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.