LA FORZA DEL DESTINO — Verdi’s Giant Canvas

KEY ART

 

It would be dif­fi­cult to find another major Verdi opera that has been so mis­treated — and so mis­un­der­stood — through the years as has La Forza del Des­tino. Not that long ago, entire scenes were either cut entirely, or trun­cated almost beyond recog­ni­tion. Some­times they were rearranged in an attempt to “improve” the sup­pos­edly inco­her­ent libretto. Char­ac­ters whom the com­poser admired were reduced to a few lines, or elim­i­nated entirely. Even though such once-routine man­gling of Forza is (thank­fully) rarely encoun­tered in major the­aters today, for many oper­a­go­ers the work remains more than slightly tainted by the idea that Verdi, some­how, got conned into writ­ing some won­der­ful music for an absurd, unwieldy drama that prob­a­bly should have been left undis­turbed on 19th–cen­tury library shelves.

That view, though com­mon, is regret­tably short­sighted. It is true that if ever a major Verdi work dis­re­garded the Aris­totelian dra­matic pre­cepts of unity of time, place and action it is La Forza del Des­tino. Aris­to­tle thought a drama should take place within a 24-hour period. A pro­duc­tion book from 1862, the year of Forza’s pre­mière, and thought to be the work of the opera’s libret­tist, Francesco Maria Piave, points out “about 18 months pass between the first and sec­ond acts; sev­eral years between the sec­ond and third; more than five years between the third and fourth.” Far from tak­ing place in a sin­gle loca­tion, Forza blithely trav­els through Spain and Italy, encom­pass­ing numer­ous set­tings such as aris­to­cratic homes, tacky inns, bat­tle­fields, wood­lands, a monastery and a cave in the side of a moun­tain. And as for stick­ing with one cen­tral story and elim­i­nat­ing any action not rel­e­vant to the plot — well, that’s the antithe­sis of Forza’s drama.

But far from being the major weak­ness of Forza, the great sprawl­ing nature of the libretto with its cast of hun­dreds and improb­a­ble dra­matic coin­ci­dences is — in fact — pre­cisely its strongest point. In Forza Verdi paints on a gigan­tic can­vas, telling the story of human­ity itself. Scenes of aris­to­cratic honor, all-consuming love and wrench­ing pri­vate anguish are cheeky by jowl with scenes of squab­bling peas­ants and drunken soldiers.

Some writ­ers have com­pared the vast sweep of Forza with Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelun­gen. Per­haps the best descrip­tion, how­ever, is that La Forza del Des­tino is Shake­spearean. In fact, William Weaver has termed it “Verdi’s most Shake­spearean opera. Shake­spearean, that is, in Verdi’s sense: a work of great vari­ety, vast scope, jux­ta­pos­ing comic and tragic, employ­ing a num­ber of unusual char­ac­ters, all sharply defined, even if only briefly seen and heard. Though the opera is flawed (as Verdi him­self real­ized), it is per­haps Verdi’s bold­est attempt to por­tray an entire, com­plex, con­tra­dic­tory world.”

Verdi in Rus­sia for FORZA’s première.

Shake­speare was a drama­tist Verdi both loved and admired. He kept Ital­ian trans­la­tions of Shakespeare’s plays beside his bed, and the high­est com­pli­ment he could pay a char­ac­ter was that it was “wor­thy of Shake­speare.” When he wrote La Forza del Des­tino, his first opera based on a Shake­speare play—Mac­beth—was over a decade old. His two final mas­ter­pieces, both drawn from Shake­speare—Otello and Fal­staff—were decades in the future. His most recent opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, had been a suc­cess at its pre­mier in Rome in 1859. It had brought to a close an aston­ish­ing decade which was ush­ered in by Verdi’s remark­able trio of Rigo­letto, Il Trova­tore, and La Travi­ata; found him writ­ing his first French grand opera Les Vêpres Sicilennes; then return­ing to Venice (scene of the pre­miers of Rigo­letto and Travi­ata) with Simon Boc­cane­gra in 1857.

Verdi was the undis­puted lead­ing com­poser of Ital­ian opera of the day. He had shown he was a mas­ter of the bel canto tra­di­tion that he was remold­ing in new ways to express char­ac­ter and drama with increased vivid­ness and truth. In short, Verdi was at the height of his pow­ers thus far and not at all inclined to sim­ply com­pose for the sake of com­pos­ing.  Instead, after Ballo’s pre­mier, Verdi essen­tially retired from the the­ater, turn­ing down numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties to write new operas in favor of ful­fill­ing his duties as a (reluc­tant) mem­ber of Italy’s new par­lia­ment and liv­ing the life of a coun­try farmer, mak­ing repairs on his prop­erty and dis­cour­ag­ing visitors.

Under these cir­cum­stances, it would be absurd to think Verdi was some­how fina­gled into set­ting a drama with which he was not fully in sym­pa­thy. Verdi explained part of the attrac­tion the sub­ject had for him in a let­ter: “The play is pow­er­ful, unusual and extremely vast. I like it immensely.” But just because it offered a vast panorama for Verdi does not mean he was care­less about the con­struc­tion of the libretto. Far from it. He harangued Piave repeat­edly, empha­siz­ing, “The style must be tight­ened up. The poetry can and must say all that the prose says, and in half the words.”

Libret­tist Piave

By con­ven­tional stan­dards it could, indeed, seem to be some­thing of a prob­lem to have a hero­ine, Leonora, with whom the audi­ence falls in love in the open­ing scene, only to have her dis­ap­pear at the end of act two and not reap­pear until the opera’s last scene. But Leonora is not the sub­ject of the opera. Nei­ther is her lover, Don Alvaro, though the Span­ish play by Angel de Saave­dra, Duke of Rivas, on which the opera is based is enti­tled Don Alvaro, o La Fuerza del sino. Instead. Verdi took the play’s sub­ti­tle and called his opera La Forza del Des­tino. The Force of Des­tiny. And to empha­size his opera is not only about the tra­vails of the Cala­trava fam­ily, he bor­rowed a scene from Schiller’s Wal­len­steins Lager which adds even more to the already bub­bling mix of gyp­sies, sol­diers, dis­rep­utable fri­ars and peddlers.

Verdi’s opera is not about indi­vid­ual char­ac­ters, but about the way these char­ac­ters react to the work­ings of fate, or des­tiny. The cen­tral char­ac­ter is fate itself, and the way it affects all seg­ments of soci­ety, from the high­est to the low­est. And des­tiny, by its very nature, can­not be con­fined to a nice tidy set of uni­ties. Des­tiny runs its own course.

Which is one rea­son Verdi empha­sized the impor­tance of char­ac­ters we some­times (mis­tak­enly) regard as “minor.” “Don’t for­get you need three artists who are com­pletely at ease on stage to do Preziosilla, Meli­tone and Tra­buco,” Verdi wrote to his pub­lisher. “Their scenes are com­edy, pure com­edy. There­fore good dic­tion and an easy stage man­ner. See to that.”

And that sug­gests another rea­son we are per­haps a bit uncom­fort­able with La Forza del Des­tino: its assump­tion of the cen­tral role of fate or des­tiny in human exis­tence.  “Art,” W. H. Auden once observed, “is not Magic, i.e., a means by which the artist com­mu­ni­cates or arouses his feel­ings in oth­ers, but a mir­ror in which they may become con­scious of what their own feel­ings really are: its proper effect, in fact, is disenchanting.”

Our soci­ety preaches an indi­vid­ual is respon­si­ble for the out­come of his or her own life. If you really work hard, you’ll be rewarded. If you sac­ri­fice plea­sure now, you’ll reap div­i­dends later on.  Yet, on the bound­aries of our lives — usu­ally pushed away from our daily rou­tines — we all know there are excep­tions. From great nat­ural dis­as­ters like Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina to doing some­thing noble that back­fires and brings calamity.  In act one of Forza Don Alvaro does some­thing noble. He sur­ren­ders to Leonora’s father by throw­ing down his pis­tol, only to have it acci­den­tally go off, kill the Mar­quis di Cala­trava, and set in motion a cycle of vengeance, death and grief that lasts for years.

A leg­endary per­for­mance of FORZA.

Oh please!” groans the mod­ern oper­a­goer. “That is so unre­al­is­tic.” But is it? Acci­den­tal deaths (some from gun shots) are so com­mon we sel­dom bother to trace their effects on the fam­i­lies involved. And in a larger sense, we all know sto­ries about a per­son who is caught in traf­fic, thus miss­ing a flight, only to not be on board an air­plane that crashes. Or the reverse. How many of us, years later, are so thank­ful we didn’t get a job we were des­per­ate for at the time; or who are annoyed we’ve got­ten lost in an unfa­mil­iar city, only to turn the cor­ner and meet a per­son who will bless our lives for years.

This qual­ity is depicted in the tarot by the Wheel of For­tune, num­ber 10 of the major arcane. “The Wheel does not become vis­i­ble until we step away from it,” writes Rachel Pol­lack in Seventy-eight Degrees of Wis­dom, Part I.  “When we are involved in it, we see only the events imme­di­ately before and behind us; the daily con­cerns our egos find so impor­tant. When we with­draw we can see the whole pat­tern. Psy­cho­log­i­cally we can view this vision as an assess­ment a per­son makes of where his or her life has gone and where it is going. On a deeper level, the vision remains mys­te­ri­ous and sym­bolic. We can see what we have made of our par­tic­u­lar lives, but fate remains a mys­tery.… The impor­tant thing about change is our reac­tion [to it]. Do we use it as an oppor­tu­nity and find some mean­ing and value in it? The end of a love affair, despite its pain, can give greater self-knowledge. It can open the way to a new awareness.”

This is not the sub­ject mat­ter we usu­ally asso­ciate with an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. But Julian Bud­den got it exactly right when he said Forza was “an opera whose only fault is that it is too rich in ideas. It is a fault on the right side.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nal appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill Feb­ru­ary 2006.