Written by Mena M. Hanna, Dramaturg
The two operas of our spring repertoire period, Verdi’s Don Carlos and Donizetti’s Mary Stuart (Maria Stuarda), share one major origin point: they are both based on plays by the German playwright, poet, and thinker Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805).
Schiller was writing at a time of cultural and political crisis. His work stands at a crossroads, summing up the legacy of the eighteenth century and pointing towards the nineteenth. The later dramas— Don Carlos, Mary Stuart, the Wallenstein trilogy, The Maid of Orleans, and William Tell—present the rootlessness of a generation that has inherited the Enlightenment’s intellectual liberation from the constraints of religion and tradition but cannot realize its vision of a better world. These works, written either in anticipation of or in the aftermath of the French Revolution, explore the nature of political legitimacy, the responsible exercise of power and the origin of that power, and the clash of moral judgment and political pressure.
During Schiller’s life, the thrill of freedom, equality, and brotherhood of the French Revolution soon turned sour. The Revolution led to the Terror and finally gave the world Napoleon, a man who wielded far more absolute power over Europe than anyone ever before him. Donizetti, born in 1797, lived through conquests of Napoleon. He, like Verdi, tackled the problems of his age through musical adaptation of historical drama. The three “queen operas,” so named for the leading female roles in Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, all deal with the Tudor period of English history. Not only did these pieces function as vehicles for some of opera’s most memorable prima donnas, but also they sought to shed light on Donizetti’s contemporary world through the musicalization of larger-than-life historical figures.
Verdi, likewise, was attracted to complex historical drama. John Caird, the director of Don Carlos, told me he believes that this opera is Verdi’s most ambitious political statement. Though the story of Don Carlos set in sixteenth-century Spain during the Inquisition, the opera is really about Verdi’s commitment to Italian unification, the collision of Church and State, and the drama of personal romance and passion set within the wider context of political ambition and power.