The opera is set in France and Spain, around 1560.
The forest of Fontainebleau
Don Carlos, the Infante of Spain (heir to the throne), is betrothed to the French princess Elisabeth de Valois, and has come to France incognito, because Spain and France have been at war for many years. Elisabeth, watched from afar by Carlos, gives alms to some peasants and assures them that her marriage will bring peace. When Elisabeth and her page Thibault become lost, Carlos presents himself to her as a Spanish diplomat, and agrees to protect her while Thibault goes for help. Carlos shows her a portrait of her betrothed: she recognizes him and they declare their love. Their idyll is brief: Thibault returns, greeting Elisabeth as Queen and announcing that Henry II has now promised his daughter to Carlos's father, King Philippe of Spain. Count Lerme, a Spanish envoy, confirms the offer of marriage, but insists it must be Elisabeth's choice. Elisabeth agrees to sacrifice herself for the good of her people. Carlos is left in despair.
Scene 1: The monastery of Saint-Just, Spain
The tomb of the Emperor Charles V dominates the chapel. A dark figure approaches the altar and laments the vanity of human pride and ambition. Carlos hears the voice and
recognizes in it the spirit of his dead grandfather. His friend, Rodrigue, Marquis of Posa, has returned from Flanders with deputies representing the Flemish people, and tells Carlos of their oppression under Spanish rule. Carlos confesses that he still loves Elisabeth, now his father's wife. They watch while Philippe and Elisabeth go into the monastery. Rodrigue inspires Carlos to join him in liberating the Flemish people.
Scene 2: Outside the monastery
Queen Elisabeth rejoins Princess Eboli and other ladies of the court. Rodrigue brings the Queen a private note from Carlos, which tells her that she must trust the bearer. Rodrigue urges Elisabeth to grant Carlos an audience, while Eboli, in aside, reveals her love for Carlos and her belief that he loves her in return. Elisabeth consents to Rodrigue's request, and dismisses her ladies. Carlos asks Elisabeth to obtain the King's permission for him to leave for Flanders. She agrees and bids him farewell. He is overcome with emotion and declares his love for her. Confused and angry, she rejects him and he runs off in despair. King Philippe arrives and, finding the Queen unattended, punishes her by ordering her best friend and lady-in-waiting, Countess Aremberg, to return to France. Elisabeth bids the Countess a tearful farewell and reproaches Philippe for distrusting her. The court leaves, but Philippe bids Rodrigue to remain. Invited to speak freely, Rodrigue appeals to the King on behalf of the Flemish people. Struck by Rodrigue's honesty, Philippe confides his suspicions about his wife and son. He appoints him as his personal counselor, but warns him to beware of the Grand Inquisitor.
Scene 1: The Queen's gardens
On the eve of Philippe's coronation, a masked ball is underway. Elisabeth has left early and given Eboli her mask so that the Princess can return to the ball in her place. Seeing this as a chance to approach Carlos, Eboli has written him a note asking him to meet her. Carlos mistakes Eboli for Elisabeth and declares his love. When she realizes his impassioned words were not meant for her, she warns him that Rodrigue is spying on him for the King. Rodrigue appears and threatens to silence her. Eboli determines to take revenge by exposing Carlos's love for the Queen. Worried that Carlos will be arrested, Rodrigue asks him for any incriminating political papers he may be carrying, and, after a moment's hesitation, Carlos entrusts the papers to his friend.
Scene 2: The plaza before the cathedral in Valladolid
On coronation day, the people gather to witness an auto-da-fé, (act of faith), a burning of heretics held to celebrate the coronation and keep the populace in fear. Suddenly Carlos presents to his father the Flemish deputies, who beg for mercy on behalf of their nation. Philippe refuses and is supported by the clergy while the people urge him to show mercy. Carlos demands to be made regent of Flanders. When Philippe refuses, Carlos draws his sword and threatens him. Rodrigue disarms Carlos; Philippe grants Rodrigue a dukedom in reward and bids the festivities begin.
Scene 1: Philippe's study in the Escorial Palace
Philippe sits alone in the middle of the night, lamenting his marriage to a woman who does not love him. Eboli brings him a jewel box belonging to Elisabeth, which she leaves with Philippe. The Grand Inquisitor arrives, and the King asks him whether he will be forgiven if he condemns his son to death. The Inquisitor recommends death for Carlos and demands that Rodrigue be handed over to the Inquisition, but the King refuses. Elisabeth enters, distressed to find her jewel box stolen, and agitated to find that her husband has opened it. Philippe draws from it a portrait of Carlos. He accuses her of adultery and strikes her down. Fearing he has killed her, he calls for help. Eboli and Rodrigue answer his summons. Eboli begs the Queen's forgiveness for stealing the jewel box and confesses that she is in love with Carlos but has been rejected by him.
In love with Carlos herself, Elisabeth is deeply sympathetic. Overheard by Philippe, Eboli then confesses to Elisabeth that she has been the King's mistress. Eboli is given the choice of going into exile or entering a convent.
Scene 2: Carlos's prison cell
Rodrigue visits Carlos in his prison cell to bid him farewell. He knows he will be killed because he has deliberately incriminated himself in order to save Carlos's life. He entreats Carlos to continue their mission to save the Flemish people. Rodrigue is then assassinated by the Inquisition. As he dies, he tells Carlos that Elisabeth will meet him one last time at the monastery of Saint-Just. The King comes to return Carlos's sword, seeking reconciliation with his son. Carlos bitterly rejects him and reveals that Rodrigue died to save him. Philippe is stricken with remorse. A bell signals an uprising. A crowd, including the disguised Eboli, storms Rodrigue's funeral to demand Carlos's freedom. Secretly, Eboli leads Carlos to safety as the Grand Inquisitor quells the mob and seals his political accord with the King.
The monastery of Saint-Just
Elisabeth prays at the tomb of Carlos's grandfather, the Emperor Charles V. She remembers her first meeting with Carlos at Fontainebleau and her subsequent tragic life in Spain, and vows to dedicate herself to God. Carlos, resolved to carry on Rodrigue's fight in Flanders, comes to say goodbye. She blesses his mission, and they agree to love each other forever as if they were mother and son, promising to be reunited one day in Paradise. Philippe and the Grand Inquisitor arrive and confront Carlos and Elisabeth with accusations of heresy and adultery. A double sacrifice is required. The King hands his son and his wife over to the Inquisition for execution. As Carlos is killed, the spirit of Charles V awakes once more and receives his grandson into a better world.
Synopsis reprinted courtesy of Welsh National Opera.
HGO Performance History
Don Carlos was first presented at HGO in Italian during the 1968–69 season, with subsequent performances in the 1981–82 and 2000–01 seasons. This is the first time HGO has staged the full five-act version in French.