeth enters, followed by Posa, who hands her a secret letter from Carlos asking for a meeting. When he is admitted, Carlos asks the queen to obtain Philippe’s permission for him to go to Flanders, then suddenly declares his continuing love. Élisabeth rejects him, and Carlos rushes off. The king enters and, finding the queen alone, banishes the Countess of Aremberg, who should have been attending her. Left alone with the king, Posa challenges Philippe to end his oppression of the Flemish people. Philippe refuses but is impressed by Posa’s courage. He warns him to beware of the Inquisition and tells Posa that he suspects his wife and Carlos, asking Posa to watch them. Posa accepts the assignment, knowing that being in the king’s confidence will be valuable.

In the queen’s gardens in Madrid, Élisabeth, tired of the festivities, exchanges clothes with Eboli so that she can take her place. Eboli, suspecting that Carlos loves her, writes an unsigned message to him to arrange a secret meeting. Carlos arrives and, fooled by her attire and thinking that Eboli is Élisabeth, again declares his love. When he discovers her identity, he recoils and rejects her advances. From this, Eboli discovers Carlos’s treasonous love for Élisabeth and swears to expose him. Posa arrives in time to overhear Eboli and threatens to kill her, but Carlos prevents him. Eboli leaves in fury. Posa explains that Carlos is now in imminent danger and urges him to hand over any incriminating documents so they won’t be found by Philippe’s men.

At a public burning of heretics in front of Madrid’s Basilica of Our Lady of Atocha, Carlos leads a group of Flemish deputies to Philippe. The king rejects their pleas for freedom. When he also dismisses Carlos’s own request to rule Flanders, the prince draws his sword on his father. Posa disarms him, and Carlos is arrested. In thanks, Philippe makes Posa a duke. As a group of heretics is led to the stake, a celestial voice welcomes their souls into heaven.

In his study at night, the king reflects on his life with a wife who doesn’t love him. He consults with the old, blind Grand Inquisitor, who consents to the death sentence for Carlos: As God sacrificed his son to save mankind, so Philippe must put aside his love for his son for the sake of both church and state. The Inquisitor also demands that Posa be handed over to him, but Philippe refuses. As he leaves, Philippe wonders if the throne must always yield to the altar. Élisabeth enters, having discovered that her jewel case has been stolen. Eboli, who knows that Élisabeth keeps a portrait of Carlos in it, has denounced her and given the box to the king as evidence. Philippe now shows the box to Élisabeth, takes out the portrait, and accuses her of adultery. Élisabeth collapses, and the king calls for help. Eboli and Posa rush in. Posa expresses amazement that a king who rules half the world cannot govern his own emotions, while Eboli feels remorse at what her jealousy has brought about. Alone with Élisabeth, Eboli confesses that she not only falsely accused her but that she has been the king’s mistress. Élisabeth orders her exile from the court. Eboli laments her fatal beauty and swears to spend her final day in Spain trying to save Carlos.

Posa visits Carlos in prison to tell him that he has used the secret papers to take upon himself the blame for the Flemish rebellion and will die in Carlos’s place. Agents of the Inquisition arrive unseen and shoot Posa. As he dies, he exhorts Carlos to take up the cause of liberty for Flanders and tells him that Élisabeth will meet him at the monastery of St. Just. He declares that he is happy to have sacrificed his life for a man who will become Spain’s savior.

Élisabeth has come to the monastery, wanting only her own death. When Carlos appears, she encourages him to continue Posa’s quest for freedom in Flanders, and they hope for happiness in the next world. As they say goodbye, Philippe and the Grand Inquisitor arrive. As the agents of the Inquisition move in on Carlos, the Emperor Charles V materializes out of the darkness to insist that suffering is unavoidable and ceases only in heaven.

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