A Close Look at Princess Eboli's "Song of the Veil"
By the middle of Act II, Don Carlo has moved from bleak news of a marriage to somber prayer in a tomb. An audience would be forgiven for wanting a brighter note—and Verdi provides it with a canzone, a freestanding song, in which a new character takes the stage. The Princess of Eboli amuses the Queen’s ladies-inwaiting with a kind of proto-feminist joke: the “Song of the Veil,” in which a woman cleverly embarrasses her would-be-unfaithful husband. (Students can follow the text and translation on the reproducible found here.)
The song has a background in Spanish history: Spain was ruled by Islamic North Africans, known as Moors (and incorrectly referred to during the period of the Crusades as “Saracens”), from the 8th through the 15th centuries, when Catholic forces drove the Muslims out. It makes sense, therefore, for the 16th-century Eboli to entertain her friends with a pseudo-Moorish melody.
The “Song of the Veil” (Track 28) opens with flamenco flourishes, followed by a lilting Spanish-flavored waltz. The flamenco brass returns when Eboli mentions “Mohammed, the Moorish king,” and again as the ladies conclude their first chorus.
The punchline of Eboli’s story comes in Track 29. The foolish King Mohammed denounces his wife, the Queen, in front of a veiled beauty. The woman then removes her veil to reveal that she is the Queen. She has outsmarted her sneak of a husband. The ladies-in-waiting sing their jolly chorus again, and with a sustained top note from Eboli and another flamenco flourish the canzone comes to an end.
In many operas, that would be that. The song would have served its purpose, and the tragic tale would resume. In Don Carlo, Verdi adds another twist. The “Song of the Veil” foreshadows an important scene later in the opera. Eboli, it turns out, is in love with Carlo, unbeknownst to him or anyone else. For her part, she has no idea he loves Elisabeth. She sends him an anonymous note seeking a midnight tryst, and as Act III begins, they meet, like Mohammed and his queen, in the palace garden. Eboli seems not to have paid much attention to the words of her song, because she arrives wearing a veil. It doesn’t occur to her that Carlo might mistake her identity, just as King Mohammed did.
The ironic results can be heard in Track 30: Carlo, unaware that anyone but Elisabeth might seek a secret rendezvous, declares his love, thrilling Eboli—until she removes the veil. Again, in another opera, this might be a moment of high humor. In Don Carlo, it results in more tragedy. Eboli, scorned, vows to take revenge on Carlo and Elisabeth. As the story continues, she will endanger both their lives by denouncing the Queen to King Philip.
Students may enjoy imagining other turns the story could have taken. Would the situation have been worse or better if Eboli hadn’t removed her veil? What kind of trouble might have ensued then? How could Carlo have reacted differently in Track 27, protecting Eboli from embarrassment? What bothers a person like Eboli more—the embarrassment, or the discovery that her love is misplaced? Why?