Great moments in opera: La Forza del Destino

January 12, 2010

Verdi’s La Forza del Destino was recommended to me by a friend, and with his contrivance I was able to watch a performance of the opera on DVD.  La Forza is not, I think, generally considered to be one of Verdi’s best operas — Aida, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Falstaff, Rigoletto, Don Carlos, and Otello make for stiff competition — so I was a little surprised to find how greatly I enjoyed it.  It is a terrific opera, with wonderful music and a dramatic story.  I was especially taken with the numerous ensemble pieces (duets and trios).  Having seen the opera, I now wonder why it is not more popular than it is.  I will speculate a little on that question below.

Don Alvaro and Leonora are in love, over the objections of her family.  In a confrontation early in Act I, her father is accidentally (or was it la forza del destino that intervened?) shot by Alvaro’s pistol.  The lovers flee, pursued by Leonora’s brother, Don Carlo, who intends to kill them both in order to avenge his father’s death and restore the family honour.

Sometime between Act I and Act II, Alvaro and Leonora are separated, each apparently believing the other to have died.  Unable to return home, Leonora decides to seek sanctuary at the monastery of Madonna degli Angeli.  After questioning her on the matter, the abbot Padre Guardiano agrees to shelter her in the monastery’s hermitage, instructing his brother monks never to reveal her presence.  In a magnificent set-piece that concludes Act II, La Vergine degli angeli, she is formally accepted into the monastery.  The monks pronounce a curse on anyone who betrays her, and then a blessing:

La Vergine degli Angeli
Vi copra del suo manto,
E voi protegga vigile
Di Dio l’Angelo santo.

May Our Lady of the Angels
cover you in Her mantle,
and the Holy Angel of God
keep vigil to protect you.

It’s a gorgeous conclusion, the “crown jewel”, in my friend’s words, of the entire opera.  Here is a performance from 1958, with the great Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff singing Padre Guardiano and Renata Tebaldi singing Leonora.

Act III leaves Leonora in her hermitage and follows the fortunes of Don Alvaro, who has become a soldier.  He crosses paths with Don Carlo, still bent on revenge, but Alvaro manages to escape.  This Act includes two very fine arias for Alvaro: O tu che in seno agli angeli, in which he remembers Leonora and his suffering since her (presumed) death, and Solenne in quest’ora, sung from a stretcher after having received a (non-fatal) wound in battle, and on account of which Don Carlo is able to discover his identity.  But I will not link to examples of these arias.

Several years have passed as Act IV begins.  Don Alvaro has decided to leave the life of soldiering and has become a friar, not aware that Leonora is living in the neighbouring hermitage.  One day Don Carlo comes to the monastery and, discovering Alvaro, challenges him to a duel.  Alvaro declines again and again, despite mounting insults, until Don Carlo strikes him.  Losing his temper, he seizes the proffered sword and they dash off to fight.  Here is that confrontation scene between Don Carlo and Alvaro, from the same 1958 production as above.  Don Carlo is sung by Ettore Bastianini and Alvaro by Franco Corelli.  This is just one of several baritone-tenor duets in La Forza.  Together they give the opera a stirring masculine quality that was, for me, one of its chief pleasures.

In their duel, Don Carlo suffers a fatal wound.  As he lies dying, Alvaro calls for help, and Leonora, hearing the cries but unaware of what is happening, comes forth from her seclusion to discover her dying brother and her former lover.  She rushes to her brother’s side, but he, still fanatically devoted to avenging the disrepute she brought on their family, stabs her before he dies.  The opera closes with an extraordinary trio between Leonora, Alvaro, and Padre Guardiano.  The performance linked here comes from 1979, with Montserrat Caballé singing Leonora, José Carreras singing Alvaro, and Mario Rinaudo singing Padre Guardiano.  The quality of the visual image is atrocious : the man running the camera apparently forgot his glasses that day; but the voices come through clearly enough.

As I said above, La Forza has so many good things going for it — an entertaining story, wonderful music, occasional humour, tragic weight, and singing monks — that it is a little perplexing to me why it does not rank  higher in popularity.  One reason might be that, although the story is launched by a love story, the two lovers are separated for most of the opera, and ultimately La Forza is more about revenge than love.  Perhaps opera audiences prefer love stories.   It is also true that the opera has some structural problems, with several significant plot developments taking place off-stage (and even between Acts), which makes the story a little difficult to follow at times.

Finally, the role of fate — la forza del destino — is not very well developed.  Verdi makes use of a musical “fate motto” which appears in the orchestra at certain turning points in the plot.  This is a rather Wagnerian idea, and I was surprised to see Verdi trying it out.  But I must say that he doesn’t do much with it, and the idea that the destinies of these characters are fated to reach their tragic ends feels like something tacked on, not something organically woven into the story.  As one of my opera guidebooks dryly remarks, “the destiny which is proclaimed in the title tends to be replaced in the story by the less compelling factor of coincidence”.

Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed La Forza del Destino.   I offer my thanks, once again, to my friend for suggesting that I see it, and for making it possible for me to do so.

8 Responses to “Great moments in opera: La Forza del Destino

  1. alan Says:

    Boris Christoff was Bulgarian not Russian.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Ah, my mistake. Thanks. I’ve corrected the error.

  3. Giovanni Says:

    I contest the accepted fact by the music “intelligentsia” that the un-mentionable German composer of whom you speak “invented” the “leitmotif”. If one listens carefully, early Verdi operas such as La Traviata make use of a recurring motif. Even non-operatic composers had tried out this idea.

    By the way, the writer of the opera guidebook you have doesn’t understand very much at all. He probably prefers the overtly racist plots of the aforementioned un-mentionable German composer.

    The message is: destiny is so strong (forza) that it overcomes any amount of human effort and achieves “what is meant to be”. You can start to see that this message is, seemingly, a little anti-Christian. Free-will seems to be just an illusion. What about Providence? Even the devout life in the monasteries wasn’t enough to beat the strength of destiny. These are the themes that Verdi brings to music and wants you to think about. It is important to also note that in the original ending of the 1862 version in Petrograd, Don Alvaro kills himself after Don Carlo stabs Leonora. This is a nihilistic, anti-Christian ending; and was duly revised. In the 1869 version, Don Alvaro is redeemed in the end.


  4. cburrell Says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that Verdi got the idea of the “leitmotif” from Wagner, only that I associate the use of such things with Wagner and not with Verdi. In any case, La Forza dates from 1862, and at that date Wagner major leitmotif operas (esp. The Ring) hadn’t yet been staged, so Verdi is unlikely to have been under his influence.

    I do think, however, that Verdi didn’t develop the idea nearly as much as Wagner did. In this opera, at least, the “fate motto” pops up a few times, in more or less the same form, but in Wagner the leitmotifs undergo various transformations as the drama progresses, telling the story through the music, as it were. It’s an interesting difference in the approach of the two composers.

    I agree with you that Verdi was using his “fate motto” to imply that there is an unseen force guiding the action to its tragic conclusion, and I agree too that it is a pagan idea, familiar from Greek tragedy especially. A notable difference is that in Greek tragedy the characters have usually been told, by an oracle or prophecy, how things will end, and yet despite their foreknowledge and efforts to avoid fate, it always finds them. In this opera there is no such forecasting, which in my opinion lessens the fatalism — though the human drama survives intact.

    I heard about the original ending, but the version I saw had the revised, redemptive ending. I’m glad of that.

    Incidentally, the opera guidebook I have is Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book, originally published in 1919. It’s an excellent book — by far the best one that I have found — but you are right that he admires, and even met in the flesh, Wagner (and Liszt too).

  5. operaprince Says:

    surely another element that Forza has going for it, must be the overture… really the only Verdi Overture that can stand on its own, in concert, for example…

  6. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, operaprince. You obviously have a better command of the opera repertoire than I do. I’m little more than a bumbling neophyte trying to learn something. La Forza‘s overture didn’t particularly impress me when I heard it, and I don’t know enough to compare it to others, but I’ll give it another listen on your recommendation.

  7. Quin Says:

    I’ll take Forza and Luisa Miller over Traviata or Rigoletto any day. And La Sonambula over anything else every day.

  8. cburrell Says:

    Luisa Miller I have not heard, but it is now going onto the list. La Sonnambula is presently on my queue, and I hope to get to it shortly after I’m through with Mr. Wagner.

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