Is there any role so schyzophrenic as the Princess Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo? Some roles have ambiguous tessitura, but the role of Eboli seems to require a different singer for each number in which she appears in the score. This should not be seen as a novelty in Verdian writing – in La Traviata, for example, we can understand the dramatic development of the role of Violetta exclusively through the kind of writing assigned to the role – from coquetry and high coloratura in act I to disillusion and almost lirico spinto singing in the end. We could say something similar happens in Rigoletto – the Gilda who sings Caro Nome is no longer the Gilda who sings Tutte le feste. However, for both Violetta and Gilda, the libretto offers plenty of information to explain what kind of dramatic development is going on. I don’t believe this is the case in Don Carlo.
We first see Eboli as an elegant noblewoman in the King of Spain’s court. Although everybody is really circumspect during the whole opera, Eboli seems to be having the time of her life and, considering she has been the King’s mistress, it is rather bold of her to sing a song about a king’s indiscretion. The song has also this distinctive moorish flavour and the corresponding serpentine coloratura as illustration. It is not the kind of aria you can smear a run or two and get away with it – it is all terribly exposed and catalogues a series of difficulties in both extreme ends of the range. In the next minute, Eboli is in the middle of one of those Verdian hallmark ensembles in which characters express contrasting feelings. For her part, she expresses nothing but elegant small talk. We won’t see Eboli again until the next act – here she is all anticipation for her rendez-vous with her beloved, the Infante. The duet reserves no surprises in terms of writing until the woman realizes that Don Carlos only woos her the way she always dreamed of because he mistakes her for the one he really loves, the Queen. From that moment on, she still trills, but also dives into chest voice and launches acuti as if Azucena has strayed from Il Trovatore. We’ll see Eboli again only once more – she has wrongly denounced the Queen and Carlos to the King and witnesses the results of her misdeed as her victim is being accused by her husband. In the opera’s most famous ensemble (Ah, sii maledetto sospetto fatale), she sings almost contralto-ish low-lying phrases only to shift into her final ordeal – the horribly difficult aria O don fatale. Saying that the aria is too high for a mezzo-soprano and too heavy for a soprano is oversimplifying the problem. As the tradition for operatic portrayal of women in the middle of a nervous breakdown, the tessitura abounds in large intervals and register shifts only to settle into a low-lying expressive cantabile and then breaking into in almost Rossinian overwrought stretta.
Reading between the lines here is certainly a challenge to any singer. To start with, I really cannot see the point of the lightness in the Veil Song unless if it is “staged”. Let’s say that Eboli is jealous for all the attention the young Queen just arrived from France has stirred around her. The Spanish princess is a beautiful and intelligent woman and probably used to be the sensation of the court – the former queen was largely absent as well. One could reckon that the arrival of Elisabeth must have shaken her pride. One could say that she performs her number, with its elaborate ornamentation, to upstage the modest and inexperienced Queen – therefore the theme of the song. Elisabeth’s mother must have suffered something similar in Paris with Diane de Poitiers. Many a dramatic mezzo-soprano seems a bit tense having to cope with the filigree writing – and it would probably be an interesting idea to use this to show that underneath the formidability, Eboli is a bit insecure about her future in the court. I must say that, although Tatiana Troyanos had no problem whatsoever with the song, on this video excerpt from a performance at the Met, she has this stiff and overproud attitude that really makes sense if you understand the Veil Song as something like “marking the territory”. The small talk with the Marquis de Posa after that would be something like checking the effect of her grand entrance on a rival, walking in circles around her prey, talking nonsense, while taking furtive glances as Elisabeth reads the letter Posa had just delivered to her.
The deleted duet between Elisabeth and Eboli in the beginning of act II is a great loss to the understanding of the plot. The Queen is too tired to attend a party in her honour and asks Eboli to use her mask and play her part. That is the reason why Carlos is going to fall into the trap of taking her for the Queen. But before that, Eboli receives the mask and is all excitement for playing the role of the Queen for one night plus finally being in the arms of the man she loves. The musical material of the Veil songs is brought back along with the florid writing. The scene shows Eboli as a lighter character than we are used to see – there is something young and merry about her infatuation with Carlos – and the sudden shock into reality seems more violent. Probably, allowing herself to this teenager-like excitement only to be exposed back as a courtesan is what triggers the hysterical state-of-mind that leads her to the series of actions that culminate with O Don Fatale, an aria that again only makes theatrical sense as a fit of hysteria. During this aria, she a) reproaches God for cursing her with the vile gift of beauty, b) sanctifies the Queen with adoration and c) decides to atone for her actions by saving the Prince d) before she enters a convent for life. If one has seen those sinners-turned-into-religious on public TV, one knows exactly how over-the-top those conversions can be. The great test for the singer is conveying the mystical exaltation without succumbing to the frenzy, especially at the very end, when many an Eboli get nervous and start to chop or to delete entire phrases altogether.
Now the 1,000,000-dollar question – is there a perfect Eboli? Considering the ambiguous nature of the role, one is tempted to say that singers with an ambiguous voice would be the best idea. Shirley Verrett, for many, is the dictionary example of someone who coped with both the flexibility and the dramatic writing adeptly. I cannot disagree with that opinion but, in the individual arias, for example, I also find Troyanos really compelling in the Veil Song and I cannot be indifferent either to the surprisingly intelligent and feminine performance of Régine Crespin in O don fatale (a studio recording) – for once someone who curses her beauty and sounds like a beautiful woman at the same time!
Finally, I must mention an interesting essay, in which Eboli’s vocalità is analyzed. It mentions that the first Eboli, Pauline Gueymard-Lauters, also happened to be the first Paris Leonora (in Il Trovatore). She counted in her repertory roles like Donna Anna (!) and Fidès (!!?) in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète. As the author explains, Verdi even transposed the Veil Song up to accommodate her. Curiously, the first Italian Eboli, Giuseppina Pasqua also sang opposite roles in range such as Oscar (Un Ballo in Maschera) and Mistress Quickly in Falstaff. I can only imagine that those were mezzos with impressive upper extensions who sang those high roles in their early days. In our times, the only singer I can think of who could do something like that would have been Marilyn Horne – who curiously left no complete recording of this role…