Verdi's tragic opera epitomizes human passions; according to Maestro Riccardo Chailly, it is "the darkest piece ever written."
In order to establish peace between France and the Spanish Empire, a royal wedding is planned between Don Carlo, Infant of Spain and Elisabetta di Valois, daughter of Henry II. They fall in love on their first meeting in the Fontainebleau forest. For political reasons, it is in fact Carlo's father Fillipe II, son of the Emperor Carlos V and king of Spain who will mary the French princess.
While a story of sentimental desolation unfolds, political tensions are also at work in the Flemish part of the Empire. Inquisition and tyranny are raging and Don Carlo sides in favor of the independence of the oppressed region. The tragic conflict reaches its climax when Don Carlo threatens his father with his sword.
Rolando Villazón embodies the young prince, rebelling against his father's familial and political authority. The stage direction features a strong christian iconography which sets the opera back in its religious context of 16th century catholic Spain. The cross also symbolizes the "power of the father over the son" which is the main theme of this opera according to Willy Decker.