Opéra in five acts by Giuseppe Verdi to a libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle after Friedrich von Schiller´s dramatic poem »Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien«.
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Don Carlo is recalling happier days in France, where he had met and fallen in love with the French princess Elizabeth, who was to become his wife. For political reasons, however, Elizabeth of Valois was given in marriage to Carlo’s father, the Spanish king Philip II, instead. A monk resembling Carlo’s grandfather, Carlo V, promises him that he will find consolation in the hereafter.
The Marquis of Posa, Carlo’s childhood friend, urges him to come to the aid of the oppressed Netherlands, but Carlo, consumed by his unhappy love affair, is uninterested. He confesses to his friend that he is in love with his own stepmother, shocking Posa, who tells Carlo that his unrequited love is precisely the reason why he should leave the court and lead the Flemish army. The two of them vow to fight together for freedom.
Princess Eboli sings a ballad about a veiled woman being courted by the Moorish king.
Posa calls on Elizabeth and gives her a letter allegedly written by her mother. At the same time, he slips her a letter from Carlo. Eboli misinterprets Posa’s remarks and thinks that Carlo is in love with her.
When they see each other again, Elizabeth promises Carlo that she will support his political plans. Unable to restrain himself, Carlo abandons himself to his feelings.
Philip sees his wife unattended and sends the Countess of Aremberg back to France for having neglected her duty to watch over the princess. He makes light of Elizabeth’s unhappiness about this.
Philip takes the Marquis of Posa aside. Posa has come to his attention because he alone has not attempted to ingratiate himself with the king. Posa takes the risk of speaking openly and asks for peace and freedom for Flanders. Although the king rejects the request as romantic enthusiasm, he is moved by Posa’s sincerity. Philip promises Posa that he will not call him to account, but tells him to beware of the Grand Inquisitor. He takes him into his confidence, instructing him to spy on Elizabeth and Carlo, whom he suspects of being secretly in love.
Carlo receives an anonymous invitation to a rendezvous. He realizes too late that it is not Elizabeth, but Princess Eboli, who has appeared to meet him and who now knows that he is in love with the queen and not with her. Posa intervenes and attempts to play down the situation as a misunderstanding. Eboli, however, cannot be placated, making her dangerous to Carlo.
Posa advises Carlo to give him all of the papers referring to his involvement in the plans to free Flanders. Carlo hesitates because he has since learned about the friendship between Posa and his father. In the end, however, his trust is restored, and they pledge their loyalty to one another.
During the ceremonial opening of an auto-da-fé, Carlo arrives with six deputies from Flanders to petition for peace and freedom for the province. When Philip denies his son’s request that Flanders be made his responsibility, Carlo threatens his father. Posa is the only one who comes to the king’s aid, and the king rewards him with a ducal title. Carlo is arrested and the burning of the heretics begins.
Philip is tormented by the thought that Elizabeth has never loved him. Unsure as to what he should do about Carlo, he consults the Grand Inquisitor, who promises him absolution for the murder of his son. At the same time, however, he demands that Posa be handed over to the Inquisition. Philip attempts in vain to resist.
Elizabeth tells Philip that her jewelry casket has been stolen. Philip, who has the casket, accuses her of adultery when he finds a picture of Carlo in it. Eboli and Posa join them. Eboli recognizes her mistake, and Posa realizes that he must act.
When Elizabeth is left alone with Princess Eboli, the princess confesses to having stolen the casket out of jealousy. But there is more: she reveals that she is the king’s mistress. Elizabeth gives her a choice between exile and the convent. Eboli regrets her actions.
Posa visits Carlo in prison. When he reports that the dangerous papers have been found in his possession and that he will soon be arrested, Carlo realizes that his friend’s intentions were good. Both pledge loyalty to their political ideal: the liberation of Flanders. A shot rings out, and Posa is mortally wounded. Dying, he tells Carlo that Elizabeth is waiting for him.
Philip wants to forgive his son, but Carlo rejects his attempt. Philip acknowledges his responsibility for Posa’s death. The people, incited by Eboli, want to free Carlo. The uproar subsides when the Grand Inquisitor appears and orders the people to kneel before God and their king.
Carlo comes to Elizabeth while she is praying for inner peace. Both realize that they have lost their chance at love. Carlo wants to go to Flanders, and Elizabeth urges him to follow his plan. She bids him farewell.
Philip appears, accompanied by the Grand Inquisitor. While Philip is calling Elizabeth to account, he gives his son into the hands of the Grand Inquisitor.