Maria-Cristina Necula Talks About Her Book, The Don Carlos Enigma

Spain’s Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias, remains an enigma, centuries after his death. There are reports that while incarcerated he was murdered by his father, King Philip II. Three treatments investigate the Don Carlos legend – César Vichard de Saint-Réal’s novel, Dom Carlos, nouvelle historique (1672), Friedrich Schiller’s play, Don Karlos, Infant von Spanien (1787), and Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Don Carlos (1867). Maria-Cristina Necula’s The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions, delves into these three sources, and many others, to examine the life and death of the Spanish prince. She spoke with Woman Around Town about her book.

Don Carlos was certainly an enigma. Did you have your own opinion about him before you began your research?

When I started my research, I knew very little about the historical Don Carlos. The fictionalized version of him most familiar to me was the one from Verdi’s opera. I thought of Verdi’s Don Carlos with compassion: a young man trapped between his almighty father, King Philip, and the terrifying Inquisition. I saw him as a Prince with high hopes whose heart and mind are squashed by this power duo of monarchy and church. Everything for him is cut short: his rights as the future inheritor of the crown, love, initiatives, and, ultimately, his life.  

What inspired you to select Don Carlos as a subject for your book?

This book is based on my doctoral dissertation within the discipline of comparative literature, but with a twist: it adds opera and performance alongside two literary works, Saint-Réal’s historical novella Dom Carlos and Schiller’s play Don Karlos, Infant of Spain. It was important to me to also honor the art that has brought much to my life: opera. So many operas are based on literature, and Don Carlos as a topic offered an abundance of literary associations. I focused on the three that were the most connected: novella, play, and opera. The ripple effects of each creator’s artistic choices revealed a fascinating, evolving flow in the title character’s portrayal and the depiction of the mystery.

How did you evaluate the truth in each of these three treatments of the story? Can you talk a little about what you found valid in each one?

Verdi drew his inspiration from Schiller who was inspired by Saint-Réal who, in turn, consulted historical sources—which Schiller did as well. All three, Saint-Réal in his novella, Schiller in his play, and Verdi in his opera, maintained ties to history. Yes, their Don Carlos treatments are three different manifestations of historical fiction in which history is stretched and even invented. But their inventions color between the firm lines of certain historical facts: the marriage of Philip and Elisabeth who was originally betrothed to Don Carlos, the partnership and occasional struggle for the upper hand between Philip and the Inquisition, the revolt in the Low Countries, the pleading visits of the Flemish deputies, and more. Getting at the detailed truth about Don Carlos’s life and death, however, is like walking on moving sand. Ambassadorial reports from Philip’s court concealed various political agendas while the Flemish instituted their own propaganda to denigrate Philip. What better way to do that than portray him as his son’s murderer? No one will be ever be certain about how Don Carlos died in incarceration and what truly drove Philip to such inhumanity as to lock up forever his own son and only heir. Yet it is this uncertainty that has inspired Saint-Réal, Schiller, and Verdi to take artistic risks and introduce some innovations in their genres. Recreating the story and character of Don Carlos was an incredible creative catalyst for all three.

How did you approach your research? What sources did you use?

I read avidly: books, essays, and papers within a wide range of disciplines such as critical, historical, and biographical studies in the fields of seventeenth-century French literature, eighteenth-century German theatre, nineteenth-century French and Italian opera, Spanish history, politics, philosophical treatises, and more. I also read other works by Saint-Réal and Schiller. I already knew Verdi’s operas, but I dug deeper into the libretti which was an interesting process: to actually look at how the libretto translates the essence of the literary work and then how, in singing, the character that began taking shape on the pages of historical chronicles, is reborn as a living version through the human voice.  

Don Carlos seems like a strange individual to inspire an opera. What did Giuseppe Verdi find compelling about this young man? Was the opera truthful or does it downplay his mental illness and violent side?

Verdi knew the historical truth—or rather, the mosaic of truth—about Don Carlos but he did not portray him as insane. In the opera the Prince is prone to emotional outbursts and even fainting in the presence of his love interest, Elisabeth, but that is because he is pushed to extremes of emotional and psychological suffering. Some productions, like the 2017 one by director  Krzysztof Warlikowski at the Opéra de Paris, insinuate that Don Carlos’s mind is disturbed and that the thwarted love story with Elisabeth comes from his delusional imagination. Don Carlos as a character offered fertile creative territory for Verdi to show him as a political pawn whose tragedy is amplified by losing his fiancée, Elisabeth, to his own father, and whose hopes of governing Flanders are dashed, also by his father. At the core of it all is the complicated and painful relationship between father and son, who are rivals in love and in politics. It is one of Verdi’s specialties to embed a personal tragedy within the larger context of politics and religion. Don Carlos is his greatest political opera, yet it is also intimate and heartbreaking as the personal and the public aspects feed each other in the unraveling of the tragedy. The character also gave Verdi the opportunity to compose a different kind of tenor role, not the usual, romantic hero. I also think that, in some way, the historically-documented madness of the Spanish Prince can act as a disclaimer—a writer, a playwright, a composer, a librettist can take more liberties in creating this character. Who’s to say what was “normal” or constant about Don Carlos? An unstable character can do anything, and that fuels creative freedoms.   

Maria-Cristina Necula (Photo by Karina Iohan)

There are so many dark stories about Don Carlos, that he tortured animals, for example. Did you find sources to back up these stories?

These stories were mentioned in several of the books and essays that I read; most are based on political accounts and ambassadorial reports of the time.

One speculation is that inbreeding within the family led to Don Carlos’ mental instability. Were there any other relatives who suffered a similar fate? If Don Carlos were diagnosed today, what would that analysis be?

Yes, inbreeding occurred throughout several generations, and it was definitely a factor that could cause physical and mental defects. Philip himself was the child of first cousins. One relative known for her insanity was Philip’s grandmother, Joanna of Castile, named Juana la loca (Joanna the Mad) who, on the other hand, was also known for her sharp intelligence. Her own son, Emperor Charles V (Philip’s father), had Joanna confined, which foreshadows what Philip would do to Don Carlos. Some historians have suggested that she probably suffered from a form of schizophrenia, which was most likely inherited and could have been passed down to her descendants, maybe skipping a couple of generations. It is difficult to give an accurate diagnosis for Don Carlos because who can really be certain that he did all that was written about him? He was depicted as violent and sadistic, on the other hand, he could also be generous and loving with those who showed him compassion, like Elisabeth. One prevalent description about him was that he acted very childishly and needed constant attention and approval. Some of his aberrant behaviors could have been an extreme lashing out whenever he was ignored or pushed aside, especially by his father. 

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope that readers will find it interesting to discover some of the profound connections in this partnership between Don Carlos’s history and the different creative versions of that history. Saint-Réal, Schiller, and Verdi tried to solve the enigma of the Spanish Prince’s brief life and mysterious death, each through his innovative vision and creative brilliance. Their treatments of this tale attest to history as an everlasting generator of stories. They keep the mystery of Don Carlos eternally evolving with each telling and re-telling of his tragic fate. And they speak to the timelessness of political scheming, conspiracy, denigration of enemies by manipulating history, and so much more. Epochs and players may change, but the chess game between competing political and personal interests remains similar.  

Have you ever performed in the opera? What was that experience like? 

No, but many years ago when I auditioned for the late Maestro Alfredo Silipigni of the New Jersey  State Opera, he told me that I should learn the Voice from Heaven in Don Carlos. This is one of Verdi’s touches of the supernatural: during the auto-da-fé—the public burning of heretics—scene, a celestial voice is heard welcoming the souls of the tortured, burning victims into heaven. It is a small, offstage part but dramatically effective. Eventually, I learned the music but never sang it in public. Sometimes, for fun, I like to sing the dueling phrases between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor. This is one of the most hair-raising and astounding duets ever composed—it gives us Verdi at his most dramatically innovative staying close to Schiller’s text to portray two clashing forces: church and state. If I could live an alternate life, I’d want to be a bass just to be able to sing Philip or the Grand Inquisitor. But, for now, having explored the history of Don Carlos and the novella, play, and opera that have recreated him, has brought me great intellectual and artistic fulfillment. In writing this book and living with this subject for so many months, I sometimes felt like I sang all the roles in Verdi’s opera, I tread the theatre stage reciting Schiller’s lines, and I became an apprentice in the art of court intrigues and conspiracies that only a 17th-century French writer like Saint-Réal could conjure up. For me as well, the subject of Don Carlos has been a transformative catalyst in so many ways.  

The Don Carlos Enigma is available on Amazon.

Top photo of Maria-Cristina Necula by Jorge Madrigal