by Opera

LA FORZA DEL DESTINO — Verdi’s Giant Canvas



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.



Through­out his long life, Giuseppe Ver­di (1813 – 1901) seemed to have a gut instinct about exact­ly which char­ac­ter or dra­mat­ic sit­u­a­tion would best suit his opera-com­pos­ing abil­i­ties. So it is not sur­pris­ing that when he read Vic­tor Hugo’s play, Le roi s’amuse (The king’s amuse­ment), Ver­di real­ized its aston­ish­ing poten­tial. The dis­cov­ery of a play that fired his imag­i­na­tion could not have come at a bet­ter time, since he had just been com­mis­sioned by Teatro la Fenice in Venice to write an opera to be pre­miered ear­ly in 1851.

In April 1850 Ver­di wrote his libret­tist, Fran­cis­co Maria Piave (1810 – 1876): “I have in mind a sub­ject that would be one of the great­est cre­ations of the mod­ern the­ater if the police will only allow it. Who knows? They allowed Ernani, they might even allow us to do this and at least there are no con­spir­a­cies in it. Have a try! The sub­ject is grand, immense and there’s a char­ac­ter in it who is one of the great­est cre­ations that the the­ater of all coun­tries and all times can boast. The sub­ject is Le roi s’amuse and the char­ac­ter I’m speak­ing about is Tri­boulet.

PS: As soon as you get this let­ter, put on your skates; run about the city and find some­one of influ­ence to get us per­mis­sion to do Le roi s’amuse. Don’t go to sleep; give your­self a good shake; do it at once. I shall expect you at Bus­se­to [Verdi’s home], but not now, after they’ve agreed to the sub­ject.”

The let­ter is the first time Ver­di men­tions his desire to write what would become Rigo­let­to—one of the great­est of all Ital­ian operas — and it is an extreme­ly telling let­ter in many ways. First of all, no soon­er does Ver­di express enthu­si­asm for the sub­ject than he adds, “if the police will allow it.” Ver­di knew exact­ly what he would be up against, and so he deft­ly shift­ed the almost impos­si­ble task of slip­ping the sub­ject mat­ter past the cen­sor onto the shoul­ders of his poor libret­tist.

Vic­tor Hugo in 1853

Vic­tor Hugo’s play had been giv­en in Paris in Novem­ber 1832 when it was sus­pend­ed by the gov­ern­ment after a sin­gle per­for­mance. Hugo plead­ed his case before the Tri­bunal de Com­merce but to no avail. The play was pub­lished, but it was not per­formed again in Paris until 1882 — a fact that dou­bly dis­pleased the play­wright since Verdi’s opera, based on the play, was giv­en over 100 times dur­ing its first sea­son in the very city that con­tin­ued to ban Le roi s’amuse.

At the time, Venice and much of north­ern Italy was in the hands of the Aus­tri­ans, who were deeply fear­ful of the attempts to uni­fy Italy and were well aware of Verdi’s patri­ot­ic stance. His very name had become an ana­gram, an open secret used to inflame the pub­lic toward inde­pen­dence and uni­fi­ca­tion. “Viva VERDI” was scrawled on walls, paint­ed on ban­ners, shout­ed by crowds — osten­si­bly in hon­or of the increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar com­pos­er. But “VERDI” also stood for Vitto­rio Emmanuele, Re dItalia (Vit­to­rio Emmanuel, King of Italy, mean­ing a free, uni­fied Italy, not just King of Sar­dinia as he was at the time). Obvi­ous­ly any­thing that might be inflam­ma­to­ry, as defined by the increas­ing­ly uneasy occu­py­ing Aus­tri­ans, would be banned.

Also telling in that first let­ter to Piave on the sub­ject of their new opera was Verdi’s sin­gling out the char­ac­ter of Tri­boulet, who even­tu­al­ly would be named Rigo­let­to. In anoth­er let­ter Ver­di referred to Tri­boulet as “a cre­ation wor­thy of Shake­speare,” which was the high­est praise Ver­di could give.

Ver­di had first used Piave as a libret­tist on Ernani, which pre­miered in Venice in 1844, and col­lab­o­rat­ed with him reg­u­lar­ly there­after. Piave sup­plied the com­pos­er with ten libret­tos in all, includ­ing Mac­beth, Travi­a­ta, Simon Boc­cane­gra and La forza del des­ti­no, in addi­tion to Rigo­let­to. If Piave was not a par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­tin­guished writer on his own, he took direc­tion well, put up with Verdi’s almost con­stant abuse, was to all accounts extra­or­di­nar­i­ly charm­ing, and had numer­ous influ­en­tial friends in high places. He was prompt­ly assured there would be no dif­fi­cul­ty with La Fenice pre­sent­ing an opera based on Le roi s’amuse, so the two men set to work.

Libret­tist Piave

But of course there would be dif­fi­cul­ty — a great deal of it. In the play the vil­lain is a king, Fran­cis I of France, whose licen­tious­ness is plain­ly depict­ed, and the hero is a hunch­back com­mon­er, a jester in the court. Fur­ther­more, in the final scene a corpse is dis­played on stage in a sack. Both in France and Ger­many the play was derid­ed for its “obscen­i­ty.” The Aus­tri­an cen­sors were so offend­ed by Piave’s libret­to they sim­ply washed their hands of the whole mat­ter in a let­ter to the direc­tors of La Fenice: “His Excel­len­cy the Mil­i­tary Gov­er­nor Cheva­lier Gorzkowski…directs me to com­mu­ni­cate to you his pro­found regret that the poet Piave and the cel­e­brat­ed mae­stro Ver­di should not have cho­sen a more wor­thy vehi­cle to dis­play their tal­ents than the revolt­ing immoral­i­ty and obscene triv­i­al­i­ty of the libret­to of La maledi­zione [as the opera was then called].

His above-men­tioned Excel­len­cy has decid­ed the per­for­mance shall be absolute­ly for­bid­den, and wish­es me at the same time to request you not make fur­ther inquiries in the mat­ter.”

Ver­di, how­ev­er, was not about to with­draw the project. He answered the objec­tions of the Aus­tri­an over­lords one by one, final­ly respond­ing to the desire that Tri­boulet should not be ugly or hunch­backed.

A hunch­back who sings? Why not?” Ver­di wrote to the the­ater direc­tors. “Will it be effec­tive? I don’t know; but if I don’t know, nei­ther, I repeat, does the per­son who sug­gest­ed the change. To me there is some­thing real­ly fine in rep­re­sent­ing on stage this char­ac­ter out­ward­ly so ugly and ridicu­lous, inward­ly so impas­sioned and full of love. I chose the sub­ject pre­cise­ly because of those qual­i­ties, and if these orig­i­nal fea­tures are removed I can­not write the music.…I tell you frankly that, good or bad, my music is not just writ­ten casu­al­ly for any sit­u­a­tion; I try to give it a char­ac­ter appro­pri­ate to the dra­ma.”

Giuseppe Berto­ja’s pre­mière stage set for the sec­ond scene.

In Rigo­let­to Ver­di did just that — he wrote pow­er­ful, evoca­tive music that describes each of the char­ac­ters so per­fect­ly it would be laugh­able to sug­gest the same music be sung by the watered-down, col­or­less char­ac­ters sug­gest­ed by the cen­sors. Final­ly Ver­di, Piave, and the La Fenice man­age­ment reached a com­pro­mise with the cen­sors, but all of the key dra­mat­ic points from Le roi s’amuse made it into Rigo­let­to. In the title char­ac­ter, Ver­di wrote what is prob­a­bly the great­est part ever writ­ten for a high bari­tone — an aston­ish­ing tour de force for a singing actor who can con­vey all the emo­tion­al nuances of the music.

Some writ­ers have com­pared Verdi’s Rigo­let­to to Beethoven’s Third Sym­pho­ny — with it, the com­pos­er reached a new lev­el of mas­tery, broke new ground in his art form, and after it noth­ing was ever the same. In Rigo­let­to Ver­di took the exist­ing forms of Ital­ian bel can­to opera as used by Rossi­ni, Belli­ni, and Donizetti, and mold­ed them into a new, more imme­di­ate­ly and pow­er­ful music dra­ma, which he would con­tin­ue to expand for the rest of his life.

Tra­di­tion­al­ly an Ital­ian opera would open with a cho­rus, intro­duc­ing one of the main char­ac­ters who would then sing a for­mal aria, fre­quent­ly in two parts, first a slow cantabile, then a faster cabalet­ta. But con­sid­er how Ver­di adapt­ed this form in Rigo­let­to’s open­ing scene. It would have been easy to fol­low the tra­di­tion. The open­ing scene is a par­ty; the cho­rus could have been the usu­al exten­sive one, prais­ing their host the Duke, who would respond with the usu­al for­mal two-part aria. It would work per­fect­ly with the sto­ry.

Poster for the very first per­for­mance.

Instead, Ver­di fol­lows his intense­ly dra­mat­ic, extreme­ly short pre­lude (in which trum­pets and trom­bones con­stant­ly reit­er­ate the dot­ted-note rhythm and notes Rigo­let­to will use through­out the opera with the phrase “Quel vec­chio male­di­a­mi!” That old man cursed me!) with an off-stage band play­ing some of the most banal “cheer­ful” music pos­si­ble. Instead of open­ing with the cho­rus (which is on stage), we get snip­pets of brief con­ver­sa­tion by a vari­ety of char­ac­ters that will only make sense in hind­sight.

In this open­ing scene Ver­di antic­i­pates the cin­e­ma by more than half a cen­tu­ry. He (the cam­era) is walk­ing us through the par­ty, giv­ing us an overview while let­ting us over­hear numer­ous bits of con­ver­sa­tion. When Ver­di wants to let us know some­thing is real­ly impor­tant, he switch­es from the off-stage ban­da to using the orches­tra in the pit (as in a cam­era close-up). As he does for the Duke’s first aria, “Ques­ta o quel­lo.” Yes, it is the Duke’s first aria, but far from being the usu­al two-part for­mal aria Ver­di gives the Duke a breezy dance tune (in the score it is labeled “Bal­la­ta”). It fits per­fect­ly with the dra­mat­ic sit­u­a­tion, gives us insight into the Duke him­self, and last bare­ly two min­utes; then the orches­tra yields to a string ban­da on stage and  the flirt­ing — the con­ver­sa­tion that sets up the entire opera — con­tin­ues. It is all so con­cise that the entire whirl­wind open­ing scene lasts bare­ly fif­teen min­utes.

Anoth­er way Ver­di reworked the forms of Ital­ian opera, was the way he repeat­ed­ly inter­rupts a scene to give the audi­ence a fore­taste of what’s to come. In the open­ing scene, the cho­rus is inter­rupt­ed by Monterone’s appear­ance and curse, which abrupt­ly changes the tone of the scene — thus height­en­ing the cru­cial point of the dra­ma. In the sec­ond scene, the duet between Rigo­let­to and Gil­da is inter­rupt­ed by the furtive arrival of the Duke, who, in turn, is inter­rupt­ed in his woo­ing of Gil­da by a noise out­side which turns out to be the foot­steps of the courtiers who have come to abduct Gil­da. Her sin­gle aria is inter­rupt­ed by their com­ments, which serve to tight­en the dra­ma. All this over­lap­ping of scenes and char­ac­ters gives a sense of urgency and propul­sive­ness to the sto­ry­telling.

Felice Vare­si, the first Rigo­let­to

In was in Rigo­let­to that Ver­di set the stan­dard in writ­ing an exten­sive ensem­ble (the famous Quar­tet), which serves not only the for­mal, tech­ni­cal require­ments of an iso­lat­ed set piece of music, but also imparts addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion about all the char­ac­ters involved and fur­thers the dra­ma — all at the same time. Rather than hav­ing each of the char­ac­ters sing the same musi­cal phrase in turn, and then work­ing it togeth­er har­mon­i­cal­ly (as com­posers had tend­ed to do before), Ver­di assigns each of the four char­ac­ters a dis­tinct melody and rhythm unique­ly his or her own — that only that char­ac­ter could sing at that point in the dra­ma. For exam­ple, the Duke’s insou­ciant woo­ing of Mad­dale­na with his seduc­tive, lyric melody to the words “Bel­la figlia dell’amore” (Beau­ti­ful daugh­ter of love), which oozes charm and pheromones equal­ly; her answer in scam­per­ing stac­ca­to six­teenth notes that elude the Duke musi­cal­ly as she deft­ly eludes his grop­ing hands on stage; Gilda’s descend­ing melod­ic line that con­stant­ly droops, sighs, breaks into sobs, and Rigoletto’s broad, com­pas­sion­ate sup­port­ing of Gil­da. Some­how Ver­di mirac­u­lous­ly turns all these dis­parate ele­ments into a prop­er quar­tet of aston­ish­ing beau­ty, even ele­gance with­out rob­bing the num­ber of any of its con­sid­er­able dra­mat­ic and emo­tion­al impact.

Add to this Verdi’s grow­ing facil­i­ty at orches­tra­tion and the numer­ous ways he uses the orches­tra to give emo­tion­al col­or to a char­ac­ter of a scene. For instance, his use of flutes when Rigo­let­to sud­den­ly thinks of Gil­da dur­ing “Pari siamo,” or when she is on stage, to con­vey her inno­cence and puri­ty; or the way he slow­ly builds the storm in the last act, the utter con­vinc­ing fury of its height, and then the way it takes most of the rest of the act to die away.

After Rigo­let­to, Ver­di gave us only mas­ter­pieces (the sin­gle excep­tion being Arol­do, itself a rework­ing of the ear­li­er Stiffe­lio) — one after anoth­er until his mirac­u­lous Fal­staff writ­ten at the age of almost eighty. As Julian Bud­den writes in his mon­u­men­tal study of Verdi’s operas: “Just after 1850, at the age of thir­ty-eight, Ver­di closed the door on a peri­od of Ital­ian opera with Rigo­let­to. The so-called ottocèn­to in music was fin­ished. Ver­di con­tin­ued to draw on cer­tain of its forms for the next few opera, but in a total­ly new spir­it.”


Rigo­let­to Extra:

The Duke’s Famous Aria

Though Rigo­letto, like most Ver­di opera, is brim­ming with melody, one catchy tune per­sis­tent­ly stands out from all the oth­ers: “La don­na è mobile” (Woman is fick­le). It’s one of the most famous tenor arias ever writ­ten and is sung by the lib­er­tine Duke in the opera’s last act, in which its slight­ly tawdry — but utter­ly irre­sistible — nature is sheer genius on Verdi’s part. There is noth­ing the least bit aris­to­crat­ic about it (unlike the Duke’s Act One aria, “Ques­ta o quel­la.”) In the last act the Duke is slum­ming, in dis­guise, set­tling in for an evening of drink­ing and whor­ing, but even so, his irre­press­ible charm pre­vails, per­fect­ly cap­tured in this catchy, but almost plebian tune in three-quar­ter (waltz) time.

Ver­di cer­tain­ly knew how unfor­get­table this effer­ves­cent song was, and he was con­cerned that it might become known before the opera’s pre­mier in Venice on March 11, 1851. Leg­end has it that to avoid the singers or oth­er mem­bers of the com­pa­ny whistling or hum­ming the melody out­side the the­ater before open­ing night (thus dilut­ing the shock of the audi­ence har­ing it for the first time in the con­text of the dra­ma), he delayed giv­ing the music to the tenor until the dress rehearsal.

This seems a bit unlike­ly since one of the most jar­ring uses of the tune in when the tenor repris­es it at the end, as Rigo­let­to stands over the sack he believes con­tains the Duke’s body. It is unlike­ly Ver­di would chance ruin­ing such a hor­ri­fy­ing coup de théâtre by only hav­ing rehearsed the moment once. But it is quite pos­si­ble the com­pos­er delayed giv­ing the tenor the music to “La don­na è mobile” until well into the rehearsal process so it would still be fresh on open­ing night.

And one can eas­i­ly believe the oth­er sto­ries about the aria, that the first audi­ence exit­ed La Fenice hum­ming and whistling the new hit tune. After all, audi­ences still do that over 150 years lat­er.

This arti­cle first appeared in the 2004 pro­gram book for the Aspen Opera The­ater.

The pho­to at the top of the page is the great Tito Gob­bi as Rigo­let­to, one of his most famous roles.

Francis Poulenc — Dialogue des Carmélites


Who could have pre­dict­ed that one of the very few operas writ­ten after 1950 to suc­cess­ful­ly enter the inter­na­tion­al reper­toire, would be an opera about a group of nuns and their mar­tyr­dom dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion? Yet, from its pre­mière at La Scala (in Ital­ian) on Jan­u­ary 26, 1957 Dia­logues des Car­mélites quick­ly made its way through the major opera the­aters — Paris, San Fran­cis­co, Covent Gar­den, Vien­na — and it remains a sta­ple of the reper­toire, grow­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty with the pas­sage of time.

And who would have thought such an opera would be writ­ten by Fran­cis Poulenc, a com­pos­er bet­ter known at the time as “the play­boy com­pos­er,” a mem­ber of the cir­cle of com­posers dubbed Les Six, whose music often sparkled with wit, charm and insou­ciance, and who delight­ed in regal­ing Parisian soci­ety with tales of his homo­sex­u­al affairs?

Poulenc was born into a rather wealthy Parisian fam­i­ly on Jan­u­ary 7, 1899. (The mon­ey came from a fam­i­ly phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny that would lat­er become part of the giant Rhône-Poulenc chem­i­cal firm.) His first piano lessons were from his moth­er, and at the age of six­teen he began study­ing with the famous pianist Ricar­do Viñes, a friend of Debussy and Rav­el, who had pre­miered many of their works in his recitals.

By the time young Fran­cis began work­ing with Viñes, he had already devel­oped what his father called “odd tastes” in music. Thanks to an insa­tiable appetite for music, and the where­with­al to buy scores, he was famil­iar with works by Stravin­sky (he had attend­ed per­for­mances of The Rite of Spring in 1914 at the Casi­no de Paris), Bartók and Schoen­berg, to say noth­ing of the more tra­di­tion­al com­posers. His life­long eclec­tic taste in music was care­ful­ly nur­tured by his mother’s broth­er, “Uncle Papoum,” a bach­e­lor who loved every­thing from opera to café music, was a habitué of the the­ater, had known Toulouse-Lautrec and was equal­ly at home in Parisian soci­ety — and who was delight­ed to intro­duce his young nephew Fran­cis to all of it.

Debonair Fran­cis Poulenc

When Poulenc attempt­ed to study at the Paris Con­ser­va­to­ry he was told, “Your work stinks! I see you’re a fol­low­er of the Stravin­sky and Satie gang. Well, good­bye!” But when he per­formed the offend­ing piece, Rap­sodie nègre, at a con­cert in 1917, it was admired, and he became seri­ous about his com­pos­ing. How­ev­er, it was not until 1944, hav­ing writ­ten a wide vari­ety of music, that Poulenc turned to opera for the first time. The result was Les mamelles de Tirésias, an opéra bouffe, based on the play by sur­re­al­ist poet Guil­laume Apol­li­naire, whose works had also inspired some of Poulenc’s songs.

Mamelles de Tirésias is utter­ly enchant­i­ng, delight­ful non­sense, Parisian — and Poulenc — to the core, by turns wit­ty and sil­ly, abound­ing with melody, “odd” in har­mo­ny and instru­men­tal col­ors that are per­fect for the moment. Through­out it is per­me­at­ed with an utter love of life itself. It could not be more oppo­site to his next opera, Car­mélites.

In the ear­ly 1950s (sur­pris­ing­ly, the exact date seems to be open to ques­tion), Poulenc was approached by the Ital­ian music pub­lish­ing house Ricor­di about a com­mis­sion for La Scala. Ini­tial­ly Ricor­di was inter­est­ed in a bal­let, pos­si­bly on the sub­ject of Saint Mar­gari­ta of Cor­tona. Though Poulenc was inter­est­ed in writ­ing a work for La Scala, he could not work up enthu­si­asm for the bal­let. But while on a con­cert tour of Italy, he met with the direc­tor of Ricor­di, Gui­do Val­carenghi, and sug­gest­ed an opera instead of a bal­let. Val­carn­nghi sug­gest­ed the play Dia­logues des Car­mélites by George Bernanos.

Poulenc had already seen the play — twice — but he had nev­er thought about set­ting it to music. “I bought the book and decid­ed to reread it,” he lat­er wrote. “For that, I sat down at the out­doors café Tre Scali­ni on the Piaz­za Navone. It was ten in the morn­ing. At noon I was still there, hav­ing con­sumed a cof­fee, an ice cream, an orange juice, and a bot­tle of Fug­gi min­er­al water to jus­ti­fy my pro­longed pres­ence. At twelve-thir­ty I was drunk with enthu­si­asm but the final ques­tion remained — would I find the music for such a text? I opened by chance the book and forced myself instant­ly to trans­late into music the first sen­tences I read.…As incred­i­ble as it may seem, I imme­di­ate­ly found the melod­ic line. Des­tiny had decid­ed.” Des­tiny might have inspired Poulenc that morn­ing in a Roman café, but the com­po­si­tion of the whole opera would drag on for some time and take an enor­mous toll on the composer’s men­tal as well as phys­i­cal health.

Georges Bernanos

The sto­ry of a group of nuns who are guil­lotines dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion was orig­i­nal­ly told by one of the sur­viv­ing nuns in her mem­oir, which then served as the basis for a nov­el Die let­zte am Schafott (The Last to the Scaf­fold) by Gertrud von le Fort, who seems to have giv­en her own name to the main char­ac­ter, Blanche del la Force. The nov­el, in turn, was adapt­ed as a screen­play (and dra­mat­ic play) by Georges Bernanos. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the adap­ta­tion rights had been sold to Emmet Lav­ery, and it was only after lengthy nego­ti­a­tions that he agreed to allow Poulenc to set the work to music, as long as Lavery’s name appeared on every pro­gram and score of Poulenc’s opera — which it does.

In August 1953 Poulenc began work­ing seri­ous­ly on Car­mélites and soon found that immers­ing him­self in the emo­tion­al world of his char­ac­ters was aggra­vat­ing his own hypochon­dria. He became con­vinced that he had stom­ach can­cer, and it was only with dif­fi­cult­ly that his doc­tors con­vinced him all the tests were neg­a­tive. In 1954 he went through what was described as “six weeks of anx­ious near-mad­ness” before recov­er­ing enough to go on tour with bari­tone Pierre Bernac. But in Novem­ber the com­pos­er had to break off the tour and return to Paris to be admit­ted to a clin­ic for a three-week cure for his insom­nia. In a bizarre twist of fate, Poulenc’s younger lover, Lucien Rou­bert, came down with pleurisy in April 1955 as Poulenc began near­ing the end of his new opera. That August as Poulenc fin­ished the work, he lat­er recalled telling his cook, “I have fin­ished: Mon­sieur Lucien will die now.” That’s exact­ly what hap­pened.

Dia­logues des Car­mélites is in three acts, divid­ed into twelve scenes and five inter­ludes with nine brief pieces of orches­tral music con­nect­ing them. Some of the indi­vid­ual scenes only last a few min­utes, and they can seem so slight at the time — one might almost say incon­se­quen­tial — one might won­der, “Why did Poulenc both­er to include that scene?” A good exam­ple is the scene between Blanche and Con­stance where they dis­cuss death and its impli­ca­tions. As Denise Duvall, for whom Poulenc wrote the part of Blanche, observed: “How dif­fi­cult it is to sing it the way Poulenc want­ed, mak­ing it impor­tant and at the same time not overt­ly so. It is the sort of scene the pub­lic must remem­ber lat­er, but not be par­tic­u­lar­ly struck by while it is tak­ing place.”

The score of Car­mélites is almost paint­ed. Poulenc builds it up in a series of deft, brief tonal brush strokes, as an artist would con­struct an Impres­sion­ist paint­ing, with the suc­ces­sion of one brief scene after anoth­er. As the opera grad­u­al­ly unfolds, the dra­ma is built almost imper­cep­ti­bly, lay­er upon lay­er.

Poulenc with his Blanche, Denise Duval

There are few lush melodies in Car­mélites, few exam­ples of the rich orches­tral tex­tures of which Poulenc was capa­ble. The sweet­est music often goes to the nuns as they sing their reli­gious ser­vices. But what Poulenc does so superbly is to set the words of the libret­to with extra­or­di­nary clar­i­ty in a way to under­score their dra­ma musi­cal­ly. As Duval point­ed out, “Poulenc was so attached to the beau­ti­ful text that he want­ed the orches­tra to be ever so light, so every word sung could be heard. The dif­fi­cul­ty in singing Blanche is over­whelm­ing, for it must remain with­in a total puri­ty of line, almost a trans­paren­cy. And one must be made of stone is one is not over­come by emo­tion.”

Poulenc’s use of music goes far beyond mere word set­ting in Car­mélites. His score is a mar­vel of con­vey­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal nuances of the dra­ma and how his char­ac­ters feel about their sit­u­a­tion.  One exam­ple is the orches­tral music that always appears around Blanche’s father. Aside from the nuns’ choral music, this is the most lux­u­ri­ous music in the opera. It is music one could com­fort­ably sink into, and wrap around one­self. (And, as such, it is stark­ly dif­fer­ent from most of the rest of the opera which often involves ter­ror and anx­i­ety of one kind or anoth­er.) The music tells us that Blanche feels safe and secure, loved and pam­pered by her father in a unique way. Every time her father or her home is men­tioned in the opera (as when her broth­er vis­its her in Act II), this music reap­pears briefly, giv­ing that unique emo­tion­al tinge to the scene. When Blanche tells her broth­er “I am now a daugh­ter of God,” the orches­tra lets us know that Blanche means this lit­er­al­ly, because the music has the same col­or as the music for her father the Mar­quis. Sim­i­lar­ly, when Blanche express­es her con­cern that the Chap­lain must flee, the Chaplain’s music tells us Blanche sees him as a father fig­ure, a source of author­i­ty, but also a source of guid­ance and com­fort.

This is, per­haps, a clue to why an opera about a group of nuns has become so pop­u­lar with con­tem­po­rary audi­ences. Aside from the reli­gious choral music Poulenc wrote for the nuns, he did not write music for nuns, but for women who hap­pened to be nuns. Poulenc brings each of the major char­ac­ters to life in her own unique way, not as a nun, but as a human being, with pri­vate emo­tions and fears who must meet her des­tiny in her own way.

What intrigues us about Blanche is not her voca­tion, but Blanche her­self. How does a neu­rot­ic, almost hys­ter­i­cal young woman, in the grip of a life and death sit­u­a­tion, find the courage — and the grace — to do what she knows she must do?

Though Poulenc was a world­ly man (and one who thor­ough­ly enjoyed his world­li­ness), he had a deep, intro­spec­tive side that could express itself through reli­gion. A cou­ple of years before writ­ing Car­mélites Poulenc com­posed his Sta­bat Mater, and wrote to a friend, “By the way, you know that I am as sin­cere in my faith, with­out any mes­sian­ic scream­ings, as I am in my Parisian sexuality…My musi­cal tone is spon­ta­neous, and in any case, I think, tru­ly per­son­al.”

Per­haps that is why the pub­lic responds to Car­mélites so read­i­ly. It is the composer’s own per­son­al wrestling with death, with anx­i­ety, with the desire to tru­ly believe his per­son­al reli­gion — expressed through Blanche and the oth­er nuns as they are faced with their own mor­tal­i­ty — that moves us so.  It is the hon­esty and courage of this quest that inspires us in the audi­ence, what­ev­er our per­son­al reli­gious views. Because, after all, we, too, face the same Unknown.

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the 2001 Aspen Opera The­atre pro­gram book.



Christoph Willibald Gluck — ORFEO ED EURIDICE


I agree with you that of all my com­po­si­tions Orphée is the only accept­able one. I ask for­give­ness of the god of taste for hav­ing deaf­ened my audi­ence with my oth­er operas.”

—Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787) writ­ing to Jean François de la Harpe in 1777


His­to­ry often dis­agrees with a composer’s assess­ment of his own out­put. And it’s quite pos­si­ble that Gluck, who was writ­ing to a pub­lic ene­my of his work, was delib­er­ate­ly being at least a bit face­tious in den­i­grat­ing his operas such as Alces­te and Iphigénie en Aulide. But what is inter­est­ing about his state­ment is the rev­e­la­tion that even some­one who was firm­ly in an oppos­ing artis­tic camp could not help but admire Gluck’s opera on the myth of Orpheus.

It’s prob­a­bly not going too far to say that Orpheus (or Orfeo, or Orphée) was the god­fa­ther of opera itself. Accord­ing to Greek and Roman writ­ers, he was the son of one of the Mus­es and a Thra­cian prince, which makes him more than mor­tal, but less than a god. From his Muse moth­er he received the gift of music and became so pro­fi­cient that his “singing lyre” could lit­er­al­ly move rocks on the hill­side and turn the cours­es of rivers. When his bride, Eury­dice, died of a snake bite imme­di­ate­ly after their wed­ding, Orpheus dared some­thing no man had ever done before. He descend­ed into the under­world and played for the gods, ask­ing for Eurydice’s return. The gods could not resist Orpheus’s music and returned Eury­dice with one con­di­tion: that he not look at her until they had reached the upper world. As Orpheus stepped out into the sun­light, he turned to see Eury­dice, but she was still in the cav­ern, not yet in the upper world. She slipped back in the dark­ness, and Orpheus was forced to return to the earth alone. He wan­dered through the wilds of the world, des­o­late, play­ing his lyre, until a band of fren­zied Mae­nads came upon him and tore him limb from limb.

It was inevitable that a sto­ry com­bin­ing the pow­er of love with the pow­er of music itself would appeal to com­posers. Though his­to­ri­ans dis­agree about what, exact­ly, was the very first opera, Clau­dio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, first giv­en in Man­tua in February1607, inter­twined music and poet­ry in a way that brought the famil­iar Orpheus myth to life with a dra­mat­ic impact quite new to its audi­ence.

Gluck by Dup­lessis

But the most famous of all Orpheus operas is Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. It was first giv­en in the Burgth­e­ater in Vien­na on Octo­ber 5, 1762. By then Gluck, who was born in Ger­many and had stud­ied and worked in Italy, then Lon­don, had lived in Vien­na (his wife’s home) for about 10 years. The direc­tor of the court the­aters, Count Duraz­zo, admired Gluck’s work and intro­duced him to two men who were deter­mined to reform their own art forms: the poet Raniero Calz­abi­gi and the bal­let mas­ter Gas­paro Angi­oli­ni. The year before Orfeo, the three men had col­lab­o­rat­ed on a dance-dra­ma enti­tled Le fes­tin de Pierre that had sur­prised the Vien­nese pub­lic with its seri­ous retelling of the Don Juan sto­ry. Their Orpheus opera was no less a sur­prise. (Though Gluck lament­ed the inevitable — at the time — hap­py end­ing by writ­ing, “To adapt the fable to the usage of our the­aters, I was forced to alter the cli­max.”)

Ital­ian opera of the day had cer­tain con­ven­tions that seemed carved in stone. Most operas were set to libret­ti by Pietro Metas­ta­sio, or at least rigid­ly fol­lowed his for­mu­la: no cho­rus, six char­ac­ters (includ­ing a first and sec­ond pair of lovers), and the often extreme­ly elab­o­rate arias, them­selves, often da capo arias, fol­lowed a pat­tern.

Gluck’s Orfeo broke all those rules. The cho­rus is an inte­gral part of the opera, which has only three char­ac­ters: Orfeo, Euridice, and Amore. Orfeo does not first appear with a heav­i­ly embell­ished aria dis­play­ing his voice, but with three sim­ple, yet heart-rend­ing rep­e­ti­tions of “Euridice!” sung over a mov­ing choral lament. The sto­ry of the opera is told with a direct­ness that was rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Events unfold almost in real time, with a cumu­la­tive impact that even today can be over­whelm­ing — which is why this new pro­duc­tion will be done with­out an inter­mis­sion.

In addi­tion to for­sak­ing elab­o­rate­ly dec­o­rat­ed, da capo arias, in favor of sim­ple, poignant vocal music that goes direct­ly to the listener’s heart, Gluck did away with sec­co recita­tive accom­pa­nied by a harp­si­chord. Instead, the orches­tra plays through­out, which also helps to uni­fy the opera into a true musi­cal dra­ma.

Louise Homer as Orfeo

Orfeo is often cit­ed as an exam­ple of Gluck’s inten­tion to reform opera. But his famous let­ter to Grand-Duke Leopold, in which he declared: “I sought to restrict music to its true func­tion, name­ly to serve the poet­ry by means of the expres­sion with­out inter­rupt­ing the action or dimin­ish­ing its inter­est by use­less and super­flu­ous orna­ment,” was writ­ten in 1769, as the pref­ace to his opera Alces­te, sev­en years after Orfeo’s pre­mière. But there is no doubt that in Orfeo Gluck, the com­pos­er, had tru­ly antic­i­pat­ed Gluck the philoso­pher-reformer. At first, the Vien­nese pub­lic was cool to the new opera. But its unde­ni­able pow­er won them over, and it was soon thrilling audi­ences through­out Ger­many and Scan­di­navia as well as in Lon­don.

Twelve years lat­er Gluck com­posed a new ver­sion of Orfeo for the Paris Opéra, Orphée et Euridice, which was a huge suc­cess. Among oth­er changes, the title role was rewrit­ten for a high tenor (in Vien­na it was sung by the con­tral­to cas­tra­to Guadag­ni.) Gluck also added a bravu­ra aria for Orphée to end the first act and some addi­tion­al bal­let music, includ­ing the Dance of the Blessed Spir­its, for flute and strings, which become one of his most pop­u­lar instru­men­tal works. The com­pos­er Hec­tor Berlioz used this 1774 French ver­sion as the basis for his own 1859 rework­ing of the opera for the great mez­zo Pauline Viar­dot-Gar­cia who want­ed to sing the title role.

Most per­for­mances of Orfeo (or Orphée) are a com­bi­na­tion of Gluck’s two ver­sions — depend­ing on what the con­duc­tor and/or the singer doing Orfeo, feels is appro­pri­ate. As far as can be deter­mined, this new pro­duc­tion is the first time the Met has giv­en Gluck’s orig­i­nal 1762 Orfeo.

The Met first did the opera in Boston, in 1885, in Ger­man. The first time it was done at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House was in 1891, when it served as a cur­tain rais­er to Cav­al­le­ria Rus­ti­cana, and end­ed after Orfeo’s famous Act III aria, “Che farò.” It was final­ly giv­en on its own, in the Met, on Decem­ber 23, 1909, with Toscani­ni con­duct­ing Louise Homer in the title role, Johan­na Gad­s­ki as Euridice, and Alma Gluck as the Hap­py Shade. It was one of the great evenings in Met his­to­ry. Toscani­ni omit­ted the over­ture, and Homer added “Divini­tiés du Styx” from Gluck’s Alces­te at the end of Act I. But even so, writ­ing over half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, Fran­cis Robin­son, an assis­tant man­ag­er of the Met, said, “It must have been as per­fect a pro­duc­tion as exists in the annals of opera.”

Toscani­ni in 1908

Toscani­ni went on to con­duct Orfeo 24 times at the Met; Homer sang the title role 21 times. Both remain a com­pa­ny record. The Met has not giv­en Orfeo all that often — open­ing night of this new pro­duc­tion will only be its 83rd per­for­mance. And it has often been com­bined with a vari­ety of oth­er operas and bal­lets. (In 1936 the singers were rel­e­gat­ed to the orches­tra pit while the chore­og­ra­phy of George Bal­an­chine and Pavel Tche­litchev took over the stage. It was a short-lived exper­i­ment.) But even so, it is a mas­ter­piece that has attract­ed some of the top artists of their time. In addi­tion to Toscani­ni, its con­duc­tors include Arthur Bodanzky, Wal­ter Dam­rosch, Eric Leins­dorf, Charles Mack­er­ras, Pierre Mon­teux, Bruno Wal­ter — and, now, James Levine. David Daniels will be the first coun­tertenor to sing the title role of the opera at the Met, join­ing such singers as Mar­i­anne Brandt, Grace Bum­bry, Louise Homer, Mar­i­lyn Horne, Mar­garete Matzenauer, Risë Stevens, and Ker­stin Thor­borg. Notably Euridice’s include Johan­na Gad­sksi, Hilde Güden, Jarmi­la Novot­na, and Gabriela Tuc­ci; and Alma Gluck, Rober­ta Peters, and Anneliese Rothen­berg­er have been promi­nent Amores.

In Anne Homer’s biog­ra­phy of her moth­er, Louise Homer and the Gold­en Age of Opera, she sums up the rea­son Orfeo has remained such a pow­er­ful work for almost 250 years: “One of the mir­a­cles of this opera lay in the stark range of emo­tions. Gluck had found a way of encom­pass­ing the heights and depths of human expe­ri­ence. Side by side he had arrayed the ugly and the sub­lime — the ter­rors of the under­world,  the ‘pure light’ of inef­fa­ble bliss. With the genius of poet­ry and econ­o­my, he had pit­ted the most dead­ly and fear­some hor­rors against the radi­ant pow­er of love, and then trans­fixed his lis­ten­ers with music so inspired that they were caught up irre­sistibly in the eter­nal con­flict.”

And now, a new gen­er­a­tion of opera goers will be able to expe­ri­ence this for them­selves at the Met.

This pro­gram note orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill May 2007.

 The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is Orfeo ed Euridice by Fred­er­ic Leighton, 1864.






For almost two cen­turies, Beethoven’s Fide­lio has enjoyed a very spe­cial place in the world of opera. Its cel­e­bra­tion of mar­ried love at its most ele­vat­ed, along with the tri­umph of polit­i­cal free­dom over the forces of tyran­ny, has ensured Fide­lio  a myth­ic sta­tus — akin to Beethoven’s own Ninth Sym­pho­ny — in much of the world. It is a work of art which offers a well-nigh reli­gious, awe-inspir­ing expe­ri­ence in its hon­or­ing of the very best of human nature.  “(Fide­lio) is an ode to nobil­i­ty of soul and the dig­ni­ty of man,” is the way one author put it, quite cor­rect­ly.

But for all the lofty sen­ti­ments of the libret­to and the stir­ring music Beethoven lav­ished on it, there is anoth­er part of Fide­lio, which is often deeply regret­ted by those who most admire the opera. The received wis­dom is that Fide­lio it is a won­der­ful, but ter­ri­bly flawed mas­ter­piece which could be an even greater work if — some­how — one could just excise those igno­ble parts which detract so much from its high mind­ed “real” nature. On the one hand we have Beethoven at his might­i­est, writ­ing pow­er­ful, expres­sive music for his hero­ine Leonore, and her unjust­ly impris­oned hus­band, Flo­restan — to say noth­ing of the cel­e­brat­ed Prisoner’s Cho­rus, which is guar­an­teed to melt the flinti­est hearts in the audi­ence, as well as some of his great­est instru­men­tal music in the var­i­ous over­tures he com­posed for the work.

On the oth­er hand we have Roc­co, the jail­er; his daugh­ter, Marzelline; and her erst­while finance, Jaquino;  “minor” char­ac­ters who clut­ter up Fide­lio’s vir­tu­ous land­scape with their pet­ty natures and picayune con­cerns. They are ter­ri­bly unheroic peo­ple, involved with the most ordi­nary affairs. But far from ruing Beethoven’s “mis­take” at includ­ing these alleged­ly dis­pos­able, “lit­tle” peo­ple in his mas­ter­piece, it is through their reac­tions, espe­cial­ly those of Roc­co, that we can par­tic­i­pate ful­ly in the unfold­ing dra­ma. Though three of the opera’s first four vocal num­bers are often mere­ly tol­er­at­ed for the sake of the rest of the opera, it is a mis­take to treat them dis­mis­sive­ly.

There is lit­tle dra­mat­ic stuff in Marzelline, Jaquino and Roc­co,” wrote Paul Hen­ry Lang in The Expe­ri­ence of Opera, reflect­ing the view of most crit­ics and musi­col­o­gists. Lang observes of these ear­ly num­bers in the opera, “The tunes are good and the the­mat­ic elab­o­ra­tion in the orches­tra nev­er fal­ters. But emo­tion­al­ly involved the com­pos­er was not.”

Oh? Actu­al­ly the music rep­re­sents not Beethoven’s lack of emo­tion­al involve­ment, but rather his quite skill­ful depic­tion of these char­ac­ters through the music he wrote for them. It is a delib­er­ate “soft­en­ing up” of the audi­ence before Beethoven unleash­es his main theme: the intense dra­ma of Leonore and her quest to res­cue his hus­band.

A card with a scene from the opera. On the back is a recipe.

The opera begins with a perky, rather com­ic duet between Marzelline, who is iron­ing clothes, and Jaquino, the young turnkey who wants to mar­ry her. When Jaquino is called away, Marzelline sings an aria about her love for Fide­lio, the young man who has recent­ly become her father’s assis­tant. The music of these two open­ing num­bers is a per­fect reflec­tion of the rather sim­ple char­ac­ters who sing it. But rather than erring by includ­ing such mun­dane hap­pen­ings in his opera, Beethoven actu­al­ly is eas­ing us into Fide­lio’s world, sug­gest­ing that the tremen­dous, earth-shat­ter­ing events to come are not found in some “oth­er” world, but often sneak up on us right where we are, in the mid­dle of our mun­dane, every­day life.

This is rein­forced by the very next num­ber, the quar­tet, “Mir ist so wun­der­bar,”  which is one of the glo­ries of the entire score. But notice that its first singer, the per­son who intro­duces us to the quartet’s tran­scen­dent world, is not the opera’s hero­ine, Leonore, but sim­ple lit­tle Marzelline. It is through her, that we enter the quartet’s mag­ic.

It is always a shock for the audi­ence, which usu­al­ly is still under the spell of the quar­tet, when Roc­co then launch­es into his “Gold” aria.  “Its joc­u­lar, vul­gar char­ac­ter is curi­ous­ly at vari­ance with the style of the quar­tet it fol­lows,” wrote Lud­wig Misch in The Beethoven Com­pan­ion.  But Beethoven under­stood that most human beings can only briefly live in the exalt­ed, rar­efied atmos­phere that so per­me­ates “Mir ist so wun­der­bar.”  It gives us hope, it nur­tures our souls. With­out it we mere­ly exist, rather than tru­ly live ful­ly. But most of us mere mor­tals can­not take the spir­i­tu­al heights for very long at any one stretch of time, how­ev­er much we might wish it oth­er­wise.

And the “joc­u­lar, vul­gar char­ac­ter” of the music of Rocco’s aria is, in its own way, quite life affirm­ing. The words to the aria are rather cyn­i­cal, even soul­less. “If you don’t have gold, hap­pi­ness is hard to fine,” Roc­co sings, “but if it jin­gles in your pock­et, fate is at your mer­cy. Gold can bring you love and pow­er. For­tune is like a paid ser­vant and serves its mas­ter, mighty gold.” It is the oper­at­ic equiv­a­lent of the song “Mon­ey Makes the World Go Around,” from the musi­cal Cabaret.

Beethoven obvi­ous­ly has a lot of affec­tion for Roc­co as a char­ac­ter, despite the man’s obvi­ous flaws (or, per­haps, because of them), because the music he wrote for this aria is far from the cold music he could have writ­ten, music that would have reflect­ed the harsh words. In fact, the music Beethoven wrote is down­right cheer­ful, if, per­haps, a bit too-obvi­ous­ly hearty. But that’s Roc­co. He embod­ies many of the same con­tra­dic­tions we do. In fact, Rocco’s ambiva­lence and ambi­gu­i­ty make him a lot like most of us. In a sense, he our rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the dra­ma.

Vick­ers, Nils­son and Boehm, a mar­velous per­for­mance.

How­ev­er much we might like to iden­ti­fy with Leonore or Flo­restan in the puri­ty of their motives and the nobil­i­ty of their cause (or, when we are angry, per­haps with Pizarro and the sin­gle-mind­ed­ness of his revenge), most of us are, actu­al­ly, much more like Roc­co. We have our good sides and our less than admirable traits.  Our first con­cern when pre­sent­ed with a new sit­u­a­tion is often how it will affect us and our fam­i­ly, rather than eval­u­at­ing it from a moral philo­soph­i­cal per­spec­tive.

Dur­ing the course of Fide­lio, Roc­co grad­u­al­ly under­goes a remark­able change. In fact, of all the char­ac­ters in the opera it is Roc­co who trav­els the fur­thest. Leonore and Flo­restan are com­pelling, vivid, life-affirm­ing char­ac­ters, but dur­ing the opera, they do not under­go much in the way of trans­for­ma­tion, how­ev­er much they might have evolved before the opera itself begins. Pizarro, sim­i­lar­ly, is the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of evil, and Beethoven’s music makes his need for revenge quite pal­pa­ble and dra­mat­ic. But he, too, is a rather one-dimen­sion­al fig­ure.

Mat­ti Salmi­nen, a mar­velous Roc­co.

Roc­co, how­ev­er, is much more neb­u­lous in his out­lines. At first he seems sim­ple: a mid­dle-aged jail­er with a daugh­ter, delight­ed that fate has sent him Fide­lio, who seems to be a young man of mar­riage­able age who works hard at his job. Roc­co decides Fide­lio and Marzelline will mar­ry each oth­er and some­day Fide­lio will inher­it Rocco’s job. Life seems good, sim­ple and straight­for­ward: well, pret­ty much, any­way. There’s a pris­on­er Roc­co has been instruct­ed to starve and that both­ers Rocco’s con­science a bit, but he jus­ti­fies it as just fol­low­ing the order of his boss, Pizarro. “Your heart will hard­en in the pres­ence of ter­ri­ble things,” Roc­co assures Fide­lio, obvi­ous­ly speak­ing from expe­ri­ence.

But when Pizarro tells Roc­co to kill the spe­cial pris­on­er, Roc­co refus­es. “I can­not do it. I am not hired to kill,” he tells Pizarro. But he man­ages to jus­ti­fy Pizarro mur­der­ing the pris­on­er by telling him­self the man is prob­a­bly dying of hunger any­way, he is suf­fer­ing great­ly, so “to kill him is to save him, and [Pizarro’s dag­ger] will set him free.”  No soon­er have we decid­ed Roc­co is a pret­ty moral­ly rep­re­hen­si­ble guy, than he turns around, while Pizarro is momen­tar­i­ly away, and gives in to the plead­ing of both Leonore and Marzelline that the pris­on­ers be let out of their cells to enjoy some sun­shine and fresh air.

When an enraged Pizarro learns of this kind­ness and con­fronts Roc­co, the jail­er shows just how wily he is. First he sug­gests the deed is jus­ti­fied by the spring sea­son itself, the warm sun­shine — but he notices Pizarro is not buy­ing his rea­son­ing. Beethoven’s music quite clear­ly tells us Roc­co is mak­ing all this up as he goes along, it ful­ly cap­tures Rocco’s uncer­tain­ty and search­ing, some­times com­ing to a full stop, before he final­ly com­ing out with an excuse (obvi­ous­ly thought up on the spot) that it is the King’s name day, and they must do him hon­or. As Pizarro begins to weak­en, Roc­co moves in for the clinch­er, “Down below [the spe­cial pris­on­er] will die. Spare your rage for him.” Pizarro has been suc­cess­ful­ly dis­tract­ed from his rage against Roc­co.  The exchange only take a cou­ple pages in the score, but it is a telling exam­ple of Rocco’s char­ac­ter, being quick on his feet when he needs to save him­self — bril­liant­ly mir­rored in Beethoven’s music.

Through­out the course of the opera we get numer­ous exam­ples of Roc­co being good, then Roc­co being less admirable. But one fact is quite clear: if Roc­co had not tak­en Fidelio/Leonore down into the dun­geon with him, she could nev­er have saved Florestan’s life. It is Roc­co who gives her the oppor­tu­ni­ty to it. The suc­cess­ful res­o­lu­tion of the dra­ma does not work with­out him, with­out their mutu­al coöper­a­tion.

Even in the dun­geon scene, Rocco’s dual nature is ful­ly evi­dent. He allows Leonore to give Flo­restan some wine, to ease his thirst, but when she starts to offer her hus­band a crust of bread Roc­co at first stops her — “I’d like to, but it real­ly would be risk­ing too much.” — before final­ly relent­ing.  (Notice, too, the ele­ments of the Eucharist, sym­bol­i­cal­ly bring­ing Life into the dark­est depths of the dun­geon, to the dying Flo­restan.)

Klaus Ten­ndt­edt led incan­des­cent per­for­mances of FIDELIO at the Met.

While it is true that Leonore saves Florestan’s life by jump­ing in front of him as Pizarro moves to stab the pris­on­er, and holds off Pizarro with a gun, it is Roc­co who ensures the suc­cess­ful out­come of Leonore’s deed. After the trum­pet call, sig­nal­ing the arrival of Don Fer­nan­do, the Min­is­ter of State, Jaquino (one of the “lit­tle char­ac­ters”) enters the dun­geon, ver­i­fy­ing the news. In the ensu­ing con­fu­sion it might still be pos­si­ble for Pizarro to do his dirty work, but Roc­co foils him by order­ing, “Those fel­lows with the torch­es must come down and accom­pa­ny­ing [Pizarro] upstairs.” And it is Roc­co who breaks through the guards in the parade grounds, pre­sent­ing Flo­restan and Leonore to the Min­is­ter of State and relates all that has hap­pened (and also, true to char­ac­ter, in the process puts his own actions in the most favor­able light pos­si­ble.)

Florestan/Leonore and Pizarro are The Hero and The Bad Guy, but Roc­co embod­ies both. He is the con­nec­tion, lit­er­al­ly, between good and evil, between Florestan/Leonore and Pizarro. He begins by prepar­ing the way for Pizarro to mur­der Flo­restan, but ends by ensur­ing Florestan’s sal­va­tion and Pizarro’s pun­ish­ment. Roc­co is us, part hero, part bad guy. He is human. No won­der Beethoven felt such obvi­ous affec­tion for him, and for the jour­ney he trav­els dur­ing Fide­lio.

This arti­cle first appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, Octo­ber 2000.

The por­trait of Beethoven at the top of the page is by Joseph Karl Stiel­er, 1820.