LA FORZA DEL DESTINO
Opera in 4 acts
Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave, after Ángel de Saavedra’s
Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (1835)
First performed: Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, 10 November 1862.
Revised version: La Scala, Milan, 27 February 1869.
Reception: The premiere in St Petersburg was only a muted success, and Verdi, unhappy with the work, revised it for Italy. It did well enough for much of the later nineteenth century, but hit low ebb in the early twentieth century, when Wagnerian aesthetics dominated. Since then, it’s become regularly performed. It’s supposed to be cursed, though. Pavarotti refused to perform in it, and clutched his testicles whenever it was mentioned, in case the scenery collapsed on him or (as happened to one baritone) he dropped dead onstage.
La forza del destino is a vast, even unwieldy, opera – and one of Verdi’s most difficult works. He mixes scenes, moods and operatic styles in an opera that takes place over nearly a decade, and, its critics say, violates every notion of dramatic unity and common sense.
Don Alvaro (tenor) – an Incan prince in disguise – accidentally kills his girlfriend Leonora’s (soprano) father, the Marquis of Calatrava. He throws down his gun, which promptly goes off and shoots the old man, who hangs onto life just long enough to curse his daughter. Don Carlo di Vargas, her brother (baritone), vows to find both her and her lover, and kill her. Leonora puts on a monk’s robe and becomes a hermit living in a cave. We don’t see her again until the end.
Don Carlo enlists in the Spanish army, and swears an oath of friendship with another officer – who turns out to be Don Alvaro! The two fight a duel. Don Alvaro becomes a monk, but Don Carlo pursues him to the monastery, and goads him into another duel by calling him racist names. Don Alvaro fatally wounds him – outside a hermit’s cell. The hermit appears – it’s Leonora! Don Carlo kills her, and then dies. (In the opera’s original version, composed for St Petersburg, Don Alvaro then hurled himself off a cliff.)
And the opera is full of gypsy girls, beggars, pedlars, and monks. And the soprano doesn’t appear for half the opera!
“It is hard to decide,” Michael Forman (The Good Opera Guide, 1994) writes, “whether Verdi was just out of practice, wasn’t really trying, or had temporarily lost his marbles.”
If one views the play from a Classical perspective, as many critics seem to do, the work necessarily seems a mess. But it’s not Classical; it’s a Romantic opera, written under the influence of Victor Hugo.
Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino, the play on which Verdi based his opera, was written by the Duke of Rivas, a liberal man of letters and devotee of Hugo. The opera, as one early review recognized, puts the principles of Hugo’s Preface to Cromwell, effectively the Romantic manifesto, into practice: mixing high-born and low-born characters, comedy and tragedy, the ugly and the beautiful, to show the world in all its complexity.
The opera doesn’t violate the Aristotelian unities of time and place so much as ignore them; it’s not interested in them. Instead, the opera’s aesthetics are based on kaleidoscopic variety.
Scene follows scene in dizzying array: aristocratic mansions; taverns in Spanish villages; monasteries; battlefields and military encampments during the War of Austrian Succession. Smaller roles proliferate: Preziosilla the gypsy girl (a cousin to Carmen) singing French opéra comique-style arias; and the grumpy monk Fra Melitone, a Rossinian buffo bass.
Other sections of the score nod to opera and symphonic music. The overture has often been called Beethovenian, the monks’ curse and prayer is French grand opéra (modelled on Meyerbeer’s Blessing of the Swords), and Leonora’s arias are Bellinian in their long lines.
Verdi uses the chorus as a protagonist in its own right, as Meyerbeer did in his grand operas (notably in Les Huguenots and Le prophète) and Mussorgsky did in Boris Godunov (clearly influenced by both Meyerbeer and Forza). In Verdi’s earlier operas, the chorus was often a faceless group; block-like assemblies of types (bandits, soldiers, sailors), who sing en masse, and mainly exist to provide musical backing to the lead singers. Here the chorus are crowds of individuals: guests at a Spanish tavern, watching dances, and praying as pilgrims pass by; soldiers in a military encampment, gambling and drinking; war victims asking for food from a monastery. They are humanity celebrating and suffering.
All of this was necessary for Verdi to write what he called “an opera of ideas”. Like Meyerbeer and Wagner, he used the broader dimensions of grand opera for a philosophical work.
Forza is an opera about the role chance (or fate) plays in our lives, despite our good intentions – and how we deal with this.
We can never fully control our lives, Verdi suggests, because they are changed by outside forces. The chance firing of a pistol, thrown down by a man trying to avert bloodshed, ruins the lives of the Calatrava clan, sending them into a years-long spiral of pursuit, hatred, revenge and fratricide. On a larger scale, we are caught up in the events of history. Larger events and social forces – politics, war, poverty, starvation – affect the masses. We may not be able to control our lives, but, as the Padre Guardiano tells the monk Melitone, we can have compassion for those who suffer.
The St Petersburg version is nihilistic. It ends with a stage littered with corpses, and Don Alvaro’s howl of despair against the universe as he leaps to his death: “I am a messenger from hell! Let the earth open! May hell swallow me! May the heavens fall! And may mankind perish!”
Verdi was unhappy with the original ending, and changed it after meeting the writer Alessandro Manzoni, whom he considered a saint.
The second version ends on a note of Christian resignation, with Alvaro and the Padre Guardiano (Father Superior) kneeling by Leonora’s corpse. Leonora may have died, but, she promises Alvaro, they will meet again in heaven. Mankind, the opera suggests, cannot understand the ineffable; God (or, for the agnostic Verdi, the universe) moves in ways we cannot fathom, but there is a purpose to every action, even if we cannot grasp it.
The opera is theatrically effective, but listening to it on CD can be dispiriting, because it’s less tuneful than Verdi’s other mature operas. Much of the opera is in functional arioso (heightened recitative), but there are a couple of great arias and some impressive set-pieces.
“Madre, pietosa Vergine!” – Leonora flees to the monastery for refuge from her brother, who plans to kill her.
“Il santo nome di Dio … La vergine degli angeli” – The Padre Guardiano tells Leonora that she can become a hermit – but anyone who approaches her will be cursed.
The finale that ends the opera:
Watch: The 1984 Met performance, starring Leontyne Price (Leonora), Leo Nucci (Don Carlo) and Giuseppe Giacomini (Don Alvaro), conducted by James Levine.
Listen to: The 1955 Decca recording, starring Renata Tebaldi (Leonora), Mario Del Monaco (Don Alvaro), and Ettore Bastianini (Don Carlo), conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.